Even by White House standards, President Obama's guests in the East Room on Sunday night were as talented and diverse as they come.
Stars from New York, Hollywood and the music world joined Mr. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at a White House reception to salute this year's Kennedy Center Honorees: late-night comedian David Letterman, rock band Led Zeppelin, actor Dustin Hoffman, Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy and ballerina Natalia Makarova.
Since its debut event in 1977, each year the nation has recognized the lifetime achievement of some of the most influential Americans in the arts. The recipients received their awards at a ceremony at the Kennedy Center later in the evening to be broadcast Dec. 26 on CBS.
Even Mr. Obama seemed awed by the range of talent and star power, drawing chuckles when he described the honorees as "some extraordinary people who have no business being on the same stage together."
Ribbing a few of the stars for their humble beginnings, Mr. Obama noted that Mr. Letterman started out as an Indianapolis weatherman and once reported that the city was being pelted by hail "the size of canned hams."
"It's one of the highlights of his career," Mr. Obama deadpanned.
Mr. Guy, the president said, made his first guitar out of wires from a window screen.
"That worked until his parents started wondering how all the mosquitos were getting in," he said to laughter.
He also recalled a scene after Mr. Hoffman's audition for "The Graduate," which was originally written with Robert Redford as the lead.
"When Dustin Hoffman auditioned for the part, a crew member handed him a subway token on his way out, saying 'here, kid, you're gonna need this.'"
When it came time to talk about Led Zeppelin, he thanked the band members for being on especially good behavior at the White House, considering during their hey day there were some hotels rooms "trashed and mayhem all around."
"So it's fitting that we're doing this in a room with windows that are about three inches thick and Secret Service all around," he said.
When the jokes were over, Mr. Obama thanked the recipients for their contribution to the American culture.
"Maybe they didn't lead us to become performers ourselves," he said. "But maybe they inspired us to see things in a new way, to hear things differently to discover something within us or to appreciate how much beauty there is in the world."
On Saturday night Meryl Streep spoke about each honorees at a formal dinner at the State Department hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Celebrities on hand that night included Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and Letterman's longtime band leader, Paul Shaffer.
Mrs. Clinton gave special recognition that night to Ms. Makarova who she said "risked everything to have the freedom to dance the way she wanted to dance" after defecting from the Soviet Union in 1970.
She quickly rocketed to fame at the American Ballet Theatre, and years later after the fall of the Soviet Union, returned to her homeland to become the first exiled artist to dance with the Kirov Ballet.
Giving Mr. Letterman a friendly gibe, she said she didn't know what he was doing there in such a talented crowd.
"Dave and I have a history," she said. "I have been a guest on his show several times, and if you include references to my pantsuits, I'm on at least once a week."
• This report is based in part on wire reports.
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