The tuxedoed songsters of the Sierra Nevada Chorale tried their best to have fun yesterday afternoon, even if they didn't get to sing "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor" for the president.

The Reno, Nev., troupe passed around giant boxes of popcorn, snapped endless photographs, and waved tiny American flags every time a band struck up a patriotic number.

But none of the 12,000 thwarted inaugural paraders, including the Sierra Nevada Chorale, tried to pretend that the makeshift gala at the Capital Centre was the same thing as the long-awaited, then canceled, parade.

"I wish we were marching. I think I could've hacked it," said Pascagoula (Miss.) High School flag girl Kathy Gunkel, speaking confidently as she stood in blue satin shorts in the warm lobby of the center. "But there's nothing we can do about it now, is there?"

When the frigid temperatures turned the outdoor parade into an indoor pep rally, the tone of the event automatically changed. The 730 horses intended to please the president were kept away, as were the 21 huskies flown in from Alaska to pull sleds down Pennsylvania Avenue. The public, for whom the parade was originally intended, was not invited to the substitute ceremony because of space. And only five high school bands got a chance to perform; the other buglers, singers and beauty queens who would have formed the 50th Presidential Inaugural Parade were left only with their fantasies of what might have been.

But if the would-be participants were denied their opportunity to catch the president's eye as they glided by the White House reviewing stand, they did get the personal condolences of the man of the hour.

"I know you didn't get your chance to salute all of us," said the president in a 10-minute speech met with cheers and standing ovations, "but we are here to salute all of you."

Because of the 11th-hour nature of the event -- the decision to cancel was not made until Sunday night -- the Capital Centre gathering naturally lacked some of the polish of other inaugural affairs.

The All-American College Band, an honor group formed specifically for the inauguration, spent the last 15 minutes before the ceremony practicing its formations on a floor that would be hastily reconverted into a basketball court as soon as the crowd dispersed. There were several awkward silences, marked only by echoing titters, as the crowd awaited the appearance of the Reagans. And even the distinguished guests sometimes flubbed their parts. Amidst fond laughter, Nancy Reagan rushed back to the dium after her short speech of appreciation to admit, in a flustered voice, "I forgot something. I was supposed to introduce my roommate -- who happens to be my husband who happens to be the president of the United States."

But all was overlooked by a crowd that, in the end, was determined to make the best of things: Forget about the long hours of practice. Forget about the fundraisers to finance the trip to Washington. Forget the disappointment. At least they got to see the president.

"That's all I wanted," said Kay Wasko of the Ben Davis High School Marching Giants of Indianapolis. "I was kind of afraid I was going to lose some fingers if I had to march anyway."

Likewise, Mark Elrod, 38, of the 1st Maine Volunteer Cavalry regretted that he would not get to play his rendition of the "Death Valley Days Theme" on his bugle to remind the president of his days as a television host. But Elrod said he felt certain the decision to cancel the parade was wise.

"I'm sure," he said, "that there would have been some deaths. And one life is worth more than the millions of dollars that were lost by the cancellation. That's what it comes down to."

While the crowd seemed primarily composed of boisterous high-school bands, some of the more rustic entries of the original parade did turn out.

With tinkling bells and good-natured boos for a nearby group dressed in cavalry uniforms, the contingent from the American Indian Heritage Foundation arrived to take their seats in buckskins, feathers and beads.

"We had our electric socks and everything to keep warm," said Lisa Sunbberg, a Karuk Yutok Indian from Eureka, Calif. draped in beaverskins and other furs.

"But it would have been rough on him," she said, indicating her 3-month-old son, Terry, also in native dress, who would have been the youngest participant in the parade.

Perhaps the most colorful entry, the Bill Williams Mountain Men, also stopped off at the Capital Centre before heading home to Phoenix -- albeit a little tardily.

First they had bus troubles, then a little problem getting past the tight security. But just as "The Star Spangled Banner" began, signaling the end of the ceremony, the rugged bunch trooped in -- just in time to take off their coonskin caps and reverently salute the American flag.