Brown, Burnett, Lynn, Nichols & Perlman celebrated

WASHINGTON — The Kennedy Center literally rolled out the red carpet Sunday for this year’s recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors: James Brown, Carol Burnett, Loretta Lynn, Mike Nichols and Itzhak Perlman.

The celeb-filled variety show, to be broadcast Dec. 26 on CBS, marked the official unveiling of the Center’s Opera House following a $20 million renovation. Show was performed before a high-powered audience that included President and Mrs. George W. Bush, Vice President and Mrs. Richard Cheney and numerous other dignitaries. As usual, it was preceded by a White House reception and State Dept. dinner the previous evening.

As in past years, brief film bios were presented by a celeb closely identified with each respective honoree, followed by a musical tribute. Actor Sissy Spacek (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”) offered accolades to country singer Lynn, while playwright Tom Stoppard saluted director Nichols, whose “Angels in America” was simultaneously beginning its run on HBO. Rapper LL Cool J toasted “Godfather of Soul” Brown, and Alan Alda introduced Perlman. Julie Andrews reminisced about Burnett.

In all, a cast of some 450 participated in the show, one of the annual affair’s largest casts. Included were several chorus groups and 28 youngsters from Perlman’s program for aspiring musicians.

The evening included a couple of firsts for the 26-year-old program. Caroline Kennedy was a last-minute substitute for traditional emcee Walter Cronkite, who she reported was suffering from laryngitis. In addition, George Stevens Jr. was the sole producer of this year’s awards show, having parted company with longtime sidekick Don Mischner and associate producer Michael B. Seligman earlier this year. Stevens received some production assistance from son Michael, who co-produced the tributes to Lynn and Brown with his wife, Ali Gifford.

This year’s edition also marked the first time a former U.S. president has appeared on stage in behalf of an individual honoree. George H.W. Bush strolled out front to praise Lynn (“what Norman Rockwell did with paint, Loretta Lynn does with song”), including her efforts as a campaigner. The gesture’s political overtones produced some murmuring among the bipartisan audience.

Event also included one “last” — the final appearance of Kennedy Center chairman James A. Johnson, who retires at year’s end after eight years at the helm of the arts institution. No successor has yet been named. In his annual remarks to the Honors audience, Johnson announced that CBS had re-upped with a new five-year contract through 2008 to broadcast the event. Other celebs appearing for honorees included Dan Aykroyd, Christine Baranski, Candice Bergen, Garth Brooks, Kim Cattrall, Lyle Lovett, Elaine May, Reba McEntire, Brian McKnight, Meryl Streep and Trisha Yearwood. Highlights included a fashion show of Burnett’s colorful costumes from her CBS variety show by the likes of Florence Henderson, Bernadette Peters, Chita Rivera and Elaine Stritch, supported by Burnett pals Tim Conway and Harvey Korman. Dressed as a foppish Scarlett O’Hara, Andrews offered a rare burst of song with a verse of Burnett’s signature tune, “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together.”

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