35 Years of The Kennedy Center Honors
By Patrick Pacheco
Every year, an army of rehearsing stars, visiting dance troupes, choirs, and orchestras, along with assorted handlers, descend on Washington, DC. Like another occupying army, the British in 1814, these arrivals—hundreds in number— want to set the Capitol afire. But when they send sparks flying, it will be with a very different sort of firepower—the kind fueled by artistry and uncommon achievement, which is celebrated in full at one of the glitziest and most highly-anticipated evenings in Washington: the Kennedy Center Honors.
Given the honorees’ level of accomplishments, the event’s producers set the bar high for each year’s show. The public will get a chance to see just how well they clear it on December 26, when CBS airs the 35th edition of the Annual Kennedy Center Honors. This year, awards will be given out to blues guitarist Buddy Guy, ballet dancer Natalia Makarova, actor and producer Dustin Hoffman, talk show host David Letterman, and the rock group Led Zeppelin.
Chosen by the Board of Trustees of the Kennedy Center—upon the recommendations of past honorees and the organization’s artists’ committee—these new recipients will join one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. It is a who’s who of influential artists spanning numerous disciplines, whose numbers include everyone from Lucille Ball and Placido Domingo to Stevie Wonder and Itzhak Perlman. The yearly Kennedy Center honor roll salutes both commercial and high-brow artistry with equal verve—indeed, where else is one likely to see Willie Nelson in a tux?
“I never thought that when we started these awards with Marian Anderson, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers, Arthur Rubinstein, and Fred Astaire that we would also, in the course of it, honor a guy named Bob Dylan and a band called Led Zeppelin,” says George Stevens Jr., with a laugh, referring to the fact that yesterday’s sneering rebels are today’s grand old men of the arts. Ordaining them as such is the aim of this longtime Georgetown resident, who has helmed the event as producer and cowriter since he cofounded it in 1978 with the late Nick Vanoff. “That’s one of the great joys of working with the honors,” says Stevens. “Defying expectations.”
Stevens hopes to do that yet again this year with the actual gala, a fundraiser for the Kennedy Center where an audience of nearly 2,000 will watch as a roster of surprise A-list presenters pay tribute to the honorees. The night before the gala, the president hands out the actual awards—the medallions are festooned with rainbow-colored ribbons and designed by Ivan Chermayeff—at the State Department dinner. This year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will host the event.
When Stevens is asked what one virtue has held him in good stead—while dealing with the complicated logistics of producing the show and with some of the most demanding and entitled personalities in the country—his reply is succinct. “Calmness,” he says.
That personality trait—which could be attributed to his father, the legendary film director George Stevens (A Place in the Sun)—has come in handy on several occasions. In the days leading up to the 2006 gala, a pipe burst in the middle of a dress rehearsal and water suddenly deluged the stage of Kennedy Center’s Opera House. “The crew leapt into action, hundreds of mops suddenly appeared, and they worked all night to repair the damage,” he recalls. And, no doubt, the producer needed much of his same tact during Jessica Simpson’s infamous meltdown when, during the live show, she blew the lyrics to “9-to-5,” while paying tribute to Dolly Parton. She apologized and left the stage in tears. (The moment was cut before the special was broadcast.)
Says Stevens, “People who come to perform on the show react in their various ways to what they encounter. But once they sense an even keel in the operation, it makes them relax and bend to whatever the situation demands. The Honors have a kind of reputation that they want to be a part of.”
In a word, that reputation is “unique.” In a time when award shows are proliferating to the point of meaninglessness, the Kennedy Center Honors occupy an inimitable niche. No other ceremony brings together such disparate worlds. No other awards so eclectically reflect the arts in America. And no other occasion arguably generates such high emotion, as life stories are told and the long road to success recounted. When the camera moves from presenters to the honorees seated in the box with the president and First Lady, the tears, the laughter, the bows, and the blown kisses are all part of a pageant as intimate as it is epic, as folksy as it is elegant, and as unexpected as it is painstakingly planned.
