The Stars Come Out for Ford’s Theatre Gala

Posted February 12, 2009 at 12:31pm

The reopening of Ford’s Theatre on Wednesday night was the Washington equivalent of a Hollywood premiere.

But instead of Britney Spears and Kanye West, reporters were vying for interviews with Sidney Poitier and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and instead of holding their breaths in hopes of witnessing the celebrity meltdown of the moment, guests whispered that they heard President Barack Obama would be attending the gala.

It was an A-list event fit for a king — or the 16th president of the United States. Some of Washington’s most prominent political types, along with Tinseltown’s most distinguished personalities, were on hand to pay tribute to President Abraham Lincoln’s life and legacy on the eve of his bicentennial.

Poitier and director George Lucas were there to receive the Lincoln Medal, while a menagerie of other stars were on hand for a performance that included dramatic readings and musical pieces to mark the occasion.

Among the cream of the film industry crop were actors James Earl Jones and Jeffrey Wright, both of whom had personal ties to the honorees.

Jones played Darth Vader in Lucas’ iconic “Star Wars” movie. The actor described Lincoln as a man “who knew how to love.”

When asked his thoughts on what one reporter described as a “confluence of events,” with Lincoln’s bicentennial coming just weeks after the inauguration of the first African-American president, Jones simply smiled and said, “It’s all as it should be.”

Wright had his first close-up in a movie opposite Poitier in the film “Separate but Equal,” and the two greeted each other like old friends.

The younger actor, who played Gen. Colin Powell in last year’s “W.,” said he was looking forward to congratulating Obama and addressing him as “Mr. President.”

On hand to lead the cast in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was Tony Award-winning actress and “Private Practice” star Audra McDonald.

She has performed in Washington several times throughout the past eight years, but said she found herself getting choked up as she flew into town over the Washington monument and Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday morning.

“It’s always a joy to be here, but now it’s thrilling,” she said. “It’s a new era, it’s a new beginning.”

McDonald had the night off from taping her ABC show — she was quick to give a shout-out to her boss, producer Shonda Rhimes, who let her skip out on filming in order to be at the opening. Even talking with reporters in Washington was a bit of a break for McDonald. As she was bombarded with questions, the actress said she didn’t mind.

“It’s much calmer,” she said. “You guys are a lot nicer.”

Of course, because it’s Washington, politics were never too far from the conversation.

Actor Kelsey Grammer was feeling the Lincoln and Obama love, but when the conversation turned to the stimulus package, he was reserved but critical. “I may not agree with the first few steps we’re taking, but we’ll run with it for a little while,” he said.

Pressed on the issue, Grammer said he thinks the country has tried this tactic a few times before and so far it hasn’t worked. But in the spirit of the day, he remained optimistic.

The “Frasier” star described himself as an “old-fashioned, die-hard American guy,” and he acknowledged the significance of Lincoln’s bicentennial and Obama’s presidency.

“[Lincoln] gave his life so someone like Barack Obama could be president,” he said.

Unlike Grammer, Lucas appeared not to have gotten the memo on bipartisanship.

The Lincoln Medal honoree received the award in part because of his education activism. He started the organization Edutopia, and he said if he got the chance to speak with Obama, he would push the president on the idea on starting a free education movement.

People whose counsel he would not seek in such an endeavor? Republicans.

When someone mentioned education cuts in the stimulus bill, Lucas was quick to respond. “Those are the Republicans who did that. That’s not Obama,” he said. “The only way to solve the problems in the government is to get rid of the Republicans.”

Fortunately, there seemed to be enough goodwill floating around to keep the atmosphere friendly.

One question that seemed to be on many minds was where Obama would sit. Surely not the presidential box where Lincoln was shot?

“Absolutely not,” said Ford’s Theatre Director Paul Tetreault. “No one has sat in the president’s box since 1865.” Seats were reserved for the Obamas in the front row, as is now customary for presidents.

Tetreault was hopeful that this would be the first of many visits from the president and the first lady.

“President Obama has a standing invitation to come here any time he wants,” he said.

The Hollywood set was gracious about giving interviews, but most of the high-profile political figures shunned the red carpet.

Seen ducking in through a side door were Attorney General Eric Holder, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). One who did make his way past the press was former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), but he hurried past reporters and ignored calls for interviews.

Nonetheless, one of the most anticipated red carpet appearances of all may have been Pelosi, who arrived just minutes before the performance was scheduled to begin. The stylish Pelosi, dressed in a floor-length black gown and red jacket, said she was glad the conferees on the stimulus bill had taken a break, allowing her to be at the event.

Like so many others, Pelosi acknowledged the similarities between Obama and Lincoln, but she cautioned against putting too much emphasis on them.

“They’re both brilliant,” she said. But, “every president makes his own mark.”

As to the evening’s honorees, Pelosi was excited to catch up with Lucas. She described him as “my constituent and my friend,” and she divulged that she and her family have watched the “Star Wars” movies more than 100 times.