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Kennedy Center celebrates 30th year with new honorees
WASHINGTON -- George Stevens Jr. knew he created something special in 1978 when he saw the audience at the Kennedy Center react to old black-and-white footage of Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
"We had not anticipated it, but they all turned and stood with this huge long ovation for her," Stevens said. The singer had been turned away from performing at Constitution Hall near the White House in 1939 because she was black. But in 1978, she was being honored by her country at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
This year, it's Diana Ross receiving the Kennedy Center Honors, along with Steve Martin, Martin Scorsese, Brian Wilson and pianist Leon Fleisher.
Stevens, now 75, continues producing the show he created three decades ago. Over the years, the Kennedy Center Honors -- airing tonight on CBS -- have evolved and grown in stature. Beyond the president and all the Washington power players, the show, which was filmed Dec. 2, seems to attract more A-listers every year.
Ciara was on stage singing and dancing to the Diana Ross hit single "Upside Down," right after tributes from Smokey Robinson, actor Terrence Howard, Jordin Sparks from "American Idol" fame and Vanessa Williams. Yolanda Adams sang "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)" with a 125-member choir, bringing tears to Ross' eye.
The honors have become the consummate Washington event. Tickets now go for $4,000 for orchestra seats -- way up from the $150 they charged that first year, in 1978. After 30 years, the show still draws more than 8 million viewers on television.
This year, actress Cameron Diaz has a touching tribute for Scorsese. And viewers will see Steve Carell, star of NBC's "The Office," feigning confusion over who he's there to honor. He starts a tribute to Scorsese until Caroline Kennedy whispers something in his ear. Then he switches gears ever so naturally. "Steve Martin is a national treasure," Carell said.
Art Garfunkel calls Beach Boys founder Wilson "our Mozart of Rock and Roll." Wilson and Ross can be seen on their feet clapping and dancing along with the audience when Hootie and the Blowfish performs "I Get Around" and "California Girls." Even President Bush was groovin' -- in a presidential way, of course.
The glitz and glam began the night before, when the awards were bestowed at a black-tie dinner at the State Department.
"It's probably my favorite event of the year," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a pianist herself, after she greeted all 250 guests on Dec. 1. "I really think the arts have a marvelous role in being a unifying force across the world."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is seated next to Scorsese (Later she's running to catch up with Steve Martin), while Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty is seated with members of the band Hootie and the Blowfish and the 17-year-old Sparks, who looks star-struck a few feet away from Ross.
"In the early years we came here, there was a handful of us," said Sidney Harman, a prominent businessman, arts benefactor and hubby of Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., who also attended. "Today, there's only a handful who don't want to come."
The Kennedy Center opened in 1971 -- with roots going back to President Eisenhower's 1958 call for a national culture center -- and introduced the honors program several years later. The president has attended nearly every year.
Surprise guests -- close friends and colleagues -- toast each of the honorees at the State Department event.
Fleisher, who played for decades but lost the use of his right hand for much of his career because of a rare neurological disease, used his time at the State Department to make a subtle point. He and his family wore purple ribbons -- a silent war protest and his first effort to start a movement of artists for peace.
The Peabody Conservatory Orchestra from Baltimore, where Fleisher has taught for years, plays a tribute performance of Beethoven's Choral Fantasy during the honors show. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma called Fleisher one of the first American-born classical music stars.
For Stevens, the honors program has become a family affair. His son, Michael Stevens, began producing the show's musical tributes in 2003 and recruited the Rob Mathes Band to help with sounds of the Beach Boys and The Supremes.
"These songs are loved by many, many people," Michael Stevens, 41, said. "The challenge is to recreate them faithfully and skillfully. If you only get halfway there, it does risk sounding like a wedding band."
It isn't always perfect. In 2006, Jessica Simpson flubbed the words to "9 to 5" during a tribute to Dolly Parton and fled the stage. She asked that her second try be pulled from the show as well. Michael Stevens said Simpson was shooting a film and didn't have time to properly rehearse.
On the Net:
Kennedy Center: http://www.kennedy-center.org