WASHINGTON, D.C. — Political chatter was kept to a minimum Sunday night as the Kennedy Center Honors presented elaborate tributes to “Sesame Street” — made more poignant by the death of legendary puppeteer Caroll Spinney earlier in the day — as well as Sally Field, Linda Ronstadt, Earth, Wind and Fire and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.
The gala, in its 42nd year, once again capped a weekend of festivities that included a banquet on Saturday night at the U.S. State Department. Excluded for the third straight year was any participation by President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump, either as hosts of a traditional Sunday afternoon reception at the White House or attendees at the gala. It’s a workable arrangement for all given the president’s unpopularity within the arts and entertainment communities.
In their fifth year as producers of the Honors, White Cherry Entertainment’s Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss delivered a stellar program packed with memorable moments and talented artists. Highlights from the gala will air Dec. 15 on CBS, about two weeks earlier than the show has typically aired in recent years.
The evening was generally devoid of overt political sentiment, save for the rousing and sustained ovation given to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was among attending D.C. dignitaries introduced by KenCen Chairman David Rubenstein. The program’s emcee, 2018 honoree LL CoolJ, occasionally tiptoed into political waters with sentiments imploring a politically divided Americans to “stick together,” and extolling the power of the arts to help the country do so.
Another lively moment came when “Sesame Street’s” Big Bird appeared, wandering the aisle in obvious confusion following intermission, and trying to sit in the lap of actor Tom Hanks whom he addressed as “Thanks.” It was a reference to sounds and letters, a “Sesame Street” hallmark.
Honorees again watched the proceedings from the presidential box. Per the time-honored format, the tributes again included lively videos reprising highlights of their lives and careers.
The show opened with the tribute to Ronstadt, presented by the Eagles’ Don Henley, who reminisced about early days touring with Ronstadt and his late bandmate Glenn Frey. Singer Carrie Underwood performed a soulful “Blue Bayou” and “When Will I Be Loved?” Kevin Kline talked about life on Broadway with Ronstadt in “Pirates of Penzance,” followed by her longtime pal Emmylou Harris, who called Ronstadt “a fearless artist” who possesses “the most stunningly beautiful voice of our generation.” Trisha Yearwood belted out “You’re No Good,” followed by Aaron Neville joining her on the hit duet he had with Ronstadt, “Don’t Know Much.”
The tribute to Field began with Steven Spielberg’s 50-year relationship with the actor, and the deliberation about casting her in the film “Lincoln” as Mary Todd opposite Daniel Day-Lewis. “I was proud to have been proven so wrong (about not initially considering Field for the role),” he said. Actor Maura Tierney reminisced about her experience playing Field’s daughter on “ER.” “I lost myself in the power of her,” Tierney said.
Actor Pierce Brosnan discussed working with Field, followed by Hanks, who sauntered out to say a tender, “Hi Momma,” to his colleague from “Forrest Gump.” He noted that “Sally never had the luxury of anonymity” in showbiz, having been cast from her start as a teenager in lead roles in the 1960s TV series “Gidget” and “The Flying Nun.”
The tribute to “Sesame Street” creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Dr. Lloyd Morrisett included a somber note, due to the death earlier in the day of Spinney, who performed signature characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for nearly 50 years. It began with testimonials about the indisputable impact of the program selected as the first television show to receive a KenCen Honor.
The filmed tribute included appearances by entertainers Lionel Richie, Yo-Yo Ma and Patti LaBelle. Joseph Gordon Levitt led an on-stage dialogue with “Sesame Street” stalwarts Bert and Ernie. The tribute concluded with a group bow by puppeteers holding their alter-egos, a rare occasion. The puppeteers wore yellow feathers on their lapels in tribute to Spinney.
Conductor Thomas was feted in grand style in a segment highlighted by the surprise appearance of an entire orchestra comprised of alums from his celebrated New World Symphony, his Miami Beach academy that has been the springboard for countless musicians. The group opened with Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown” followed by other pieces embellished by the Kennedy Center Orchestra.
That tribute began with an appreciation by Lars Ulrich from the heavy metal band Metallica, who saluted Thomas for his extreme versatility. Actress Debra Winger stepped out to praise Thomas for teaching her how to conquer stage fright.
