THE PROBLEMS started when Goldie Hawn got sick. For the last four years Ford's Theatre has been able to raise money with an elaborate weekend of events known collectively as the Gala, where the worlds of politics, show business and corporate big bucks successfully mingle in a uniquely Washington me'lange that produces contacts for all and money for the theater. The stars love to meet politicians, who are just as thrilled to meet them, and the business types are willing to pay for it all to rub shoulders with both -- and put their company behind a good cause.

But this year's gala -- starting with a party next Friday night, followed Saturday by a reception at the White House for 300 entertainers and donors, a two-hour variety show featuring Liza Minnelli, Wayne Newton, Lou Rawls and others, and then dining and dancing to the wee hours Sunday--will culminate an extraordinary nine months of arranging, including two postponements and a drastic reduction in the financial goal from $1 million to $250,000. While last year's show sold out its 600 seats almost as soon as the invitations were mailed, this year nearly half remained unsold two weeks before the event, although gala planners are confident of filling the seats by Sept. 25.

NBC, which has taped the show for broadcast five of the six times it has been televised, dropped it this year. Only on Friday, after last-minute negotiation, did Metromedia agree to broadcast it.

Executive producer Frankie Hewitt points to the economy as the primary culprit. Because of the economy, she says, corporations are less willing this year to fork over $5,000 to become sponsors; for the same reason, the networks are reluctant to sponsor cultural event specials, which do poorly in ratings, she says.

And while the celebrities and VIPS are dancing in their finery, the heartbeat of this comparatively small enterprise is growing fainter. Although Hewitt has had remarkable success in marshaling the support of the famous and powerful, she has not done as well in booking salable attractions for the theater. Last year Ford's box-office income was less than half of its potential, which means that even if Hewitt and company make the $250,000 they hope to get out of the gala, that sum will merely wipe out last year's deficit. This year's budget is projected at $2.1 million, of which almost $400,000 is yet to be raised and more than $1 million is projected as box-office income. The current offering, "1,000 Years of Jazz," is doing poorly at the box office and no shows are yet booked for the spring, although Hewitt says she has a few possibilities in mind.

She thought this gala would be like the others: a quickly assembled cast of luminaries with a few stars to develop the show around, all lured by her and a cadre of powerful political wives that she has assembled over the years. Instead it has turned into "a nightmare," leaving her frazzled and exhausted and questioning how long she wants to stay at the helm of the theater she has been involved with for 17 years. "I would say this whole thing has been a comedy of errors," she says. "But it hasn't been very funny."

GALA GLOSSARY: VIP: important guest, such as a Cabinet secretary, who gets in for free, contributing his or her stature to the glamor quotient of the event.

Sponsor: person or corporation who contributes $5,000 for two tickets. Gets invited to both Friday and Saturday night events, and to a reception at the White House.

Member of the board of governors: executive of a corporation that agrees to give Ford's a minimum of $5,000 a year.

Guest: holder of $250 ticket, good for show and dinner dance afterward on Saturday.

Celebrity: a performer who waives fee for a modest honorarium but gets all expenses, including limo, hairdresser and hotel room, paid.

The planning of an event that involves the schedules of politicians, stars and the president of the United States (who has customarily attended since Jimmy Carter came in 1978) is a prospect that would daunt a less determined person than Frankie Hewitt.

Take, for example, the job of lining up a big-time star to head the cast.

"Stars are like anyone else," says Hewitt. "They want to know who else is going to be there. We started last spring with Burt Reynolds, who was filming a movie around here. Millie [Mrs. Tip] O'Neill knew someone who knew his agent." But the agent was traveling, and so was Millie O'Neill, and there were many missed connections.

"Unfortunately, in the meantime, Goldie Hawn got sick, so the filming was delayed. Then he got sick. Then her father got sick. So there was no way he could do it.

