WASHINGTON, D.C. — The absence of President Donald Trump didn’t put much of a damper on Sunday’s 40th annual Kennedy Center Honors.
A lineup of all-star talent feted this year’s recipients: singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan, TV legend Norman Lear, dancer-choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, rapper-actor LL Cool J, and singer-songwriter Lionel Richie.
The evening went off without a hitch, but it was a rare Honors event that did not feature the sitting U.S. president watching the proceedings from a prime perch in a box seat. As such, the first KenCen honors of Trump’s presidency marked another sign of the up-ending of Washington tradition in the Trump era. The President and first lady Melania Trump bowed out of the event back in August when three of the honorees balked at attending the traditional White House reception that accompanies the KenCen honors.
Another personality out of the mix on Sunday was Stephen Colbert, who has emceed the past three editions of the ceremony, which will air Dec. 26 as a special on CBS.
The event proceeded without a formal emcee, a format occasionally used in the past. Caroline Kennedy offered a brief welcome, and some emcee-like duties were fulfilled by 2001 KenCen honoree Quincy Jones.
The gala was again produced by Glenn Weiss and Ricky Kirshner of White Cherry Entertainment. They continue to experiment with a format devised by founding producer George Stevens Jr. and partners, including less structured use of a video reprise of each artist’s life and career.
First up was honoree Estefan, who was praised by actress Eva Longoria and the cast of the Kennedy Center’s upcoming production of the musical “On Your Feet,” inspired by the life story of Estefan and her husband and collaborator, Emilio Estefan. Other participants included singer Chaka Khan and Jon Secada, and Estefan’s longtime Miami Sound Machine band.
The salute to Lear, as expected, included clips and other reflections about his landmark TV shows, “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons,” “One Day At a Time,” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” Each was highlighted against an ever-changing array of sets as appropriate. “All in the Family” star Rob Reiner was on hand to salute Lear at the presidential box before a set that included the iconic living room chairs of Archie and Edith Bunker, which were on loan from the Smithsonian Institution.
“Archie wouldn’t let me sit in his chair, and the Smithsonian won’t let me either,” Reiner explained.
The segment for LL Cool J, the center’s first hip-hop honoree, featured a glowing appreciation from Queen Latifah and tributes from an array of rap artists. Actress Meryl Streep dropped by to reminisce about de Lavallade, especially the three years she spent as her student at the Yale University School of Drama. Other artists for de Lavallade’s segment included American Ballet Theater principal Misty Copeland.
Reserving the Richie tribute for last, the center opened with Stevie Wonder at the piano to sing “I Love You” and “Easy.” Singer Kenny Rogers narrated the film tribute while country star Luke Bryan delivered a medley of Richie faves.
(Pictured: Back row: Lionel Richie, LL Cool J. Front row: Carmen de Lavallade, Norman Lear, and Gloria Estefan)