D.C., showbiz elite converge at Kennedy Center

A capacity crowd of celebs from both politics and showbiz were on hand Sunday to salute five titans of the performing arts at the 16th annual Kennedy Center Honors.

In a city that thrives on pomp and glitter, this year’s honors program may have set records for both. President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore headlined the two-day fete that paid homage to entertainer Johnny Carson, choreographer Arthur Mitchell, conductor Georg Solti, composer Stephen Sondheim and gospel singer Marion Williams.

The annual program included a White House reception and State Department dinner, climaxing with a gala presentation at the Kennedy Center that will be broadcast Dec. 29 on CBS-TV. As usual, the two-act program co-produced by George Stevens Jr. and Don Mischer did not disappoint. Again emceed by Walter Cronkite, it included the expected mix of colossal production numbers and surprise artists in a noble effort to preserve TV’s forgotten variety format.

The evening’s funniest segment was the salute to Carson, saved predictably until last. It included a roasting of the latenight TV champ from “Nightline” host Ted Koppel and “Late Show” host David Letterman, the latter who offered 10 top reasons why the former “Tonight Show” host is missed. Among them: “His don’t ask, don’t tell policy regarding Doc Severinsen.”

Producers Stevens and Mischer deserve plaudits for steering around the wellspring of showbiz sentimentality over Carson and instead opting for the homespun approach. They got it via the University of Nebraska’s marching band, which twirled its way through the “Tonight Show” theme and other numbers for the state’s favorite son.

The production’s show-stopper was the testimonial for gospel legend Williams, introduced by actress Jane Alexander, head of the National Endowment for the Arts. The Kennedy Center’s staid Opera House was set on its heels by the Washington Gospel Choir.

The segments for Mitchell, Solti and Sondheim also drew pleasant surprises such as Angela Lansbury’s sensitive take on Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” and a perf by the Dance Theater of Harlem for its founder and director, Mitchell.

Other entertainers included Bernadette Peters, Tony Bennett, the Georg Solti Brass Ensemble, the Choral Arts Society of Washington and Edward Villella.

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