- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 4, 2003

There was little talk of war Sunday night at Ford's Theatre's annual gala even though President Bush, first lady Laura Bush and many congressional leaders were there. Nonetheless, the event, billed as "An American Celebration," had an air of melancholy because of the recent loss of Frankie Hewitt, who served as the theater's artistic director since its reopening to the public in 1968. Mrs. Hewitt died Friday at 71 after a bout with cancer.
"It was bittersweet," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said at the traditional post-show dinner at the Organization of American States. "Everyone is thinking of her."
There was plenty of evidence that the theater has enough loyal and generous friends to carry on Mrs. Hewitt's legacy. Philanthropist Catherine B. Reynolds, who pledged $1 million to Ford's last year, was among the 600 guests who paid as much as $5,000 apiece to sit in the presence of the president and other political VIPS, including White House chief of staff Andrew Card; Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist; Sens. Trent Lott, Pat Roberts and Byron L. Dorgan; and Reps. Billy Tauzin, John Tanner and John Dingell.
Disney CEO Michael Eisner and other deep-pocketed corporate execs also were in evidence at the gala, which was underwritten by General Dynamics. Their donations will go toward upcoming productions, including "1776," which opens March 12 with a large cast and massive production budget.
"Frasier" star Kelsey Grammer, who hosted the show for the second year in a row, noted that Ford's had been built in President Lincoln's day "as a place to renew the president's spirit." He led the crowd in a standing ovation for Mr. Bush.
"I'm behind him 100 percent," Mr. Grammer said later of the president's moves toward war, "but there are not a lot of us in Hollywood who feel that way."
ABC's promise of a nationwide broadcast this spring brought major acts to the stage, a mix of American-style entertainers that, perhaps as a nod to the president's Texas roots, involved a lot of country and very little rock 'n' roll.
Emerald-green-gowned LeAnn Rimes opened the show with "Suddenly" amid dry-ice smokiness. Then George Lopez, who has his own ABC series, cracked a few lighthearted jokes about race relations and Hispanic Americans. "Embrace the Latino culture," he told the crowd. "We need the hug."
Alison Krauss + Union Station did a few hits from the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" movie soundtrack, including "Down to the River to Pray" and the wonderful "Man of Constant Sorrow." The country band Lonestar, the U.S. Naval Academy Men's Glee Club and singer Brian McKnight also performed.
The star who drew the most smiles was Jamia Simone Nash, an adorable 6-year-old in a pink Cinderella-like dress and tiara who belts it out like a diva. She sang "Fallin'," about love and heartache, with heavy-lidded eyes and as much sultry passion as a girl who has yet to visit the third grade can muster.
American Airlines Chairman Donald J. Carty led the tribute to Mrs. Hewitt. "For the second time" in the theater's history, he said, "joy is tempered by despair." He was referring, of course, to President Lincoln's assassination there at the end of the Civil War, after which the Ford's stage remained empty for more than 103 years, until Mrs. Hewitt threw all her muscle and enthusiasm into revitalizing it.
As Mrs. Reynolds put it: "She woke up thinking about Ford's Theatre, and her last thought would be Ford's Theatre before she fell asleep."
Christina Ianzito

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