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Marylouise Oates

Gala Brings Out Brightest Stargazers

December 09, 1987|Marylouise Oates

WASHINGTON — Like a scene from a '50s movie, violinist Pinchas Zukerman wrapped his arms around the waist of his wife Tuesday Weld and swayed to the music of Diahann Carroll singing "They Say that Falling in Love is Wonderful" on the television monitor.

So even stars get touched by touching performances, and backstage in the Green Room at Sunday night's Kennedy Center Honors, there was the rare chance to catch stars watching stars, stars waiting to be stars, stars congratulating stars and even magic moments when the stars stopped and stared.

Just before the curtain went up, Walter Cronkite (who earlier in the day had caused a Warren Beatty-style sensation by walking down M Street in Georgetown) sipped tea and avoided conversation, saying, "I'm trying to save my voice."

Someone had figured out that the best kind of food to nosh on during the two-hour plus taping (with the Reagans and the Kennedy Center honorees the centerpiece of a sparkly audience) was an assortment of Chinese and big bowls of caviar. Only trouble is, one prospective eater pointed out to a catering helper, the little potato slices weren't cooked at all. "Well," she replied haughtily, "We usually cook them."

Not many of the stars nibbled. Instead, they sat with the cards holding their lines clutched in their hands, watching the monitors that were scattered around the room; Jessica Tandy in a purple full-length gown, her gold sandals propped on the coffee table; Angela Lansbury elegant--except for her high heels slipped off, her stocking feet sticking out beneath the long velvet gown; Hume Cronyn, who half-way through the evening lit up a pipe. (The joke all week during rehearsals was that some entertainers still smoked--but just the singers and the dancers.)

They Loved 'Lucy'

Out front the show started, the National Anthem was being played, and Lucille Ball took the chance to pantomime it, decades suddenly falling away from her face, even without the filtering benefit of being on TV. This was the "Lucy" America loved. She did a little march, raised her hand in a salute and for a few minutes stole the show from the monitors, while looking very much like the Goldwyn Girl she once was. Applause all around.

During the show, each of the five nominees' lives is covered in a short documentary put together by Sara Zuckerman. The film on Sammy Davis Jr. followed his career from tap-dancing toddler to mid-life as a singer doing wonderful imitations--like the one on the film of Jimmy Stewart, good enough to bring even a few laughs from Stewart himself, caught by surprise waiting for his entrance.

Even before she arrived backstage, Rosemary Clooney was picking up kudos. Like that from Ray Charles, who did special music for the show, and who said he'd already ordered his tickets for the third annual benefit Singers Salute the Songwriters on March 30, which Clooney has put together to benefit the Betty Clooney Foundation for Brain Injured.

The Bolshoi Ballet's Irek Mukhamedov took his turn on the screen, turning vibrantly. Tap dancer Fayard Nicholas kept intoning, "Right on. Dance that way," finally announcing to those seated on the couches that, indeed, the Russian star had a stylistic oddity: "He turns left--just like me." On the floor, sweats covering their costumes, the dancers from Nikolais Dance Theatre stared intently.

Just the same way, a half-hour later, the strikingly handsome Mukhamedov leaned over, intently watching the screen, as Nikolais Dance Theatre brought down the house. "We never got the audience to stand up and cheer for modern dance before," said one rather tired member of the crew, who recalled from a previous show, "Now Merce Cunningham, well, that was just beyond everyone."

Gary Morton regaled everyone with Hollywood stories. And, of course, there was the chance for those involved with a show to see only what they have touched. Like art director Ray Klausen, who looked as though he would cry when part of the stage didn't open for Lansbury--a minor glitch, but one which meant there would be reshooting after the show.

Those who had sat around rehearsals said that Diahann Carroll sang her songs only to her husband and partner, Vic Damone. Tap dancer Jimmy Slyde received kudos from Lansbury on his performance in a tap dance tribute to Davis and quickly replied, "I love your series."

In just a few minutes, the black-tie crowd would move from the opera house to the Atrium, for the $1 million-plus event put together by Bonita Granville Wrather. Washington socialites would have one last chance to catch sight of a star. Hollywood types could try to figure out if the jewels on the necks of some of the Texans were real, and it would end the 10th annual Kennedy Center Honors.

But, wait, one more minute--for a Chinese dumpling and a chance for show folks to say hello. Even backstage, it was a heckuva show.

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