"By that time I couldn't get anyone else. They all had legitimate reasons -- Liza Minnelli was going to Europe, Dolly Parton was sick, etc. So that was when we decided to postpone." The gala, originally set for late March and then for May 22, (invitations for the White House reception were already in the mail) was put off until next weekend.

The task of lining up a TV network was even more complicated:

Hewitt attributes NBC's withdrawal to two factors: a general disenchantment with variety specials, and the low ratings of the Ford's show. "What they don't take into account is their scheduling. The country music gala was up against the seventh game of the World Series, and the teams were tied. Last year we were scheduled the Thursday after the show, which left no time for promotion." (NBC's director of variety programs, William Dannhauser, gave no specific reason for dropping the show, except to say that "the selection of specials . . . is an ongoing process in an ever-changing arena.")

Hewitt then turned to Home Box Office, which, she says, agreed to broadcast the show, but due to a misunderstanding, failed to schedule it. In compensation, she says, HBO has now promised a $100,000 grant to partially underwrite the cost of producing the show. (An HBO spokesman had no comment.) Efforts to interest CBS and Ted Turner's Cable News Network also proved fruitless.

A spokesman for CBS said his network was approached by Hewitt at the beginning of September and turned the show down, but not because they are disenchanted with variety specials. "That is not true at all," said Barry Richardson. "There has been no deliberate cutback in this kind of special." He noted that CBS broadcasts a number of specials from Washington, including the Kennedy Center Honors and the American Film Institute life achievement award.

The closing of the Metromedia deal represented an eleventh-hour coup by Hewitt, who only called the broadcast group a month in advance; it required the intervention of John Kluge, Metromedia's president.

WHILE THE gala's net has varied from $70,000 in 1979 to $400,000 in 1981, the planners say that it has never failed to give the donors a good time. "I had more people tell me this is the best time they've ever had in their life," Hewitt said.

One key, she said, is "personal attention." The parties -- a dinner for 500 at the Corcoran after the Friday night rehearsal and a dinner-dance for 600 at the OAS after the Saturday performance -- are arranged so that the guests do not have to wait in line for food or drink. "These are people who do not wait in line," she said.

At the Corcoran Party, for example, the building will be divided into four theme areas, each representing a kind of music: Jazz, Hollywood, Nashville and the Classics. Each area will have a coordinating decor, food and music, as planned by board member Gretchen Poston, who was Rosalynn Carter's social secretary in the White House and is a partner in Washington Whirl-Around, a party planning service.

"Spotters" will be posted at the door to identify people so that they can be greeted by name. "I make them all aware of who has done what for us," Hewitt said.

The Friday night party is being underwritten by Dr. Armand Hammer and cohosted by the Bakers and the O'Neills. Sears, Roebuck is footing the bill for the dinner-dance, so neither event will reduce the profit to the theater.

FRANKIE HEWITT is an energetic redhead who learned a few years ago that one of her main fund-raising resources was right under her nose: wives. While in another town they would be the wives of prominent but anonymous lawyers, doctors and bankers, in Washington they are the wives of the powerful, with names that are heard on the 7 o'clock news.

"The thing with so many of these women is that they love having something of their own," said Hewitt, who avoided volunteers before she cottoned up to the power-wives. "When they go to dinner parties they have something of their own to talk about, they aren't just Mrs. So-and-So. Like with Mrs. O'Neill -- here all these years she'd been raising eight children and politicking, and her husband is the Speaker of the House and her son was the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and nobody had ever asked her to be anything."

She contacted O'Neill four years ago, and she's been a regular ever since. Soon Joy Baker, wife of Sen. Howard Baker, was on the board too, and Hewitt had a matched set of cochairwomen: The wives of the speaker and the majority leader, Democrat and Republican.

This year Mary Jane Wick, Reagan intimate and wife of the head of the United States Information Agency; Carol Laxalt, wife of Nevada's Sen. Paul Laxalt; and Betty Wright, wife of Rep. Jim Wright (D-Tex.), were added to the board, bringing in what Hewitt refers to as their "people."

