The Kennedy Center Honors, which marked its 18th year Dec. 3, has become as entrenched as the monuments in this pomp-filled city. It wasn’t always that way.
“When we first started, it often took an extremely hard sell to entice artists to participate in tributes to honorees,” recalled George Stevens Jr., co-producer of the event with Don Mischer. “Today, they are universally thrilled to do so.”
With good reason. The production is an intimate and classy affair staged specifically for the live audience, not for the TV viewers who’ll see it Dec. 27 on CBS. Honorees and guests also receive an invitation to the White House, and the affair allows ample opportunity for political and showbiz celebs to mingle. The main event is packaged as a slick variety show filled with offbeat acts, a formula that was repeated this year as tributes were offered to dancer Jacques d’Amboise, opera diva Marilyn Horne, bluesman B.B. King, actor Sidney Poitier and playwright Neil Simon.
As usual, the honorees were introduced by artists linked to their careers, who narrated brief films highlighting their journeys from universally humble beginnings. Touching rags-to-riches sagas were delivered about Poitier by longtime friend Paul Newman, and about King by “60 Minutes” correspondent Ed Bradley. Simon’s life was capsulized by comedian Steve Martin, who opened in hilarious fashion, with a plea to President Clinton for a “celebrity tax break,” before getting down to business.
Highlights of the evening included readings from Simon’s works by Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski and Sid Caesar, and dancing for d’Amboise by a troupe of children from the National Dance Institute, which he founded. The tribute to King included blues greats Dr. John, Etta James, Joe Williams and Bonnie Raitt. Horne was saluted by singer Frederica von Stade and three artists who performed a scene from “The Barber of Seville.”
The evening nets $2 million for the Kennedy Center each year. Tickets – as high as $1,600 in the orchestra – are snapped up well in advance by an eclectic audience that includes members of Congress and government officials, business leaders, lobbyists and others; in this year’s crowd were House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson.