It's hard to single out one heartfelt tribute in an evening full of them, but when Smokey Robinson took the stage last night at the Kennedy Center Honors Gala to salute Stevie Wonder, the temperature in the Opera House went up a degree or two.

"He is very philosophical," Robinson said of his friend. "A typical greeting from him if you said, 'Hey, how ya doin'?' would be: 'Smoke, I'll be doing fine when all the people of this world are free.' "

And then Robinson began to sing "All Is Fair in Love," and this came after remarks by Coretta Scott King, Halle Berry and Herbie Hancock, leading what could have been called the Stevie Wonder All-Star Band.

Not that Sean Connery, Judith Jamison, Jason Robards and Victor Borge were slighted. First up was Jamison, a dancer, choreographer and director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Bill Cosby appeared onstage with an umbrella for some goofy improvising and interruptions from a peanut gallery consisting of Jamison friends Carmen de Lavallade, Geoffrey Holder and Jacques d'Amboise. Borge, Connery, Robards and Wonder followed in that order, their tributes a lively if sometimes baffling medley that embraced bagpipes, show tunes, Motown hits and kids on violins.

Other countries honor their artists with a medal and maybe a nice cup of tea. But the Honors are such a wild concoction of events that it's a wonder there isn't a large explosion emanating from the marble edifice on the Potomac every year. Perhaps it's because as a country we are still basically uncomfortable with the whole concept of art, so we have to throw on some spangles before we can appreciate it.

The awards are intended as a tribute to the performing arts in America--music, dance, theater--perpetually endangered activities that are forever propped up financially by their canned commercial cousins: television, movies and pop music. This alliance, not always easy, is inevitably reflected in the tribute show. The Honors are also a major fund-raiser and, via its telecast later this month, a public relations bonanza for the Kennedy Center. Third, they provide an exhausting weekend of socializing as the drab but important locals embrace a flotilla of flashy performers flown in from Hollywood, New York and other glamorous hot spots. All that, plus singing and dancing, too.

Last year the Honors Gala telecast pulled its biggest audience since 1992 and won some Emmys, too. This year's is produced, as usual, by George Stevens Jr. and Don Mischer; it will air Dec. 29 on CBS.

"Your applause was longer than mine," said Cosby, one of last year's honorees, after he twirled a white umbrella similar to one Jamison had used onstage. Cosby's routine, playing off the idea that he knew next to nothing about dance, was an example of the premise that, as he put it, "a wise man once said in the beginning, there was the Word. This is not true. In the beginning, there was gesture and then there was choreography. Then someone who couldn't dance decided to become a critic." That got a big laugh.

Dancer Dwana Adiaha Smallwood showed that Jamison's legacy continues as she re-created "Cry," Jamison's signature role with other American Dance Theater members. A stageful of gracefully swirling dresses made for a surprising and lovely moment.

As musical and emotional as the show was, it was sometimes difficult to understand the relationship of the tribute to the honoree. Why, for example, have 26 child violinists from East Harlem playing "We Shall Overcome" for Victor Borge?

And as wonderful as the cast of the new hit revival of "Kiss Me Kate" is, they sang in honor of Jason Robards--who is hardly known as a song-and-dance man. With a little help from Robards's son Jake, actors Kevin Spacey, Matthew Broderick, Frank Langella and Alfred Molina (hey--aren't there any actresses who like Jason Robards?) spoke their tributes well. "We're living in a time when we lose actors and actresses to film and television who never come back to the theater," said Spacey, who has succeeded Robards in two of his signature roles, Jamie in "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and Hickey in "The Iceman Cometh."

And then: "Another Op'nin', Another Show."

Oh, well. It was a great number and a backstage cliffhanger. The 30 cast members left New York on the 7:30 shuttle after yesterday's matinee, and were whisked from the airport to the Kennedy Center and into their costumes for a 10 o'clock entrance. Talk about timing.

A highlight of each tribute was a five-minute filmed biography. There was priceless footage of Borge banging eight pianos in a 1937 routine from his native Denmark, and of him industriously playing a concert grand that slowly disappeared into the stage beneath him. For Connery--not being an American citizen, he was something of an honorary honoree--there were scenes from his movies and a picture of him as a Mr. Universe contestant in 1950.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, in a slinky red dress cut down to forever, led the tributes to her "Entrapment" co-star (and producer). She's such a stunning beauty that it was hard to pay attention to what she was saying, but it had something to do with how Connery taught her the difference between a good single-malt whiskey and a bad one. He also apparently told her some dirty jokes that, "if I wasn't dressed up like a lady tonight, I would most definitely share with you."

She could have read from the back of a cereal box and the audience would still have hung on every word.

The rest of the tribute to Connery was suitably Scottish--the City of Washington Pipe Band, in swirling kilts, started things off. Who knew we had a pipe band in the City of Washington? And then fiddling and dancing and a rendition of "Auld Lang Syne" by two performers flown in from Edinburgh: Mairi Campbell and Dave Francis, who went back to an old version that's much more interesting than the treacly renditions we trot out on New Year's Eve. As the pipers marched out in full toot, Connery danced in the box and punched the air with a fist.

Connery received one of the longest ovations, which he tried to halt by sitting down several times. When Wonder tried the same technique an hour later, it had a similar result: The ovation went on and on.

Not that there weren't any unscripted moments. Frank Langella came onstage to praise Robards and began by introducing himself with "My name is Frank Langella. I wish it were Sean Connery"--this from a bearded actor who bears a certain resemblance to the Scot. "Do you have any idea, Sean, how many times I've signed your name?" The evening included three sing-alongs, and several incidents of hand-clapping in which President Clinton was seen to participate. The honorees seemed to enjoy themselves, with Wonder in particular touching his heart in gratitude.

Of course, the evening couldn't close without a nod to the millennium. "Join us in an anthem of hope," asked venerable emcee Walter Cronkite. Some of us might call "We Are the World" an anthem of saccharine mediocrity, but from a stageful of kids from Harlem, Broadway singers, Scottish pipers and Hollywood beauties, it didn't sound half bad.

CAPTION: Honorees Jason Robards, Stevie Wonder and Judith Jamison join in the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the Honors Gala begins.