Aretha Franklin, Debra Lee and Wayne Brady at the BET Honors dinner on Friday. Aretha Franklin, Debra Lee and Wayne Brady at the BET Honors dinner on Friday. (Helena Andrews)

It was hard not to gawk (or geek out) at the annual BET Honors dinner on Friday, as legend after legend made their way up the marble steps of the National Museum of Women in the Arts to the annual pre-show soiree.

Hey, look, that’s Aretha Franklin primping in the bathroom mirror — Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, they’re just like us! And over there is Motown hit-maker Smokey Robinson snapping a picture with the iconic record company’s founder Berry Gordy. And that woman sitting right behind you is Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund.

The night before the annual BET Honors, the cable network’s chief executive, Debra Lee, traditionally fetes the honorees, who this year, in addition to Franklin and Gordy, include rapper-actor Ice Cube, currently starring in the No. 1 movie in the country, MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Carrie Mae Weems and American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault. As one attendee told us, the big show at the Warner Theatre on Saturday, where a huge contingency of stars come out to pay tribute to the greats, actually plays second fiddle to the Friday dinner.

“This is the night to actually mix and mingle,” said one guest seated at the “Aretha table,” along with Mayor Vincent Gray, power couple Gina and Gene Adams, former P. Diddy boy man Fonzworth Bentley and MSNBC’s Michael Eric Dyson.

Throughout the three-course dinner, guests navigated the tight tunnel between tables to get to the stars shining across the great hall of the museum. Actor Joe Morton, last seen getting the ax as the head of the secret spy agency B613 on “Scandal,” could barely get through the main course without Washington fans fawning.

The night’s big surprise came when triple threat Wayne Brady, who will host the Honors  Saturday night, took to the stage to sing a smooth jazz tune that guests couldn’t quite catch the words to but enjoyed nonetheless. “Is this like dooby dooby do?” said one guest quoting Sinatra’s famous closing scat. Though not quite Ol’ Blue Eyes, Brady made an impression.

“Wayne is over there looking so relaxed,” joked Lee. “Like he isn’t hosting the Honors for the first time tomorrow.”

But that was the point of the night, after all. A few glitzy hours of downtime and dancing before all the big names hit the red carpet for the big show.

Aretha Franklin, Jennifer Hudson, Ice Cube and more revealed their favorite Motown songs and artists on the red carpet at the BET Honors Saturday night in Washington, D.C. (JulieAnn McKellogg/The Washington Post)