Washington — What becomes a legend most? Shoeboxes. And when the legend is glamorous hoofer Ginger Rogers, shoes are more important than swathing yourself in yards of black mink.
And so, Ginger Rogers admits, without batting an aquamarine eye, that she owns 100 dozen pairs of shoes.
There is a startled silence in the hotel room, long enough to do a brief tap dance on top of the tape recorder. ''One hundred dozen pairs of shoes,'' she repeats in the throaty, peppery voice familiar to all Astaire-Rogers movie fans. ''I have more shoes than you have eyelashes. I'm a keeper, which is terrible.''
The keeper of the Ginger legend has fox-trotted into town for an American Film Institute (AFI) benefit, a gala ball, and the presentation of one of her nostalgic gowns from the movie ''Top Hat'' in a Smithsonian Museum ceremony.
What the Smithsonian got was a pale gray marquisette and silver paillette gown she wore to dance ''The Piccolino'' with Fred Astaire in their romp across the Venice canals. What they didn't get was a new Ginger Rogers wing, filled with rooms full of shoes.
Miss Rogers arches one foot - in its size 5 1/2 vanilla-leather, high-heeled pump - as she talks about today's movies, breakdancing, her autobiography, and the joy of work.
The entertainment world in general, she says, ''has gone up a crooked path. There are not these escape-type musical comedies on screen or stage any more, except the one Tommy Tune is in (''My One and Only,'' the Broadway musical also starring Twiggy). It proves that people want to see something that's wonderful, tuneful, musical, danceable.''
In films, she concedes that ''some things that are done are quite interesting and exciting. 'E.T.' was a good thing because it got some of the youngsters back into seeing values and love and affection and friendship and caring.'' She also praises the film ''Tender Mercies'' and its Oscar-winning star Robert Duvall.
But Ginger Rogers' spiciest words are reserved for today's breakdancing. ''I don't call it dancing,'' she says firmly. ''I don't think that's the right terminology. I think it's gymnastics. Quite obviously I can't give it the word 'dancing,' and I won't. I think dancing is something that's graceful, charming, lyrical. But not this. You can't dance on your back, on your derriere, on your neck, or on your head. It's like flying a plane on the ground. You can't do it. It's ersatz.''
After a half-century of stardom, the Ginger mystique is still there: the waves of gilded hair falling just below her shoulders, the aqua eyes framed in long dark loops of eyelashes and violet eye shadow, the peachy-tan skin etched pleasantly with years of experience, and the movie-star mouth glistening with fuschia lipstick.
She wears the sort of enhanced makeup that actresses use for sessions on camera. And indeed, she has just come from facing the press and public at the Museum of American History, where she introduced a screening of ''Top Hat.''
Aside from the three dozen American Beauty roses behind her, sent by an admirer, Ginger Rogers is virtually the only spot of color in this blond-on-blond hotel room. It is like one of the all-white, art-deco sets used in so many Rogers-Astaire musicals - a perfect foil for the star. Today she is wearing a violet ultrasuede suit. On her hands, as she pores over black-and-white glossy photos of herself from the AFI gala, are several rings, including a diamond (to use F. Scott Fitzgerald's phrase) as big as the Ritz. From time to time during the interview she glances over a Washington Post story on the gala and flips again through her glossies.
Her image has changed since she started out on Broadway in the '20s as a boop-oop-a-doop flapper with gingery auburn hair, worn bobbed. It wasn't until she went to Hollywood in the early '30s and teamed up with a polished young dancer named Fred Astaire in ''Flying Down to Rio'' that the Ginger whom generations have applauded was born. Out of that movie came the glamorous blonde with the talent for dancing up a romantic storm - and a line of saucy patter that moved as fast as her feet.
Later, she and Astaire tapped and spun and glided through ''The Gay Divorcee, '' ''Roberta,'' ''Follow the Fleet,'' ''Top Hat,'' ''Carefree,'' and ''Swing Time.'' In the eyes of many viewers, they were the most magic couple in films. Dance critic Arlene Croce, in ''The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book,'' her definitive work on their films, put it this way: ''He gave her class. She gave him sex appeal.''
After the pair broke up in the late '30s, she went on to win the Academy Award for her acting in ''Kitty Foyle.'' They were reunited years later for only two more films: ''The story of Vernon and Irene Castle,'' and ''The Barkleys of Broadway.''
Fans of their movies remember the effortless perfection of their dancing. Ginger Rogers remembers dancing to the farther shores of weariness - dancing until her feet bled.
She wore what comedian Steve Martin would call ''cruel shoes'' - usually freshly dyed to match her costume and still damp as she danced. In those days, there was no Screen Actors Guild to keep the studios from demanding endless hours of shooting.
''Sometimes you didn't even have time to go to the girls' room,'' she recalls , ''and they'd shoot all day and then all night. Then they'd say, 'We're going to have breakfast in a little while, but before we do, we want to take closeups of you.' There were closeups at dawn! I'd say, 'Please look at the clock,' and Mark (Sandrich, the director) would say, 'But you look mahvelous, dahling.' ''
Is the aura of glamour that shimmered over an earlier Hollywood gone forever?
No, says Miss Rogers, it has just moved to television. ''I think 'Dynasty' has done a lot to promote it,'' she says, adding that ''Joan Collins is very good at that, and Linda Evans is excellent. They epitomize the class that was movies at one time.''
She gazes out from her suite at the Watergate Hotel toward the Potomac River, olive green and swollen high with rain. It reminds her, she says, of her favorite home - a brown-shingled house on the rampaging Rogue River in Oregon.
At a time when she might be lolling around her swimming pools, basking in the glow of a long, famous career, Ginger Rogers refuses to retire. She believes in what she calls ''The joy of doing, the joy of performing.''
So, after five years touring with her one-woman show through the United States, Australia, England, Canada, France, Argentina, and Mexico, she began working recently on her autobiography. Today she is 500 pages into it - writing it herself on a word processor for four or five hours a day after her morning game of tennis.
It will not, she says, be one of the current crop of Hollywood-confidential sizzlers that tell all and name names on the way up the best-seller list. She may talk about her 73 films and five marriages, but she'll do so discreetly.
''I'd rather tell the story myself than have somebody else tell it,'' she says. ''I'm writing a story that tells about the life of a lady that I know very well - 'moi' - and it's a solo performance.''
She recalls that when a Hollywood ghost writer applied, unasked, for the job of writing her book, he wound up his pitch by saying, ''But there's one thing, Miss Rogers: You're going to have to tell me everything.''
''Really?'' purred Miss Rogers. She then recalls telling him:
'' 'Number one, I only talked to you as a favor. Number two, if I had any plan to have a ghost writer, it would be someone who would not make a remark like that.'
''Does that tell you anything?'' says the star who was dubbed ''Ginger'' for a reason.