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President Obama speaks in front of the box where Lincoln was assassinated.

WASHINGTON — 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.

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