Unprecedented demand for tickets to gala events

The nation’s capital rolled out the red carpet Sunday for five titans of the performing arts at the 32nd annual Kennedy Center Honors. Writer-producer Mel Brooks, jazz legend Dave Brubeck, opera singer Grace Bumbry, thesp Robert De Niro and rock singer-composer Bruce Springsteen were toasted in a variety of venues as the latest recipients of the coveted achievement award.

A weekend of festivities was capped by a gala variety show at the center attended by President and first lady Michelle Obama, along with seemingly every other political and showbiz luminary. Produced as usual by George Stevens Jr. and his son Michael, the show will air on CBS Dec. 29.

“This year’s group of honorees attests to the amazing vitality of American culture,” said an obviously pleased Stevens. Indeed, this year’s stellar quintet of honorees, combined with the excitement of a new U.S. president joining the celebration, prompted an unprecedented demand for tickets to the KenCen gala as well as invitations to the previous evening’s dinner at the U.S. State Dept., hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

The stature of this year’s honorees is perhaps best demonstrated by its performing musicians. Bumbry, the daughter of a railroad company freight handler, achieved international acclaim for her distinctive sound that included a full transition from mezzo to soprano roles. Rocker Springsteen continues to pack arenas with his high-energy performances, legendary band and endless collection of tuneful melodies that attract fans of all ages. And Brubeck, whose versatile quartet introduced jazz to a worldwide audience and defined a generation of music lovers, still performs at age 89, his birthday on Sunday.

The KenCen program featured a brief film about each honoree’s life and career, introductory remarks by a high-profile chum and a closely guarded segment of entertainment. The Brooks tribute, co-produced by Susan Stroman, was introduced by close pal Carl Reiner and featured song-and-dance numbers from Brooks-scripted films and Broadway shows.

The salute’s all-star lineup included Martin Short crooning the theme song from “Blazing Saddles” atop a pretend stallion and Matthew Morrison singing “Springtime for Hitler” from “The Producers.” Other participants included Matthew Broderick, Frank Langella, Richard Kind, Jane Krakowski and Gary Beach.

The tribute to De Niro, hosted by actress Meryl Streep, included participation from 2007 honoree Martin Scorsese along with Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Ben Stiller and Sharon Stone. Bumbry’s salute, introduced by 1994 honoree Aretha Franklin, featured a performance by soprano Angela Ghergiou.

Brubeck, introduced by jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, was feted by an all-star group that included Bill Charlap (piano), Christian McBride (bass), Jon Faddis (trumpet), Bill Stewart (drums) and Maguel Zenon (alto). Springsteen’s tribute, performed by comedian Jon Stewart, included perfs from John Mellencamp and the Rob Mathis Band.

The awards session that followed the State Dept. dinner was introduced by Clinton.Carol Burnett, a 2003 honoree, emceed the after-dinner program. Along with the ribbon presentations, the intimate affair featured humorous toasts of each recipient by the likes of former president Bill Clinton (Brubeck), playwright Terrence McNally (Bumbry), screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi (De Niro), director Susan Stroman (Brooks) and Itzhak Perlman (Springsteen).

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