HELEN HAYES said she was rehearsing a dignified walk for that moment when President Reagan would award her a National Medal of Arts at a White House luncheon this week. And, she implied, that's not as easy as it sounds. ``I just can't wait. I just hope I don't dance on my way up for my medal. I hope I walk with dignity,'' said the show biz trouper who's been an actress for 83 years.
Reached by phone at her Nyack, N.Y., home before yesterday's ceremony here in Washington, Miss Hayes, who's been slathered in awards, Oscars, Tonys, Emmys, Kennedy Center Honors, asked ``Who could be blas'e about this one? I've been away from my profession now for quite a few years. I wonder how I got that. Now I feel like a Nyack lady busy with her garden and her correspondence and her civic affairs who is suddenly going to the White House to get a medal.''
She is not alone. The 11 other recipients are some longtime heavy hitters in the arts: Rudolf Serkin, the pianist; Saul Bellow, the writer; Jerome Robbins, the dancer-choreographer; Gordon Parks, the film director; I.M. Pei, the architect; Virgil Thomson; the composer-conductor; Roger Stevens, arts administrator and Kennedy Center founding chairman; Sydney J. Freedberg, art historian/curator of the National Gallery of Art; (Mrs. Vincent) Brooke Astor, arts patron; Francis Goelet, music patron; and Obert C. Tanner, arts patron.
``We need more medals and less money, as far as some artists are concerned,'' said Mr. Parks, also a photographer, composer, and poet. ``A lot of them are struggling, and they have to have a big heart, be strong to keep going.'' He explained that some older stars need the renewed public recognition that brings them job offers and employment, too. ``A lot of older stars who are really good but discouraged don't have the wherewithal to keep going,'' he said, explaining that ``it's sort of a desperate time for them. Something like this could be encouraging.''
Mr. Serkin was said to be ``very honored and thrilled'' about the Medal of Arts. He's not inclined to talk about it, though. ``He will sometimes talk about other people, but he will never talk about himself,'' explained a spokesman, who added, ``Of course, he's gotten almost every award you can get in the arts.''
In addition to his distinguished career as a pianist, Serkin is president and artistic director of the Marlboro Music School and Festival, which he helped found in Vermont, and in his 80s he continues to perform and record.
Most of the recipients of this fourth annual presentation of the National Medal of Arts are lasting talents who have had a historic impact on their fields. The medals are awarded by act of Congress to ``individuals or groups who in the President's judgment are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support, and availability of the arts in the United States.'' Previous recipients included Martha Graham, the dancer-choreographer; Georgia O'Keeffe, the painter; Frank Capra, the film director; Eudora Welty, the writer; Robert Penn Warren, the poet; Marian Anderson, the singer; and Isamu Noguchi, the sculptor.
While she is known as the ``first lady'' of the American stage, Miss Hayes is most proud of her role in aiding two other major forces in the theater. News of the medal caused her to dig up some of the events in her past that might be worthy of it, she says. ``I did some wonderful things for the theater. I saved [producer] Joe Papp, made it possible for him to get a second season in the theater'' when the New York City Board of Estimates wanted to cancel his then new Shakespeare in the Park productions.
Mr. Papp, who now also runs the New York Public Theater, had asked Miss Hayes to appear before the board as a character witness. He faced opposition, she says, because ``one of the borough presidents had a thing about Joe, thought he was trying to upset democracy with Shakespeare.'' She had skimmed Papp's presentation, and gave it so convincingly when asked to speak that it won the day. ``In some small way, I'm responsible for Joe Papp's continuing,'' she says.
Hayes also says with quiet pride, ``And then, of course, another time, I saved Laurette Taylor in `The Glass Menagerie' for the New York theater.''
Taylor's celebrated Broadway performance as Amanda Wingfield in the Tennessee Williams play is viewed as one of the hallmarks in American theater. But she never would have made it to Broadway from the out-of-town tryouts if Helen Hayes, who was also appearing in a play in Chicago, had not answered Taylor's distress call over her lost voice.
``She said `I can't speak, and if I can't play the matineee tomorrow, they'll say I'm drunk, and if they say I'm drunk, I will get drunk and stay drunk the rest of my days.'' Hayes, unable to get medical help for Taylor during that time of World War II manpower shortages, stayed up all night nursing Taylor through the crisis. ``We both had matinees. But by gum, I got her on, her voice cleared up enough for her to get on.''
Helen Hayes, who won Tony Awards for her roles in ``Happy Birthday'' and ``Time Remembered,'' says of her own contribution in the theater: ``On stage I think in some ways I've always had a magic connection with audiences. I don't know how it is, but I get on there and manage to reach across and get them to join me in whatever we're doing. I don't know, we get together.'' The role that gave her the most joy, she says, was ``Victoria Regina.'' ``We actors, you see, are there to serve, and when we serve up something the world enjoys and responds to, then we feel gratitude and feel we've done something.''
Today, says Hayes, ``People take the theater too casually. There is an overall indifference on the part of everybody; the passion is gone.''
She made her stage debut at the age of 5 as Prince Charles in ``The Royal Family'' in Washington, D.C., and remembers the theater of the '20s, '30s, and '40s with great nostalgia. ``Back earlier, they really were a passionate crew, the people who went to the theater.''
Parks has seen some changes in his world, too, since he made his debut in 1968 as the first black film director, with ``The Learning Tree,'' based on his own book. He also wrote the screenplay and the score and produced the film. ``I think it opened up things. That was the first time, on that film, that blacks worked behind the camera. Since then, there have been several other black directors, and a lot of people working behind the cameras.''
Parks, whose other films include ``Shaft,'' ``Leadbelly'' and ``The Odyssey of Solomon Northrup,'' was instrumental as a member of the Directors Guild in New York in removing a Catch-22 block against minority directors.
``There is a minority program now in the Directors Guild whereby they can apply for work on a film and then get a Directors Guild card. Before that, they were told that to work on a film they first had to get a card - that old runaround. There is still a lot to be done in Hollywood, problems will always exist for people behind the cameras, directors, actors, getting good parts.'' And still a lot to be done by Parks, who is finishing a novel on the English painter J.M.W. Turner which he plans to film; working on ``Martin,'' the ballet about Martin Luther King for which he's written the music; and writing a book of poetry and his fourth autobiography.