Virginia's old guard put on a command performance here tonight in tribute to retiring U. S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., its most famous member and the symbol of its now-fading presence on the state's political scene.

A $50-a-plate, black-tie dinner, highlighted by the color guard from the Virginia Military Institute, drew 800 Byrd admirers, including Vice President George Bush, Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. and actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Fairbanks, an old friend of Byrd's from Navy days, admitted to being awestruck before the "batch of excellencies." Also at the head table with Fairbanks were two former governors, including one -- Albertis S. Harrison Jr. -- who had named Byrd to succeed his father, Harry F. Byrd Sr., to the Senate in 1965, and another -- Mills E. Godwin -- who had been the Byrds' chief ally in their losing battle against school integration.

Also there to honor the 66-year-old Democrat-turned-independent was Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb, representing the state's new generation of political leaders.

Robb praised Byrd for establishing a "tradition and hallmark of public service that we all attempt to live up to and emulate."

But it was Harrison who summed up most succinctly Byrd's contribution as heir to the state's most memorable political dynasty. "True greatness is often found in doing what is expected," said Harrison, who explained that the father had never explicitly requested that he appoint the son as successor in the U.S. Senate. "But I must confess I suspected it the [appointment] was looked on favorably by the father," he quipped.

During 18 years in the Senate, Byrd Jr. was known for his consistent votes against deficit spending, but rarely for sponsoring legislation of his own. In fact, Bush noted tonight, "One Virginia politician has said [Byrd] could walk through a forest of dry leaves without making a rustle."

It was Byrd's steadfast commitment to Virginia's hallowed tradition of fiscal conservatism that most of the guests came here to honor.

"People do have a personal affection for Harry Byrd, but the common thread that runs through all of those here is his stand for conservative belief," said W. Roy Smith, a retired Petersburg legislator considered to be one of the most influential of Virginia conservative power brokers.

"I just want to salute his flag," said Moral Majority leader the Rev. Jerry Falwell. "Are we happy with him? I give him the same A plus I give Ronald Reagan."

Missing from the crowd were blacks and liberals for whom the name Byrd has long been anathema.

The party was held in the Virginia Room at the John Marshall, Richmond's venerable downtown hotel. The hotel, incidentally, also has a Byrd Room, just one of the half-dozen memorials to the family name here in the state capital.

On each of the tables was a centerpiece made of boxwood branches and a pyramid of apples. The apples -- like so much of the evening -- were symbolic. The senator's father, who had ruled Virginia politics for half a century, had rebuilt the family fortune as an orchardist in Winchester.

The idea for the party came from the same man who last spring climbed out on a shaky limb when Byrd briefly considered changing his mind to run again for the Senate. That plan failed, but tonight J. Smith Ferebee, a Richmond businessman and chairman of the dinner, expressed no regrets. The party, he said early this afternoon, was planned as a festive event. "Of course it will also be very emotional," said Ferebee, who is planning to head a Harry F. Byrd fund at VMI, the senator's alma mater. "It is the end of an era after all."

"The thing about this crowd here is that they would all be here no matter what it cost," said Del. Al Smith from Winchester, Byrd's hometown. "If they were charging one thousand dollars and holding it in Acapulco, they'd still all be here."