- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Kennedy Center Honors, perhaps the nation’s top award for achievement in the performing arts, are usually given to a mix of the famous and the slightly obscure.

This year’s class, though, is heavy on popular favorites [-] actor, producer and director Robert De Niro; rock singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen; film and Broadway comedian Mel Brooks; and jazz pioneer Dave Brubeck. Only opera singer Grace Bumbry, filling the spot usually reserved for classical music or dance, is not well-known to millions.

“I don’t think there’s a design to that,” Honors creator and producer George Stevens Jr. told The Washington Times during the Saturday rehearsal for Sunday’s gala event.

However, the committee that selects the honorees might have had another theme in mind.

“This year, they are all American,” Mr. Stevens said of an award that has sometimes gone to foreigners, such as Placido Domingo and, last year, members of the Who.

“We thought for the first year of a new president, it’s a nice touch,” Mr. Stevens said.

The new president, in fact, has a special connection to one of the honorees. Mr. Stevens, who also founded the American Film Institute, recalled how President Obama recounted in his 2004 best-selling memoir, “Dreams of My Father,” the one time his father visited him in Hawaii he took him to a Brubeck concert.

Mr. Obama likely told the same story to Mr. Brubeck himself on Sunday. The president and ]first lady Michelle Obama received the honorees at the White House] just hours before stars of stage and screen walked the red carpet at the Kennedy Center en route to the Opera House for a gala tribute performance, which will be broadcast Dec. 29 on CBS.

It was the culmination of a weekend of events for the five. They received their iconic rainbow-ribbon Honors at a black-tie dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the well-appointed rooms of the U.S. State Department.

The list of those paying tribute to the honorees Sunday night is a closely guarded secret; even the winners don’t know who will be there until they see them on stage. “It’s a very strong year,” Mr. Stevens said. “When we started this 32 years ago, I don’t know if we imagined it would have the vitality and richness of honorees that we have. Which in itself, I think, is a tribute to American culture. Think of another country trying to come up with five people every year for over 30 years.”