- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 26, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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,” he said.

The singer had been turned away in 1939 from performing at Constitution Hall because she was black. But in 1978, she was being honored by her country at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Foggy Bottom.

This year, singer Diana Ross received the Kennedy Center Honors, along with pianist Leon Fleisher, actor and writer Steve Martin, film director Martin Scorsese and songwriter Brian Wilson of Beach Boys fame.

Mr. Stevens, 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 D.C. power players, the show, which was filmed on Dec. 2, seems to attract more A-listers every year.

Ciara will be seen singing and dancing on stage to Miss 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 will sing “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” with a 125-member choir.

The honors have become the consummate D.C. event. Tickets now cost $4,000 for orchestra seats, much more than the $150 the first year, in 1978. After 30 years, the show still draws more than 8 million TV viewers.

This year, actress Cameron Diaz has a touching tribute for Mr. Scorsese. And viewers will see Steve Carell, star of NBC’s “The Office,” feigning confusion over who he’s there to honor.

“Steve Martin is a national treasure,” he eventually says.

Art Garfunkel calls Mr. Wilson, who started the Beach Boys, “our Mozart of rock ‘n’ roll.”

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 who greeted all 250 guests. “I really think the arts have a marvelous role in being a unifying force across the world.”

The event brings together some of Hollywood’s elite along with big shots from the worlds of business, classical arts and official Washington.

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat, is seated with members of the band Hootie and the Blowfish and the 18-year-old Miss Sparks, who looks star-struck a few feet away from Miss Ross.

“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.”