WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama stood beneath the flag-draped box where Abraham Lincoln was shot inside Ford's Theatre, honoring the "hallowed space" on the eve of the 16th president's 200th birthday.
Hollywood stars and Washington power brokers celebrated the theater's reopening Wednesday night, hearing Obama praise one of his favorite presidents for Lincoln's conviction that a divided nation could be made whole.
"For despite all that divided us - North and South, black and white - he had an unyielding belief that we were, at heart, one nation, and one people," Obama said. "And because of Abraham Lincoln, and all who've carried on his work in the generations since, that is what we remain today."
Surrounded by actors and artists, Obama said Lincoln's passion for education and the arts will thrive at the famous theater after its recent $25 million renovation. The theater is reopening after 18 months of installing more comfortable seats, a modern lobby and new dressing rooms.
Those in the audience stood and turned to applaud Obama and first lady Michelle Obama as they made their way down the aisle to the tune of "Hail to the Chief."
Violinist Joshua Bell opened the show with a traditional spiritual on a violin that hadn't been played since the night Lincoln was shot in 1865. Later, a video was played of former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush reading the Gettysburg Address. The film will be added to the theater's museum.
Before the event, guests ranging from Cabinet members and congressional leaders to movie producers strode down a red carpet in sharply cut tuxedos and colorful gowns. Talk included prime-time television plotlines and the economic stimulus package being hammered out in Congress.
Many reflected on how Obama and his Civil War-era predecessor inspired them, including Lincoln Medal honoree Sidney Poitier. The 81-year-old actor broke down racial barriers with movies like "A Raisin in the Sun" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," and was the first black man to win an Academy Award for best actor in 1963.
"Now, finally, we have lived to see the election of an African-American to the highest office," he said, calling Obama a man of "simple origins" inspired by Lincoln.
Poitier said Lincoln's values live on "in our homes, in our streets ... and in every one of these United States."
Actor Kelsey Grammer also spoke of his inspiration. "I still get a tear in my eye every time I see him on television," Grammer said, adding that he doesn't always agree with Obama's politics.
"Star Wars" creator George Lucas, who was honored with the Lincoln Medal for his movies and efforts to improve schools with multimedia tools, challenged Obama to make education his top priority.
"I will say the most important thing the human race has for our survival is our brain," he said. If knowledge is not passed down to the next generation, Lucas said, "we will become extinct."
Exxon Mobil Corp. Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson, who led fundraising for the theater, said officials have garnered more than $49 million for the renovation and ongoing projects. Organizers expect to raise more beyond their $50 million goal, he said.
Exxon Mobil contributed $5 million to the project, and the District of Columbia government gave $10 million.
Also offering tributes to Lincoln were actress Audra McDonald from TV's "Private Practice"; actors James Earl Jones, Richard Thomas, Ben Vereen and Jeffrey Wright; opera singer Jessye Norman; and journalist Katie Couric. The group joined in singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" for the finale.
The theater will reopen to the public Thursday for Lincoln's birthday and then on Monday for President's Day. Regular tours resume on Feb. 17. A revamped museum is slated to open later this spring, and there are plans to build a Lincoln Center for Education and Leadership across the street.
Copyright 2015 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.