Ronald Reagan was the guest of honor at last night's inaugural gala, but it was producer Frank Sinatra's show.
They did it his way.
Like Sinatra's own nightclub act, the gala was thoroughly professional, tightly organized and full of material that was already familiar. A lot of it was a rerun of the Vice Presidential Salute given at the Convention Center the night before.
The show started with "The Star-Spangled Banner," followed by something more patriotic -- Mac Davis singing about how proud he is to be an American.
Near the end, two hours later, Ray Charles led an enormous chorus in a soulful and soul-stirring performance of "America the Beautiful." What could top that? Only Ronald Reagan himself ending the show reciting, slowly and with feeling, the words of "America": "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing."
It was a fast-moving show, with four cohosts (Sinatra, Mr. T, Tom Selleck and Pearl Bailey) and four acts (Mac Davis, Rich Little, the Beach Boys and juggler-comedian Michael Davis), popping into and out of the spotlight during the first half-hour.
The music got polite applause, which it deserved, even when Sinatra began to lose his voice midway through "One for My Baby" with Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing. But this politically oriented crowd reserved its strongest reactions for patriotic platitudes and political punchlines.
The president's old friend, Jimmy Stewart, got one of the biggest hands of the evening when he described the old Hollywood as "a place where concepts like patriotism and family were extolled."
He followed immediately with a joke that got one of the evening's biggest laughs: "It was also a place where a man could be playing second banana to a chimpanzee on one day and become president of the United States on another day. I'm glad it didn't happen in reverse order."
Mr. T's comment sounded like a black-flavored echo of Stewart's except that it was made first: "The last time I was here, I played Santa Claus at the White House. Where else but in America can a black man from the ghetto play a white man from the North Pole and get away with it?"
When comedian Rich Little came on, the joking became bipartisan. He charmed the predominantly Republican audience with a Jimmy Carter imitation: "I'd like to tell you about my accomplishments as president. Have you got a second?"
But the biggest laughs came during his Reagan imitation, a song called "The Ronnie Reagan Rag." "This is "a little exercise I do every afternoon [pause] before I start work," Little said in Reagan's voice, and the crowd broke up.They also enjoyed hearing the pseudo-Reagan say "I got my cabinet from Central Casting," and his simple answer to questions about Soviet relations: "I don't have any relations in the Soviet Union."
The Beach Boys confined themselves mostly to music, but tickled the formally dressed crowd with their greeting: "It's nice to see all you undesirable elements" -- a reference to a criticism once leveled against the group by then-Interior Secretary James Watt.
Michael Davis juggled such odd combinations as a bowling ball, an egg and an apple (which he also ate), but won over the audience mostly with his verbal comedy. Comparing his job to the president's, he said, "I have to worry about controlling my arms. He has to worry about arms control."
Don Rickles, toning down his nastiness slightly for the occasion, nevertheless managed to insult a fine array of minorities (ranging from blacks through Jews to Japanese) in a fast routine. But he talked more about money than politics and aimed his barbs at Secretary of State George Shultz rather than the president. "It's a great pleasure to fly out here from California and be with you for this kind of money," he said.
Then, to Shultz: "Good evening Secretary Shultz. What are you doing in town? People will think you have nothing to do."
"Frank Sinatra is one of our classiest entertainers. He always was and he still is," said former secretary of state Alexander Haig.
When asked if the show was worth the money, Donald Kendall, former chairman of Pepsico, motioning towards Haig, said, "I don't know. You have to ask him. He invited me." Haig and a party of 15 arrived at the Convention Center via a recreational vehicle that had "Haigmobile" painted on the side.
"A lot of the same crowd here tonight was here four years ago and what struck me is that nobody ages," said Peter Malatesta, a California businessman who is Bob Hope's nephew.
Ron Walker, chairman of the committee that planned the 50th inaugural, said the presidential gala attracted a capacity crowd of 12,000 last night while a similar gala program for Vice President Bush on Thursday drew 7,000.
Like the rest of the evening's entertainers, Rickles was performing without payment, although the 12,000 ticket-buyers had paid prices ranging up to $250. The president referred to this in a tribute to the people of show-biz, before slipping into "My country, 'tis of thee." "How many times have we seen this?" he asked. "People up here on a platform, giving away the only thing they can sell?"
He applauded frequently during the program, perhaps to warm his hands after helping his grandchildren build a snowman at the White House yesterday afternoon. Reporters covering the gala were shipped to the Convention Center in White House vans, running through red lights as though they were taxi drivers recently arrived from the Third World. Before getting into the vans, they caught a glimpse of two snowmen -- one big and one little -- as they were marched past the Rose Garden. The big one (presumably the president's) looked remarkably professional for the work of a Californian.
The evening's entertainment also looked remarkably professional, though some of it also seemed a bit shopworn. Only two classical artists performed. Mezzo-soprano Teresa von Stade (one of Washington's artistic gifts to the world) sang an aria by Meyerbeer. Baryshnikov (one of the few nonnative Americans on the program and almost the only one who uttered not a sound) danced sensitively to Sinatra's song. Other dancers, the New York City Breakers, were among the freshest acts on the program. So was Michael Davis, and Ray Charles was Ray Charles -- that is, magnificent.
There was less freshness and spontaneity in a dialogue between Sinatra and Dean Martin, who seemed surprised to be part of the inauguration. "Did I win?" he asked. "You weren't even running," said Sinatra.
"Then why am I tired?" asked Martin. "Who did win?"
"Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush. That means four more years of partying."
"Frank, I can't take four more years of partying, but I'll try."
It wasn't exactly old material, but it wasn't exactly new, either. Perhaps that made it a good note on which to ring in the second term of Ronald Reagan.