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Kennedy Center honors quintet

CBS will air two-hour show on Dec. 26

Five titans of the performing arts were celebrated Sunday in the 30th edition of the Kennedy Center Honors. The affair honored the lifetime achievements of pop musicians Diana Ross and Beach Boy Brian Wilson, comedian-writer Steve Martin, film director Martin Scorsese and classical pianist-conductor Leon Fleisher.

Following the usual format, a two-hour variety show CBS will air Dec. 26, the event capped a weekend of festivities that included a dinner at the State Dept. hosted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a White House reception hosted by President George Bush and first lady Laura Bush and other celeb-filled gatherings.

The Honors show and dinner has long represented the hottest and dearest ticket in town, an event that draws a unique gathering of political and showbiz celebs along with corporate kingpins and much of D.C.’s high-powered lobbying community. Orchestra seats have escalated to $4,000 a pop, not including induced donations of some $100,000 just to get on the list. The Kennedy Center can’t even calculate the total amounts generated by the event, but prexy Michael Kaiser figures it directly or indirectly accounts for 40% of all fund-raising at the center.

And why not? Nowhere else can one mingle under a single roof with top-tier artists and politicos and the likes of billionaires Steve Wynn and Kennedy Center chairman Stephen Schwarzman or savor the sight of a U.S. president and VP gazing down from their boxes at a calm sea of political supporters and opponents alike enjoying a rare display of bipartisanship.

In a city where access means power, the honors are as good as it gets. At this year’s function, every cabinet member was slated to attend, as well as 25 senators and numerous members of the House of Representatives.

“The continuing vitality of the event is amazing,” said a contented George Stevens Jr., who created the honors and has produced it ever since, now joined by son Michael.

Stevens said he was able to escape complications from the writers strike by completing the principal writing, including individual tributes and narration of brief biopics, before the WGA walkout. The single exception was participation by actor-writer Steve Carell, who led the tribute to Martin. “We made an appeal to the guild and signed an interim agreement so he could participate,” Stevens said.

The variety show began with the tribute to Scorsese by Cameron Diaz, along with appearances by Francis Ford Coppola and Robert De Niro. Diaz called Scorsese “a once-in-a-lifetime filmmaker,” likening him to a musician who uses a conductor’s touch to intertwine the elements of his art.

The Martin tribute included perfs from Ricky Jay, Bill Irwin, Martin Short, Earl Scruggs and Kristin Chenoweth. Honoree Ross was saluted by Smokey Robinson, followed by a high-energy selection of the diva’s greatest hits sung by Jordin Sparks, Vanessa Williams, Ciara and Yolanda Adams. In the segment’s finale, Adams was backed by a local choral group on “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).”

Musician Fleisher was toasted by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, followed by the evening’s most elaborate performance — portions of Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy” and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor by the Peabody Orchestra conducted by Jaime Laredo, supported by the 120-member Choral Arts Society of Washington.

The evening’s final tribute to honoree Wilson was led by Art Garfunkel. It included a variety of Beach Boys medleys featuring Lyle Lovett, Hootie & the Blowfish and the Rob Mathes Band. It ended appropriately with a shower of beach balls from above.

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