WASHINGTON, D.C. — The John F. Kennedy Center welcomed eight performing artists to its exclusive wall of fame Sunday in another festive mounting of its Kennedy Center Honors. Actor Dustin Hoffman, TV host David Letterman, blues singer Buddy Guy, ballerina Natalia Makarova and the rock group Led Zeppelin (John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant) were saluted during the affair’s 35th annual installment.
A weekend of Honors-related festivities was again capped by a celeb-filled performance at the center’s Opera House attended by President and Mrs. Barack Obama. The event, emceed by Caroline Kennedy, was preceded by a White House reception earlier in the day and a private dinner at the U.S. State Dept. on Saturday evening hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That dinner was also emceed by 2011 honoree Meryl Streep.
Seated in the theater’s presidential box, the honorees were treated to a time-tested format of individual vignettes delivered by well-known entertainers whose identities are not revealed in advance. The show, again produced by George Stevens Jr. and son Michael, will be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 26.
The salute to Hoffman kicked off the affair, hosted by actor Robert De Niro, a 2009 honoree. De Niro’s tribute emphasized Hoffman’s renowned dedication to his craft, the astounding array of characters he has portrayed and his well-known aversion to celebrity status. “What Dustin did for all of us was to make it okay to be a character actor and a movie star,” said De Niro. “He broke the mold of a movie star as handsome leading man.”
The Hoffman segment included tributes from Billy Connolly, Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts.
Dancer Makarova was toasted by Judith Jamison, former artistic director of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Jamison chronicled the impressive career of the former Kirov Ballet prima ballerina who defected to the West in 1970, joined the American Ballet Theater and danced to great acclaim with numerous other troupes. The segment included dancing of “Giselle” by Alina Cojocaru and Angel Corella.
The tribute to blues singer-guitarist Guy was hosted by 2008 honoree Morgan Freeman and included a spirited medley of faves by others. On hand for the set were Bonnie Raitt, Beth Hart, Jeff Beck, Gary Clark Jr., Jimmie Vaughan, Tracy Chapman and the Rob Mathes Band.
The Letterman segment, hosted by Tina Fey, included lighthearted roasts from Alec Baldwin, Jimmy Kimmel and Ray Romano. Seizing his opportunity, Baldwin delivered the top 10 reasons why Letterman was selected to receive the Kennedy Center Honor.
The Led Zeppelin tribute was naturally saved for the end with a high volume medley by the Mathes Band and accompanying artists including Kid Rock. It was emceed by Jack Black, who pronounced the group “the best rock and roll band of all time — better than the Beatles and the Stones.”
Zeppelin faves performed included the group’s 1969 hit “Whole Lotta Love,” featuring Lenny Kravitz and Craig Ross on guitar; “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” featuring Rock; and “Black Dog,” performed by the Foo Fighters (guitarist Dave Grohl, drummer Taylor Hawkins and bassist Nate Mendel). Finale was a spirited yet heart-warming version of “Stairway to Heaven” that sent the black-tie audience to the post-show dinner with ears ringing.
For producer Stevens, who created the popular awards fundraiser and still nurtures its growth, this year’s episode was especially busy. Stevens exited Saturday morning rehearsals in D.C. for a fast flight to L.A. to receive a reward of his own — an honorary Oscar from the Motion Picture Academy. He returned in time to co-host a Sunday brunch for honorees and resume other duties.
“I wouldn’t be able to do that without Michael, who has become so very good at this,” Stevens said before departing for the coast.
If the Sunday gala for the public is noted for its many surprises, star-gazing opportunities and bountiful revenues (upwards of $50 million to support KenCen programs), the State Dept. dinner ranks as an even more coveted ticket. It is an intimate gathering for 200 artists, lawmakers and supporters at the department’s ornate diplomatic greeting rooms where guests mingle among Gilbert Stuart paintings and other heirlooms from the American Revolution.
It is following this dinner that honorees are presented with their rainbow laurels at tableside ceremonies conducted by the Kennedy Center’s chairman, currently billionaire David M. Rubenstein. For the past four years, the affair’s hosting duties have been handled with effusive sincerity by the country’s ultimate power couple, Secretary Clinton and husband Bill, the former president.
So it was a bittersweet occasion this year as outgoing Secretary Clinton officially bid adieu to the gathering after a tenure that also included eight years as first lady.
Briefly summarizing the contributions of each honoree, Clinton paused to acknowledge Letterman. “David and I have a history,” she said with a grin. “I’ve been a guest on his show several times, and if you include references to my pantsuits, I’m on at least once a week.”
She jested that Letterman was “probably wondering what he’s doing in such a crowd of the amazingly talented,” before acknowledging his own talents “at making us laugh and making us think.”
Following the dinner’s tradition, the careers of each honoree were praised by a prominent artist in their field. Actress Glenn Close introduced Hoffman, American Ballet Theater artistic director Kevin McKenzie lauded Makarova, Dave Grohl praised the three Led Zeppelin musicians and Stephen Colbert saluted Letterman. Former president Clinton, a self-proclaimed blues musician and aficionado, offered an especially heartfelt testimonial to Guy.