WASHINGTON — A little more than 20 years ago, George Stevens Jr. decided it was time for the U.S., the driving force in the world’s popular culture, to figure out a way to salute it’s performing art with something more than a little statue and a few seconds of a televised thank-you speech.
The answer he came up with was the Kennedy Center Honors, which since 1978 has celebrated the careers of the country’s leading performing artists. Unlike other awards events held during the course of the year, the Kennedy Center Honors are not about competition or categories – their goal is to enshrine the careers of America’s greatest artists in the performing arts.
This year’s honorees for their lifetime contributions to the arts are: singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, actress Lauren Bacall, actor Charlton Heston, opera singer Jessye Norman and dancer Edward Villella.
“As the national center for the performing arts, the Kennedy Center feels it is important to find a way to recognize those artists who have really made a contribution to American culture and have left behind a significant body of work,” Kennedy Center president Lawrence Wilker says.
Most of the country equates the Kennedy Center Honors with the annually televised gala performance from the Kennedy Center, but the truth is that the broadcast is just one event in a weekend’s worth of celebration. For the most part, that celebration is intimate tribute to the five honorees in a series of small events in some of the most ornate rooms of official Washington.
Like other honorees before them, Bacall, Heston, Dylan, Norman and Villella will kick off their weekend with a lunch hosted at the Kennedy Center by the organization’s chairman James Johnson. Later that night they will be guests of honor at a candlelight dinner for precisely 230 held in the State Dept.’s Benjamin Franklin Room – a venue that holds some of the nation’s most valued treasures including desks used by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams.
During the dinner, the secretary of state toasts the artists not just for their success in the U.S., but also their importance as cultural ambassadors. For Stevens, who along with Don Mischer produces the telecast of the Sunday evening festivities, the dinners are one of the most important moments of the Kennedy Center Honors weekend.
“I think of Jimmy Cagny and Leontyne Price together, and Aaron Copland with Martha Graham at these moving candlelight dinners,” Stevens said, adding, “And (because) they are at the State Dept., there is, in the most subtle sense of the word, a sense of patriotism as the secretary of state acknowledges the importance of what these people have created around the world to the United States.”
Then, on Sunday afternoon it’s off to the White House where President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton host a reception in honor of the five artists. And of course, Sunday night there is the Honors Gala televised on CBS which Stevens will produce yet for the eighth time with Don Mischer. The host this year, as it has been for the past 20 years, is former Eye web anchorman Walter Cronkite. But there is little else about the program that Stevens will reveal.
Unlike almost any other major event on broadcast television, Stevens keeps the lineup for the gala event secret until the last minute. There are few things that can be counted on. For one, the honored guests are not expected to perform. It is their evening to be entertained, Wilker says. Another tradition of the evening are the short films, produced by Stevens, highlighting each artist’s career.
For Stevens, one of the most poignant moments during the past two decades of the Gala Performances came back in 1989 when Harry Belafonte was honored. Stevens surprised Belafonte by flying in unannounced, one of the singer’s heroes: Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Then Belafonte, Tutu and a chorus that included Sidney Poitier sang a tear-jerking rendition of “We Are the World .”
In 1995, Stevens surprised Poitier by having this year’s honoree Norman serenade him with his favorite song, “Amazing Grace.” And of course, there was one of Stevens’ legendary feats of producing when he flew in at the last minute the entire 120-member of the Red Army Chorus to sing “God Bless America” side-by-side with the U.S. Naval Academy. Never mind that the two choirs had never rehearsed the song together. Then there was the time back in 1992 that Stevens arranged to have 100 cellists play for Mstislav Rostropovich. And the list goes on.
As Stevens looks back over the past two decades he remembers the time, while preparing for the fourth Kennedy Center Honors, that he made a passing reference to Cronkite about the “Honors tradition.”
“Walter gave me a serious look and said, ‘Four years does not make a tradition,’ ” Stevens recalls, adding that after 20 years of working together, “I know Walter will be able to use the word ‘tradition’ with enthusiasm.”