December 12, 1988 12:00 PM

It was a month before Christmas, but all through the Jared Coffin House the holiday spirit was already stirring. An impromptu family of celebs and Special Olympians had gathered at the historic inn on Massachusetts’ Nantucket Island to shoot A Very Special Christmas Party, which airs on ABC Dec. 22. In spite of the cameras, the warmth was spontaneous, thanks largely to the retarded competitors, whose achievements and enthusiasm inspired the occasion. “As always,” said co-producer Bobby Shriver, “when people see these athletes, they’re moved.”

Since Eunice Shriver, JFK’s sister, founded the event in 1968, the Special Olympics have always been a Kennedy family affair, and the Christmas special brought forth a quorum of the clan. Besides Eunice’s son the producer, Ted Kennedy Jr. was there, as well as NBC’s Maria Shriver, Bobby’s sister. Maria brought along her husband, longtime Special Olympics booster Arnold Schwarzenegger, who brought his co-star in Twins, Danny De Vito. Country music’s Barbara Mandrell lent a hand, as did heavyweight champ Mike Tyson, taking a break from his ongoing non-championship bout with estranged wife Robin Givens.

The Olympians turned out to be consummate performers on-camera as well as on the athletic field. “Professionals get tired after five minutes and complain that the coffee isn’t hot or their hair isn’t right,” said Schwarzenegger, who sings “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” on the show, accompanied by a group of children. “These kids stayed on the set for hours and hours and had enthusiasm the whole time.” Tyson, who seemed to relish talking and play-sparring with the young athletes, was especially moved. “At first, I didn’t understand them. I was afraid of them,” he admitted. “Then I spent some time with them, and I’ve gotten emotionally attached to them. These are children who are sentenced without ever having committed a crime.” The feelings of the Special Olympians at the gathering were summed up by gold medal swimmer Jody Kaczer, 19, who after several false starts, triumphantly recited her Christmas wish for the camera. “I wish,” she said, “that this night could go on forever.”

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