The accompanying biographical film focused on Thomas’ Jewish heritage and growing up in a musical household that included regular visits by the Gershwins. Broadway star Audra McDonald provided more highlights by singing Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm” along with “Where Has the Time Gone?” and Leonard Bernstein’s “There’s a Place for Us.”
The show wrapped up, appropriately enough, with a colossal set in tribute to Earth, Wind and Fire, emceed by musician/composer/producer David Foster. He credited the group’s late founder Maurice White with helping launch his own career in 1969 when the group recorded his song, “After the Love Has Gone.” Others on hand to perform the band’s hits were John Legend, magician David Copperfield, Cynthia Erivo, Ne-Yo and the Jonas Brothers. Looking down from the box were Earth, Wind and Fire’s Verdine White, Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson.
The State Department’s more intimate affair offered the usual blend of collegiality and pomp as KenCen donors assembled with artists, members of Congress and other VIPs. The setting is the department’s ornate diplomatic greeting rooms adorned with heirlooms from the country’s birth. It is there that the rainbow ribbons are placed around each honoree’s neck by KenCen Chairman Rubenstein.
Emcee for that affair was baritone Thomas Hampson, who toasted the honorees collectively and introduced individual speakers. First up was Tony winner Bill Irwin to praise colleague Field and reminisce about joint projects including their Broadway stint as spouses in the 2002 run of Edward Albee’s “The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?” Coincidentally, Irwin’s extensive career also included a run on “Sesame Street” as the character Mr. Noodle.
Actress Field used the platform to voice her social concerns. “More than ever in my lifetime, we need the artistic community to bring us together, to sing their songs, tell their stories, to illuminate the human spirit, and to espouse the truth,” she said. “Truth is being challenged.” Ending with a possible light-hearted reprise of her celebrated Academy Award moment, she pointed to her Honors ribbon with glee. “This is mine – you can’t take it away!”
Ronstadt’s prodigious achievements were saluted by singer/producer/manager Peter Asher, who recalled the day in 1969 when he was advised by a chum to catch a fabulous young singer at a local café. A business arrangement soon followed, and the discovery that “in addition to her prodigious musical talents, she was exceptionally well read, and possessed a rigorous and demanding intellect, along with an insatiable musical curiosity, and a demanding work ethic. Above all was a compulsion to sing.”
The “Sesame Street” ribbons were presented to Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, co-founders of production company Children’s Television Workshop (now known as Sesame Workshop). Their work was reprised by Sonia Manzano, who played Maria on the program from 1971-2015. Manzano said it was appropriate that “Sesame Street” is the first Kennedy Center Honor given to a television show, since it is “a show that not only revolutionized television, but repurposed it for children.”
“Think of it – 50 years of smart, sophisticated television, teaching letters and numbers and examining social issues while being flat-out funny,” she said. “None of it would have happened without the foresight of Cooney and Morrisett.” She praised the duo for recognizing the genius of the Muppets, and casting people of color on the show. Recent achievements include show’s involvement with Syrian refugee camps, she noted.
Morrisett said he accepted the honor “on behalf of the 3,000 people who have worked on the show since 1969.” He said the show tries to ask children to become smarter, kinder and stronger.
Conductor Thomas was hailed as a musical visionary by arts patron Sir Michael Moritz especially during the last 25 years as music director of the San Francisco Symphony. Morris also praised Miami’s New World Symphony academy, which Tilson founded, for setting the standard for diversity and the inclusion in the musical business. “The real testament to his work is Michael’s diaspora of alumnae who have absorbed the joy, spirit and education they have acquired under Michael, and spread it to audiences and students far and wide,” he said.
Songwriter Foster lavished praise on Earth, Wind and Fire for their virtuosity and conviction that “anything is possible.” He praised each of the three artists who remain the heart and soul of the “super group” — Verdine White, Bailey and Johnson – along with its late founder, Maurice White.
“They had a burning desire to change the world. It was in their DNA,” Foster said.
Pictured: (back row) Philip Bailey, Verdine White, Ralph Johnson, “Sesame Street’s” Abby, Big Bird and Elmo (front row) Michael Tilson Thomas, Linda Ronstadt, Sally Field, Joan Ganz Cooney and Dr. Lloyd Morrisett.