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Kennedy Center Honors

Kennedy Center Honors
Awarded for Lifetime Contributions to American Culture through the Performing Arts.
Country USA
Presented by Board of Trustees of the Kennedy Center
First awarded 1978
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Official website Kennedy Center Honors
File:Kennedy center honors 2006.jpg
The 2006 honorees at the Kennedy Center on December 6, 2006, with President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. From left, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Steven Spielberg, Dolly Parton, Zubin Mehta, Smokey Robinson, Vice President Cheney, and Lynne Cheney.

The Kennedy Center Honors is an annual honor given to those in the performing arts for their lifetime of contributions to American culture. The Honors have been presented annually since 1978 in Washington, D.C., during gala weekend-long events that culminate in a performance honoring the Honorees at the Kennedy Center Opera House.[1]

The Honors were created by George Stevens, Jr., and the late Nick Vanoff. Stevens remains involved as producer and co-writer for the Honors Gala. In 1981–2002 and 2004, the ceremony was hosted by Walter Cronkite.[2] In 2003 and 2005–2012, it was hosted by Caroline Kennedy. It is also one of two holiday specials from Stevens's production company (the other being Christmas in Washington).


The Kennedy Center Honors started in 1977, in the wake of that year's 10th-anniversary White House reception and Kennedy Center program for the American Film Institute (AFI).[3] Roger Stevens, the founding chairman of the Kennedy Center, asked George Stevens, Jr., (no relation), the founding director of the AFI, to have an event for the Center. George Stevens asked Isaac Stern to become involved, and then "pitched" the idea to the television network CBS, who "bought it."[3] With the announcement of the first honors event and honorees, CBS vice president for specials Bernie Sofronski stated: "George [Stevens] came to us with this. What turned us on is that this is the only show of its kind. In Europe and most countries they have ways of honoring their actors and their athletes. England has its command performances for the queen. We see this as a national honoring of people who have contributed to society, not someone who happens to have a pop record hit at the moment...Our intention is not to do just another award show. We're going to make an effort in terms of a real special."[4]

At the first ceremony, held on December 3, 1978, Roger Stevens said that the honors awards "is to help build more enthusiasm for the performing arts and bring the public's attention to the artist's true place in society." At an earlier reception, President Jimmy Carter commented "These five people - Americans, great, beloved - come here tonight to be honored through the auspices of the Kennedy Center, but as a matter of fact they come here to honor us and all the people of the world." Performers and speakers at the first ceremony included Edward Villella, Harry Belafonte, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Isaac Stern, Mary Martin, Tony Bennett, Florence Henderson, John Raitt, and Grace Bumbry.[5]

George Stevens, Jr., is the long-time producer of the event and is the co-chair of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.[6][7]

Walter Cronkite was the host until the 2003 event, when Caroline Kennedy took over. According to USA Today, "For the first time in 23 years, Walter Cronkite did not host the event, so Caroline Kennedy filled in." Kennedy remarked: "I'm here because the most trusted man in America has laryngitis and that's the way it is."[8] At the 2004 event, Cronkite returned, "but only to make things official and hand over the reins for good." He said: "It's so fitting that she take over these duties." In return, Kennedy offered a special "homage to Cronkite and his own unique contribution to the American cultural landscape."[9]

Glenn Close was the host for the 2013 honors ceremony (held on December 8, 2013) because Caroline Kennedy has assumed her duties as Ambassador to Japan.[10]

Selection process

Each year the Kennedy Center's national artists committee and past honorees present recommendations for proposed Honorees to the Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.[11] The selection process is kept secret, though "certain criteria seem apparent: a mix of artistic disciplines, the inclusion of men and women, minority recognition."[3]

The announcement is made in late summer, usually after the Labor Day weekend. The ceremony is held the first weekend of December. Highlights from the gala performance are televised in a 90-minute (with commercials in a 2-hour slot) version broadcast on CBS television between Christmas and the New Year.

Two Hispanic advocacy groups have complained that the Kennedy Center Honors have failed to acknowledge enough Hispanics and Latinos (as of the 2013 honors, Plácido Domingo, Chita Rivera, Martina Arroyo and Carlos Santana have been honored). One of the groups has demanded that Mr. Stevens be replaced. The Kennedy Center said that they will review the process of how they select the honorees.[12]

The events

The weekend-long ceremony consists of lunch, dinner, reception and a performance introducing and honoring the new Honorees. The lunch is on Saturday at the Kennedy Center, with a welcoming speech by the Chairman of the Board of Trustees. At that evening's reception and dinner at the State Department, presided over by the Secretary of State, the year's Honorees are introduced. On Sunday, there is an early evening White House reception[13] with the President of the United States, who will then hang a specially designed ribboned award around their necks.[14]

The performance takes place Sunday evening at the Opera House in the Kennedy Center. The Honorees (wearing their medals) and guests sit in the front of the Box Tier, a few seats away from the President and the First Family. The Honorees do not appear on stage nor do they speak to the general audience. The show consists of events from the recipients' lives, presented documentary style in film and live onstage, with the complete list of guest performers kept unpublicized until the show is in progress. George Stevens, Jr. said: "Our tradition of surprises and surprise guests is particularly special..."[1] For example, for Dolly Parton, a 2006 Honoree, Jessica Simpson, Carrie Underwood, Kenny Rogers, Alison Krauss and Shania Twain performed.[15] The pre-taped portion of the presentations typically include excerpts from the honoree's work, donated by rights holders, with revenues generated by the occasion supporting the nonprofit arts and education activities of the Kennedy Center.[16] At the end of the video montage and tributes which are first narrated by the presenter the audience stands toward the honoree and applaud him. At the end of the tributes or musical performances, depending on the certain honoree's work, the audience gives a standing ovation towards the stage performers and then turn to the honorees and applaud them. This applause goes along with the applause from the stage performers. When past honorees are called to speak or perform on stage they often wear their ribbons as well. They are introduced as such including the year they received the award. For example when Buddy Guy was honored at the 2012 ceremony, the narrator, 2008 honoree Morgan Freeman, was introduced as such.

