- Associated Press - Monday, December 6, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — Oprah Winfrey has come a long way since her childhood years in a Mississippi shack and in public housing with a poster of the Beatles on her bedroom wall. Sunday, she was honored with Paul McCartney, one of the Beatles she so loved.

Stars from Hollywood, Nashville and Broadway gathered in the nation’s capital to salute Miss Winfrey, Mr. McCartney and three others — country singer Merle Haggard, Broadway composer Jerry Herman and dancer Bill T. Jones — with the Kennedy Center Honors. President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama sat with the honorees and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Julia Roberts opened the show with a surprise nod to her friend, Miss Winfrey.

“It’s a universal conversation starter: Did you see what was on ‘Oprah‘ today?” Miss Roberts said. “The first time I heard of a better fitting bra … or a fascinating politician named Barack Obama was on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show.’”

Miss Roberts said she was nervous to address the Washington crowd but nearly tricked them into looking under their seats for a prize — Winfrey style.

John Travolta took the stage to host a mock version of Miss Winfrey’s show with Barbara Walters as his guest. He recounted a phone call he got from Miss Winfrey when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. She told him to fill his plane with medical supplies and meet her in Louisiana.

“So when Oprah calls, you answer,” he said. “Oprah makes it exciting to be responsible.”

Miss Walters said she should get credit for jump-starting the 56-year-old Miss Winfrey’s career. She said the future talk-show host once imitated Miss Walters‘ style to win a Miss Fire Prevention contest but developed a style all her own.

“Simply put, she is the best interviewer ever,” Miss Walters said. “No one comes close — not even me. And those of you who know me know how painful it was for me to say that.”

Jennifer Hudson sang “I’m Here” from “The Color Purple,” which Miss Winfrey produced on Broadway after starring in the film. Miss Hudson was joined by a choir from Miss Winfrey’s alma mater, Tennessee State University.

For Miss Winfrey, the prize comes during the 25th and final season of her talk show and just before she launches her new cable network, OWN, on Jan. 1. After her Washington visit, Miss Winfrey will take about 300 audience members to Australia.

“You know what’s interesting is, she spends her life celebrating others, but when it comes time for her, she’s very reluctant, really,” Miss Winfrey’s best friend, Gayle King, told the Associated Press. Ms. King said it was a fitting tribute for Miss Winfrey.

“They’re recognizing her whole body of work,” Ms. King said. “She’s not just a talk-show host.”

Alec Baldwin introduced the tribute to Mr. McCartney, 68, lamenting the singer’s “long and winding road” to a solo career, being forced to sing in stadiums and requiring police protection.

“The National Institutes of Health called the epidemic ‘Beatlemania,’” Mr. Baldwin said. “There was no cure.”

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