This is the way it worked: Carol Laxalt knew Wayne Newton. Mary Jane Wick knew Liza Minnelli's lawyer. Betty Wright knew Larry Gatlin. All three stars agreed to perform in the gala.

"Of course it never hurts" to be a senator's wife, said Laxalt. "But when I went on the board I made it very clear they were getting Carol Laxalt, not Paul. The [people I approach] realize from my personal letters and phone calls that it is my personal effort."

Their husbands do escort them to the gala, and preparatory events like a black-tie dinner for 200 last December, and the Washington lobbyists for the increasing number of corporations represented here don't mind a bit sharing a meal with an influential legislator.

"We try to always stay above politics," said Hewitt. "We're knee-deep in it, but not in any partisan way . . . For a person as interested in politics as I am, it's almost made a neuter of me." She worked on the Hill, in John F. Kennedy's campaign, and as an aide to Adlai Stevenson at the United Nations before joining the 1965 effort to preserve Ford's as an operating theater instead of just a museum.

When the first television special was sold to CBS in 1968, with Henry Fonda and Harry Belafonte heading an evening hosted by Lyndon Johnson's Cabinet, she got Lincoln National Life Insurance Co. to underwrite it for $250,000--just by asking. With this auspicious debut she began wooing the corporate world, pitching with great success the notion of Ford's as a historic theater, a national treasure, in effect, that lived on.

The years have not been without controversy since she took over the theater as a paid director. After two abortive attempts at arrangements with New York-based theaters to provide the on-stage fare, both of which ended in lawsuits, she took over the booking of the theater as well as the fund-raising, admitting she did not know much about show business but was tired of "explaining other people's mistakes." Her critics says her reluctance to relinquish artistic control has produced lackluster seasons and the resulting poor box-offic income. While there have been critical and financial successes such as "Godspell," which ran an extraordinary 17 months, and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," the last few years have also seen such flops as "Lady Lily," "Storyville," "Black Nativity" and "Hold Me."

The trend in recent years is toward family fare, musicals such as last season's limp melodrama "The Orphan's Revenge," and the annual, moneymaking "A Christmas Carol." The theater was lit 10 weeks fewer last year than in the previous season, and Hewitt says the difficulty of finding small-cast shows with affordable royalty rates has made it impossible for her to book anything to follow this year's run of "A Christmas Carol."

Her daughter, Jill, who lives in New York, is paid to scout plays there for Ford's, and Hewitt travels regularly to Los Angeles, New York and Chicago to look at likely prospects. She says she would like to produce works that originate at Ford's, and the money raised by the gala is supposed to fund that enterprise rather than pay off the previous season's deficits as it will this year.

"I really have too much to do," she said wearily between phone calls recently. "I feel burned out at this point . . . I feel like I haven't had any fun in 10 years! I sometimes think of people looking up at me on that stage at the gala and thinking 'Oh what a glamorous job she has.' Hah. I've had a headache for nine months."

Hewitt was considered for the job of chairing the National Endowment for the Arts, which went to Frank Hodsoll, and she says frankly now that she is glad she didn't get it because "I'm not big on administration." Other sources say her disappointment was acute. But, after 13 years of working full-time on Ford's she says, "I'd like a change, but I don't know what it is. But I wouldn't be able to go off without being sure that Ford's was being taken care of."

Adding to her woes is the economy. While she was ahead of the game in attracting national corporations before Reagan asked the private sector to take over more funding for the arts, shaking the dollars loose is getting harder.

"I consider myself a good fund-raiser, but this year it's horrible," said director of development Anne Fleming. "It's very hard for me to talk someone in the steel industry into forking over $5,000 when I know there are people out of work."

Said Hewitt: "You always think you know how to do these things. But this time it's been like you hammer one peg in and when you turn around to hammer in the other the first one jumps out."