Of course the show would go on. Frankie Hewitt didn't work that hard for that long to see Ford's Theatre go dark again.

So last night's 35th annual gala celebrating the historic stage started right on time -- complete with the president and the first lady sitting in the front row, as usual, and a supporting cast of Washington VIPs right behind them. The only person missing was the theater's legendary artistic director.

"Tonight, in a place she loved, we honor the memory of Frankie Hewitt," President Bush told the audience.

Hewitt's death last week of cancer turned the event into an impromptu celebration of the dynamic redhead who brought the historic 19th-century theater back to life -- and then ran it with a velvet fist.

"If her life was dedicated to this place and all that means, then her death could be even more meaningful," said Rep. Billy Tauzin. "How could you not support Ford's now? It will be a living memorial."

This year's gala -- titled "An American Celebration" -- followed the traditional formula of patriotic music and gentle jokes. The evening is billed as a bipartisan break from politics and other nastiness. Hewitt liked to call Ford's the "Switzerland of Washington" and would never invite entertainers who might insult the president. This year's lineup featured "Frasier" star Kelsey Grammer, "Law & Order" actor Sam Waterston, country singer LeAnn Rimes, comedian George Lopez, bluegrass singer Alison Krauss, country group Lonestar, pop artist Brian McKnight and the Naval Academy Men's Glee Club.

The point of the gala is never cutting-edge entertainment; the point is to raise spirits and money. Hewitt accomplished this admirably by always scheduling the gala around the president's schedule; his attendance guarantees senior administration officials, congressional leaders and deep-pocket corporate donors.

Last night's audience included White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, philanthropist Catherine Reynolds, Walt Disney Chairman Michael Eisner and President Bob Iger, General Dynamics Chairman Nicholas Chabraja and American Airlines Chairman Don Carty.

Producer Gil Cates began the night by suggesting a rousing round of applause for Hewitt, saying that she would have wanted the celebration to proceed as scheduled. The crowd of 600 responded with a standing ovation, then settled into the theater's notoriously uncomfortable chairs for the show (to be televised this spring by ABC).

And proceed it did, at a brisk clip. Grammer opened the program with a picture of himself in the role of George Washington. "I learned a great deal during my stint in the Oval Saddle," he joked, then neatly segued into Abraham Lincoln -- who was assassinated in the theater on April 14, 1865 -- and the burdens of the Civil War. "Ford's Theatre became a place to renew the president's spirit." Grammer thanked President Bush for taking time from his "demanding schedule" to celebrate the arts, but there were no references to Iraq or Saddam Hussein.

The gala has always taken its cues from the variety shows of the past: a singer, a comedian, a serious bit, then more music. Rimes kicked things off with two songs, then Lopez did a short riff on Latinos as the largest minority group in the United States. Soon, he said, there'll be a Latino in the White House: "We'd still leave it white, but with blue trim. A car on blocks in the front."

Next up: the requisite adorable child. This year's version was Jamia Simone Nash, a 6-year-old who launched her career at the Apollo Theatre. Nash performed "Fallin'," a sultry Alicia Keyes ballad more suited for a 26-year-old than a first-grader. Nash was followed by a tribute to President Lincoln by Waterston, and then four songs by Krauss and her band, Union Station.

Bush was animated and relaxed during the short intermission, schmoozing with politicians and corporate bigwigs including Eisner. This was the Disney chair's first trip to Ford's. "I love the building and the fact it's a working, profitable theater," he said. "It's a great place to be entertained."

The second half of the gala began with the Naval Academy Men's Glee Club, then shifted to singer McKnight. His two pop songs were politely received, but it was his version of "Unforgettable" that really caught the audience. (Since the song was meant to be filler during a set change, it's unlikely to make the edited show on TV.) Michele Lee, a last-minute sub for actress Bonnie Hunt, performed a sweet nod to Mary Lincoln, and then Hewitt was honored with a taped retrospective of the gala's greatest moments.

The show was drawing to a close when Lonestar performed an upbeat first number. But the country band had many in the audience unexpectedly in tears with its second song, "I'm Already There."

The song, which tells the story of a man missing his family, took a moving turn when images of soldiers leaving their tearful wives and children were displayed on a large screen above the stage. It was by far the most striking of the night's offerings.

The show ended with all the performers onstage for the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and then remarks from the president. Bush received a loud and extended ovation, and then thanked the performers and once more praised Hewitt for her vision.

Last night was the first time that Hewitt wasn't sitting next to the president at the Ford's gala. Then again, maybe not. "What a wonderful thought to think that maybe, just maybe, Frankie is watching it again," said Carty. "With President Lincoln at her side."

The president and first lady were flanked by Disney executives Bob Iger and Michael Eisner, left, and Nicholas Chabraja of General Dynamics.Country singer LeAnn Rimes with husband Dean Sheremet. Rimes performed at last night's gala, as did 6-year-old Jamia Simone Nash, below.