“No other city in the world can bring together in one room what the Kennedy Center Honors does,” says Carolyn Peachy, the gala coordinator. “Hollywood royalty, the most distinguished artists in their respective fields, the president and the congress of the United States, major arts supporters, and also the heads of corporate America—all of those differing sets are gathered together. I don’t think anyone can explain exactly why the events of the weekend generate such emotion.”
While that goes for both sides of the footlights, the feelings reach their apogee among the recipients themselves. Meryl Streep, certainly no stranger to the award podium, expressed her excitement over this accolade above others. On the red carpet last year, the actress said, “It’s such a big deal to sit in the White House and to receive an award from the president of the United States on behalf of the people of the United States.”
For Lucille Ball in 1986, it was a lifesaver: “Desi died and my show got canceled. If I hadn’t had this—if I hadn’t this reassurance that I was still wanted—I don’t think I could have gone on.”
And after the 2006 ceremony, director Steven Spielberg wrote a letter to Stevens in which he stated, “How high can my heart soar? I discovered its upper reaches thanks to the tribute you mounted at the Kennedy Center last night… nothing has in my experience ever come close.” Spielberg’s comments reflect a sentiment that has resonated throughout the decades. “There has been this continuity and durability in the response that I never saw coming,” he says of the days when, on the 10th anniversary of the American Film Institute, its then-head Roger Stevens (no relation) suggested to George Stevens Jr. that he might produce a program to mark the anniversary. “At first, we were begging people to attend; everything seemed stacked against us, and then it gradually attained the stature it now enjoys.”
The producer adds that it may well have to do with the name of the honor. After all, it was President John F. Kennedy in a famous speech at Amherst College who touted the supremacy of the arts in the cultural life of the country. With his wife, Jacqueline, he invited such great artists as cellist Pablo Casals to entertain. Their spirited commitment to the arts is carried on today by their daughter, Caroline, who since 2003 has hosted the Honors. And there has been ample, oftentimes moving, evidence of the “continuity” of which Stevens speaks. In 1962, a seven-year-old cellist who idolized Casals played for the president and Mrs. Kennedy at the White House. His name? Yo-Yo Ma, who last year returned to the White House to receive a Kennedy Center Honor and to be praised for “a lifetime of excellence” by President Obama.
Indeed, the passing of the torch is one of the common themes of the Kennedy Center Honors; during each show, artists influenced by the work of the honorees salute them at the gala. To honor Barbra Streisand, Beyoncé performed a stirring rendition of “The Way We Were”; Johnny Carson had a good laugh at David Letterman’s Top Ten list; Marian Anderson, the opera singer famously barred from Constitution Hall because of color lines, was serenaded “Vissi D’arte” by Grace Bumbry, who in turn was sung, as an honoree, the same aria by Angela Gheorghiu two decades later.
The fun is enhanced further when a certain “cross-pollination” occurs on the program, says Michael Stevens, who since 2007, has been his father’s coproducer on the show. What does actress Claire Danes have to do with modern choreographer Bill T. Jones? Or Kid Rock with Merle Haggard? “Whenever you have a top-shelf brand, you look to integrate people into the show whom you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see in such a setting,” he says. “It’s not dangerous—just different. And it takes searching, researching, and some figuring to make it seem organic.” For Danes that meant telling a story of how a young girl growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan found inspiration in a bold choreographer’s work. For Kid Rock, it was the influence of Merle Haggard’s work on his music.
The element of strange bedfellows extends to politics. Peachy says partisanship gets left at the door by the night of the State Department dinner. Republican Clint Eastwood is moved by President Bill Clinton’s tribute. Liberal Democrat Robert Redford graciously accepts remarks from President George W. Bush. “The key has always been to sublimate yourself to what the occasion calls for,” adds Stevens.
The fact that amity can replace political strife—if only for one evening or weekend—is just one of the event’s many positive spin-offs, says Peachy. But the ultimate benefit may be how the Honors give testimony to the tenacity of the American spirit, as represented by the city in which they are held. “The Kennedy Center Honors celebrate how all things are possible, perhaps more than any other award,” she says. “It takes stock of lives that succeed and triumph against all odds. And it says to those who may be watching in the Opera House or on [television], ‘You, too, can do it.’”
photography by Getty Images
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.