The Honors Gala is "really two different shows", according to George Stevens, Jr., its producer; the priority is on the 2300-member audience in the Opera House, some of whom pay over $6000 for their seats, a source of revenue that provides (as of 2005) almost 10% of the center's annual contributions.[3]


File:2005 Kennedy Center honorees.jpg
2005 Kennedy Center Honorees Julie Harris, Robert Redford, Tina Turner, Suzanne Farrell, and Tony Bennett, with President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, in the Blue Room at the White House, December 4, 2005.
File:Barack Obama speaks to Led Zeppelin.jpg
The surviving members of Led Zeppelin were honored and are pictured here with President Barack Obama.

There have been 178 recipients to date of the Kennedy Center Honors Awards during the Honor's 34 years[dated info]. The vast majority have been bestowed on individuals. On nine occasions since 1985, awards have been presented to duos or trios, including three married couples: lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe, actors Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, musical-comedy duo Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the Nicholas Brothers (Fayard and Harold), actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Kander and Ebb (John Kander and Fred Ebb), actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, musicians Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who and the members of Led Zeppelin.





File:Kennedy Center honorees 2009 WhiteHouse Photo.jpg
Kennedy Center honorees 2009 Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck, Grace Bumbry, Robert De Niro, and Bruce Springsteen, with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in the Blue Room, White House, Dec. 6, 2009.


Prospective honorees who declined, canceled or postponed

Pianist Vladimir Horowitz was to be an honoree, but the selection committee withdrew the offer when Horowitz conditioned his acceptance on being honored alone and at 4 in the afternoon.[3] Actress Katharine Hepburn declined the committee's first offer, though she relented in 1990.[3]

When considering Irving Berlin for the 1987 awards because of criticism for overlooking him, the Center was informed that Berlin wanted to be honored only if he surpassed his 100th birthday (which would not be until May 1988). Also, he was in failing health, being confined to a wheelchair following a series of strokes, and could not attend a public event. The Center instead chose to pay special tribute to him at the 1987 Gala.[21]

Paul McCartney was selected as an honoree in 2002, but the award was postponed a year when McCartney was unable to attend because of an "inescapable personal obligation". The obligation was the marriage of his cousin that had been previously planned months before the invitation. In August 2003 the Kennedy Center issued a one-sentence statement saying that "Paul McCartney will not be receiving a Kennedy Center Honor."[22] McCartney later became a 2010 honoree.[6]

See also


  1. ^ a b "About the Honors" Kennedy Center, accessed September 6, 2011
  2. ^ Keller, Julie."Kennedy Honors Feel Good" E!, August 5, 2003
  3. ^ a b c d e f Crews, Chip."The Honors, Take 2"The Washington Post, December 27, 2005
  4. ^ Shales, Tom. "Crowning America's Culture Superstars", The Washington Post, September 28, 1978, p. B1
  5. ^ Gamarekian, Barbara."Washington Honors 5 in the Arts"The New York Times (proquest), December 4, 1978, p. C15
  6. ^ a b Trescott, Jacqueline."Oprah Winfrey among five recipients of 2010 Kennedy Center Honors"The Washington Post, September 7, 2010
  7. ^ BWW News Desk."President Obama's Remarks on Herman, Jones & More", December 5, 2010
  8. ^ Marklein, Mary Beth. "Kennedy Center throws a salute", USA Today, December 8, 2003, p. 3D
  9. ^ Strachan, Alex. "Caroline Kennedy returns to host black-tie special", The Leader-Post (Regina, Saskatchewan), December 21, 2004, p. D6
  10. ^ "Kennedy Center Honors" The Washington Post, December 9, 2013
  11. ^ "Kennedy Center Honors", retrieved December 6, 2010
  12. ^ "Advocacy Groups Say the Kennedy Center Honors Excludes Latinos" Los Angeles Times
  13. ^
  14. ^ Chmela, Holli: "Five Artists Lauded at Kennedy Center Gala" New York Times, December 4, 2006
  15. ^ The Houston Chronicle, Amy Argetsinger, Roxanne Roberts, Washington Post, p. 7, December 6, 2006
  16. ^ O'Connor, John J."Kennedy Center Awards' Glitter Is Blemished by Film-Clips Dispute" The New York Times (registration required), December 30, 1992
  17. ^ "Barbara Cook, Neil Diamond, Yo-Yo Ma, Sonny Rollins & Meryl Streep to Receive 34th Annual Kennedy Center Honors", accessed September 6, 2011
  18. ^ Gans, Andrew. "Dustin Hoffman, David Letterman, Natalia Makarova, Buddy Guy, Led Zeppelin Are Kennedy Center Honorees", September 12, 2012
  19. ^ Gans, Andrew. "Martina Arroyo, Herbie Hancock, Billy Joel, Shirley MacLaine and Carlos Santana Are 2013 Kennedy Center Honorees", September 12, 2013
  20. ^ Harris, Paul (2014-09-04). "Tom Hanks, Lily Tomlin, Sting to Receive Kennedy Center Honors". Variety. Retrieved 2014-09-04. 
  21. ^ Molotsky, Irvin."Five Receive Kennedy Center Honors for Artistic Contributions" The New York Times , December 7, 1987
  22. ^ "The Kennedy Center Honors: This Year's Bid for Glamour" The New York Times (registration required), August 6, 2003

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