Honorees see White House’s trimmings

GOOD MORNING from Washington, D.C. Hillary Rodham Clinton greeted the guests at the White House for the Kennedy Center Honors Sunday night in the East Room of the White House, saying: “You are the first to see the magic of Christmas in the White House. We saw it (the decorations) an hour ago, when our helicopter landed.” The president, in greeting everybody, said, “Our nation and the world is in profound change — we need our artists in a profound way.” After introducing the Kennedy Center honorees, the president, Mrs. Clinton and Chelsea greeted all the guests in the receiving line in the Blue Room, alongside an enormous tree. Mrs. Clinton was in a red, simple ball gown by Caroline Herrerra, while Chelsea was in your basic teenage black. The theme of this year’s display in the White House is based on “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” This year, the First Family commissioned three groups of artisans to create ornaments for the White House trees. I asked the president and Mrs. Clinton if they had seen “The American President.” They said they had, and both exuberantly said, “We loved it.” I also asked Mr. Clinton if his friend Michael Ovitz, now that he is at Disney, would be able to lend support with campaign materials, as he had in the past. The president thought perhaps not, because of Disney’s association now with a network, namely ABC. The Clintons looked particularly handsome, hale and hearty, despite the weeklong European trip … The Kennedy Center Honors gave the nation’s performing arts and artists well-needed and well-deserved hugs and kisses in the shadow of politics and politicians who’ve aimed barbs and brickbats at ’em of late. Appropriately, the finale at Sunday night’s show in the Center was, “Take care of this house, for this house is the hope of us all, the hope of us all,” sung by the entire company. It was also a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Kennedy Center, said Walter Cronkite, who m.c.’d the show, which will air 9- 11 p.m. Dec. 27 on CBS. The show, plus the gala supper party that followed in the center’s Grand Foyer, finale’d the weekend. Once in the Kennedy Center, the Clintons received a prolonged ovation, and the president leaned across a box to shake hands with Newt Gingrich. Mr. Clinton offered his congrats to each of the five honorees: Jacques d’Amboise, Marilyn Horne, B.B. King, Sidney Poitier and Neil Simon. The show was produced by George Stevens Jr. and Don Mischer and directed for TV by Louis J. Horvitz … The Honors medals were actually presented Saturday night in the State Dept. building’s great hall, after a dinner hosted by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. During cocktails, guests were able to view the history of the country in 200 years of paintings, memorabilia and priceless collections. Talbott explained that Secretary of State Warren Christopher was still traveling with the president. James Wolfensohn, retiring chairman of the Kennedy Center, reminded that the Honors represent “the genius and diversity of our country.” Talbott noted how the honorees “bring our culture to the world and the world’s culture to us.” He told how the Italians consider Marilyn Horne, for example, “the world’s best singer.” And how Neil Simon, through “The Odd Couple’s” Felix and Oscar, have their counterpart “Odd Couples” everywhere — such as Washington’s “Bob and Newt.”

JAMES EARL JONES M.C.’D the presentation of medals to the honorees. Maria Tallchief did the toast to d’Amboise. Leontyne Pryce made an emotional toast to Horne, saying, “Brava, brava, bravissima!” Joe Williams, to B.B. King: “In the greatest democracy in the world, we came up with a king — B.B. King.” Louis Gossett Jr., who appeared with Poitier in “A Raisin in the Sun,” said, “You are responsible for my career — singlehandedly.” Jones called Neil Simon “the American Aristophanes.” And Larry Gelbart, in making the toast to Simon: “If he doesn’t wish to rest on his laurels, it’s only because he is afraid of heights.” Wolfensohn urged CBS’ Michael Jordan, Peter Lund and Les Moonves, all on hand, “to continue the tradition” of airing the show. He gave tributes to Roger Stevens, “without whom we have no Kennedy Center,” and also to George Stevens Jr., Mischer, co-chairs of the event Buffy Kafritz and Donna McClarty, and to Caroline Peachey and Liz Stevens (Mrs. George Jr.). The Stevenses hosted the traditional Sunday brunch at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the hospitable host hotel for the honorees. Simon revealed to me that he is recuping from back surgery three weeks ago. He was thankful he didn’t have to write a speech of acceptance — there were none at this event, only bows and many handshakes! “If I did (have to write a speech), it would take me three weeks.” He has not given up playwriting, as was feared. Instead of writing a TV original for Robert Halmi, Simon told me he’ll now place it (untitled) onstage first — but not B’way. He’d given up the Great White Way for Off Broadway, you recall, with “London Suite”… Poitier arrived from the Chi location of “To Sir With Love II.” Whether it goes out on bigscreen for TriStar, or through its TV arm and CBS, is yet to be determined. With the new CBS/Westinghouse family, it would appear they’d like to have a Poitier starrer on the air. Poitier heads to London for the final scenes — actually the pic’s opening. Lulu and Judy Geeson will sing in the seg. He was joined at the Honors by wife Joanna, plus five of Sidney’s six daughters (the sixth is expecting). … Lew and Edie Wasserman, regulars at this cool event, arrived from N.Y. where he attended a Seagram’s board meeting. He talked of the many expansions at MCA, Universal CityWalk and the Florida studio — where the Hard Rock Cafe alone did $50 million last year … Colin Powell, seated at the State Dept. dinner table with the Don Mischers, was saying how relieved and happy he was to have made the decision not to run for the presidency. He seemed very relieved when I spoke to him … Among others from Hollywood helping Poitier celebrate was Walter Mirisch, for whom Sidney did “The Organization,””They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!” and “In the Heat of the Night.” Walter was there with son Larry. First-time attendees included Barbara and Marvin Davis, close Poitier pals, plus Wendy and Len Goldberg … Also on hand from L.A. and getting congrats for his Taper theatrical contributions, Gordon and Judy Davidson, plus Michele Lee and Fred Rappoport — he taped “Grand Ole Opry’s 70th”– the music world’s Mo Ostin, meeting up with pals Herbie Hancock, Benny Carter and Joe Williams, plus Hal David and Jack Jones.

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