BACK in 1981 I had a date with Ginger Rogers -- yes, I said, a date! It was a fulfillment of a fantasy I shared with millions of young men who watched Ginger (and, incidentally, Fred) dance in those wonderful movies back in the '30s and '40s.
How did it happen? Let's turn to Ginger's memoirs, ''Ginger: My Story'' for her account of how it came about:
''In March 1981,'' she writes, ''I was invited by Godfrey Sperling Jr., a senior Washington columnist for The Christian Science Monitor, to come to the Gridiron dinner, which is held every year in Washington, D.C.
''Various members of the news media do amusing tongue-in-cheek satire skits and songs about politicians. Whether they plan to make fun of the President or the Speaker of the House, they go at it tooth and nail. I did a little soft shoe with Philip Geyelin, an important newspaperman. It brought the house down, but not because of me; the audience couldn't get over Mr. Geyelin's dancing ability. After the number, I was taken to the dais and seated two seats away from President Reagan.''
So it was that at 6:15 p.m. on the night of the Gridiron dinner I knocked on Ms. Rogers's hotel room door. I was quite suitably dressed -- white tie and tails, which is the required male attire for all of these annual Gridiron functions, going back to 1885.
This meeting with my fantasy girlfriend of years ago is a blur. Ginger opened the door and I stumblingly apologized for coming early (I was supposed to be there at 6:30): ''I always arrived early for my dates years ago,'' I lamely muttered to Ms. Rogers and her campanion, Roberta Olden.
To me, Ginger looked like she had just stepped out of one of her movies. I'm not good on describing what women wear. But it was a typical Ginger Rogers flowing dance ballgown -- black chiffon with black ostrich feathers -- just like I had expected.
And when she greeted me with a big smile and a ''Hi! Come on in -- I'm almost ready,'' I kinda floated in.
Soon, as Ginger pulled on some long gloves that reached up to her elbows, she was making me feel very comfortable with her friendly chatter: She said she was so excited by being able to appear before her old friend, the president, and ''all those Washington bigwigs.''
Then she said that because she'd had only a 20-minute rehearsal that afternoon -- of her song and dance -- she feared that she would forget, or that something else might go wrong. I told her not to worry -- that if she ran into any difficulty, she should just stop the music and start over. ''Everybody will understand,'' I said. ''Fine,'' she replied, sounding quite relieved, ''that's what I'll do, if necessary.''
And that's what she did when her dance got off to a rocky start. And -- sorry, Phil -- it was Ginger who then brought the house down.
I shall always remember what I often refer to as ''My walk with Ginger.'' That's when she took my arm and we walked from her hotel suite down to the hall packed with Gridiron invitees waiting to go into the big ballroom.
All eyes were on my famous guest as the crowd then made room for us to get through to the other side of the hotel and to the room for the dignitaries who were to sit at the head table. Ginger's hand on my arm was so light. And she was so much smaller than I had expected from seeing her in all of her movies.
The Holding Room was filled with Washington's top officials. As soon as they spotted Ginger they all crowded around. I saw several Cabinet members, including George Shultz, rush over from the other side of the room.
And I clearly remember several of that group, including chief of staff James Baker, squeezing my arm and imploring, ''Hey, Budge, can you introduce me to Ginger?'' It was a heady moment for a small-town boy from the Midwest.