Cronkite hosts Taylor, Jones, Levine, Rivera, Simon fete

WASHINGTON — Hollywood and Washington put political differences aside and joined in holiday cheer Sunday for the 25th anniversary of the Kennedy Center Honors, the country’s highest tribute to performing artists.

Honored were thesps Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones, Metropolitan Opera artistic director and conductor James Levine, Broadway legend Chita Rivera and singer-songwriter Paul Simon.

As always, those receiving tribute were treated to a weekend of politically correct reverie, including a pre-show White House reception and a Saturday-night dinner at the State Dept., official host of the Honors.

The show, co-produced by George Stevens Jr. and Don Mischer, will air Dec. 27 on sponsor net CBS. Following tradition, former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite emceed.

During Sunday’s dress rehearsal at the Kennedy Center Opera House, comedian Steve Martin put the finishing touches on a joke about President Bush wanting to find pirated Barbra Streisand music, since Bush could never be seen in public buying any of her works.

Opera star Bryn Terfel wowed the rehearsal crew with some break-dancing while singing “Toreador” from Carmen, while the normally extroverted Rudolph Giuliani knew to keep his mouth shut when joining Terfel and diva Fredericka von Stade onstage.

Even Secretary of State Colin Powell turned mercurial at Saturday’s dinner, singing the lyrics to “America” from “West Side Story.”

“It’s a great national event,” said Stevens, co-founder of the Honors and one of the few entertainment producers to have made Washington his home base.

Martin and Terfel were among many luminaries chosen to toast the honorees and take them for a walk down memory lane.

John Travolta introduced Taylor; Sidney Poitier (an honoree last year) introduced Jones; Hal Prince introduced Rivera; opera great Placido Domingo introduced Levine; Martin introduced Simon. Following each introduction, a short montage of film clips was unspooled.

The show’s structure makes it a stress-free evening for the honorees, since all they are required to do is take a bow — from their seats. Sitting alongside the performing artists were President Bush and first lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Powell. Even Vice President Dick Cheney emerged from hiding to attend.

Sunday night’s audience was treated to a diverse bill, including Broadway revues and musical performances by James Taylor, Terfel, Domingo, Alicia Keys, Alison Krauss, von Stade, John Mellencamp, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C., Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick.

The Kennedy Center also celebrated the 25th anniversary of its marquee Honors program by accepting its largest single grant ever — a $100 million gift from the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation to help fund an expansion project.

The money will help build a new education facility on an eight-acre plaza to be constructed in the coming decade. It is the lead gift for a privately funded $250 million complex, to be built over the Potomac Freeway outside the center’s front door, that will also house an interactive performing arts museum, rehearsal and administrative spaces.

The center’s arts education program, with its $15 million annual budget, produces 20 major programs across performing arts disciplines that are national in scope and reach.

“We are just thrilled with the gift,” said grateful Kennedy Center president Michael M. Kaiser. It is the second major donation to the center from local philanthropist Reynolds. A year ago, her foundation donated $10 million to fund a 10-year series of unique and innovative performances. They included a recent mounting of “Carmen Jones,” the Oscar Hammerstein II reworking of Bizet’s “Carmen,” featuring Vanessa Williams and the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Placido Domingo.

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