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“If they weren’t around, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing,” Miss Sparks said. “I feel so honored to be here.”

It was her first time at the Kennedy Center Honors, but others have been here since the beginning.

“In the early years we came here, there was a handful of us,” said Sidney Harman, a businessman, arts benefactor and husband of Rep. Jane Harman of California, 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. He introduced the honors program several years later, and the sitting U.S. president has since attended nearly every year.

Writer Nora Ephron cut through all the hoopla by taking pictures for Mr. Martin and others.

The intimate moments — and capturing the honorees’ reactions — are what make the event stand out from the rest.

“They’re not asked to sing for their supper,” Mr. Stevens said. “That makes it different.”

For Mr. Stevens, the honors program has become a family affair. His son, Michael Stevens, began producing the 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,” said Mr. Stevens, 41. “The challenge is to re-create them faithfully and skillfully. If you only get halfway there, it does risk sounding like a wedding band.”

It is not 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 also be pulled from the show. Michael Stevens said Miss Simpson was shooting a film and did not have time to rehearse properly.

“In life, these things happen, and you can’t dwell on it,” he said.

George Stevens said the show’s basic structure and concept have remained the same — and producers always try to get the best performers. It’s still a formal event but more fun in some ways.

“We weren’t using a lot of electric guitars in 1978,” he said, adding that he’ll continue “for the next 30 years, and then I’m going to hang it up.”