- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

Saturday’s State Department soiree for this year’s Kennedy Center honorees drew the expected crush of stars for the cocktail party from the Queen of R.E.S.P.E.C.T., Aretha Franklin, to political heavyweights like Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

The evening produced a number of memorable sights, from reformed bad boy Robert Downey Jr. soberly inspecting the Treaty of Versailles to honoree Warren Beatty, an antiquely McGovern-style liberal, warmly greeting Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican.

Actress Cicely Tyson went temporarily speechless when asked about the artistic contributions of honorees Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.

“They were with me at the very beginning of my entry into the business,” Miss Tyson said. “I’ve played the daughter of both of them and Ossie’s lover.

“My experience working with him was like not working at all,” she said of his natural gifts.

Miss Dee, a gentle woman who can transform into a firebrand on stage or screen, said the Honors recognize all artists, “even those who take controversial stands.”

“The Honors recognize what America is all about: diversity,” said Miss Dee, who, along with her beloved Mr. Davis, spent decades marching for civil rights and storming racial barricades.

Who better to capture that diversity than a musician like Sir Elton John, a Briton who brilliantly fused rock, blues and pop melodies together in his songs? Mr. John, resplendent in a fanciful tux, said the Honors award meant a great deal to him.

“I’ve been coming here for 35 years. [The award is] a culmination of a great love of this country,” said Mr. John, squired by longtime partner David Furnish.

Rap rocker Kid Rock, who grinned wickedly after spotting Jack Nicholson making the scene, recalled the first rock concert he attended. His parents couldn’t find a baby sitter that night, obliging them to bring him along to see Mr. John perform.

“His love of the blues really stuck with me,” the rocker said, as did the future honoree’s, shall we say, eclectic fashion sense.

“I’ve been known to wear a fur coat onstage,” said Mr. Rock, who for this evening opted for a black shirt and leather studded hat in lieu of a more traditional tux. “It’s all about putting on a great show.”

CBS’ “The Early Show” anchor Harry Smith said another of the night’s musical honorees, John Williams, could stand comfortably beside the great musicians of the 17th and 18th centuries.

“In another time, he would have been writing for the courts and the royal families,” Mr. Smith said. The composer’s work is so distinctive, so compelling, that “every time you hear one note of it you know who wrote it.”

The gracious Mr. Williams would be hard-pressed to elude the reach of his fame. He said earlier in the night a man approached him with a message from his daughter, who learned her father would be meeting the composer of the “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” scores later that day.

“She said to tell me, ‘du-dum, du-dum,’” Mr. Williams said in his best version of his menacing “Jaws” theme.

Billy Joel, attending with his new bride, Kate Joel, on behalf of Sir Elton, said evenings like this give a certain prestige to musicians.

“We’re looked at as artists here, not just rock ‘n’ roll guys,” he said. “This is as close to knighting somebody as you can get.”

Outgoing Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said he will miss his annual hosting duties.

The avuncular statesman wasn’t above sharing his own artistic side during the traditional after-dinner toasts, rapping part of his tribute to Mr. Beatty in honor of the actor’s political satire “Bulworth.”

“I’m Colin Luther Powell and public service is my thing; don’t do it for the fame, don’t do it for the bling,” Mr. Powell rapped.

The crowd didn’t just clap. It roared and rose to its collective feet. Maybe the soon-to-be-ex-secretary has found a second career?

Actress Rosemary Harris, best known as Aunt May from the “Spider-Man” franchise, emceed the toasting portion of the program.

Annette Bening toasted her husband, Mr. Beatty, in an address that acknowledged his lothario past but presented him as a family man with extraordinary talent.

Opera diva Renee Fleming raised a glass to Mr. John, a performer she said is still singing in the same keys as he sang 30 years ago.

“His music is woven into the fabric … of the world’s culture,” she said.

Michael Kahn, the Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director, praised Mr. Davis and Miss Dee for “having broken the color barrier” on stages everywhere.

Today’s young black actors now know, Mr. Kahn said, “when they leave school, study and apply themselves they don’t have to play maids, waiters and porters.”

Mr. Williams’ toast was delivered by local favorite Leonard Slatkin, a longtime pal and admirer.

“It only takes a few notes to recognize John’s voice,” Mr. Slatkin said of so many of Mr. Williams’ film scores, from “Jaws” to “Amistad.” “Sometimes you only have a few seconds to convey an emotion on screen.”

And leave it to past honoree Leontyne Price to bring down the house in trumpeting Dame Joan Sutherland’s achievements.

“There’ll never be another you,” Miss Price sang in her highest octave.

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