- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2000

Politics took a much-needed breather during the two-day Kennedy Center Honors celebration last weekend.

Sort of.

A few jokes about votes invariably crept into the nonstop tributes and entertainment Saturday and Sunday paying respect to five of the country's outstanding performing artists: actor-director Clint Eastwood; rock 'n' roll musician-composer Chuck Berry; dancer-choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov; singer-conductor Placido Domingo; and actress Angela Lansbury.

Traditionally, honorees remain silent during events that include a Kennedy Center trustees luncheon and State Department dinner on Saturday, and Sunday's White House reception and Opera House entertainment program (the latter for broadcast on CBS-TV Dec. 27), plus parties all over town.

They talked willingly enough in private, however, at affairs that not only mix stars and the politically powerful, but allow different generations of performing artists to meet, and at times, swap work stories.

Actor Laurence Fishburne, who also writes plays, might well have talked business with Edward Albee, one of America's leading playwrights and former Kennedy Center honoree seated at an adjoining table Saturday noon.

Mr. Eastwood, looking so hearty he could "make our day" for another dozen years, spoke modestly at the State Department of his enduring relationship with the movie-going public.

"I've been around for 47 years," Mr. Eastwood said. "It's nice to still be around."

The District's political contingent also was well represented, with D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and Bill Frist, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle.

Black Crowes' lead singer Chris Robinson said his band plans to include Mr. Berry's "I'm Talking About You," on its next album.

"He's such an amazing lyricist. Even today, you hear the song 'Maybellene,' and it's really complicated. We're not gonna cover that one," he said, smiling.

In order for a rock 'n' roller to cut his or her teeth in the field, "You have to really know what he did … Bob Dylan knew what Chuck Berry did," he said.

Mr. Domingo, whose broad smile seemed constant, called the Kennedy Center recognition "the greatest honor you can receive in the U.S.

"I was here the first time [in 1978], as a performer," he remembered.

Composer Marvin Hamlisch, who teased that he taught Mr. Berry his duck walk strut, compared the guitarist to some of American music's immortals.

"I'm as proud of Chuck Berry as I am of Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein," Mr. Hamlisch said.

Saturday's dinner boasted more celebrities than a skein of L.A. film premieres: Morgan Freeman, Dennis Hopper, Glenn Close, Nora Ephron, Sam Waterston, Tom Skerritt, Sydney Pollack and Michael York were some of the artists on hand.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright led the toasts. Diva Leontyne Price, who was honored in 1980, sang a comical, heartfelt ode to Mr. Domingo that stunned and delighted the audience in equal measure.

Even Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, said prior to yesterday's performance that he stayed away from the Sunday talk shows: "This is one of the great nights in Washington … I've talked enough this week." Outgoing Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen stood nearby with wife Janet Langhart as Lynda Carter chatted up Hadassah Lieberman.

"More celebrities than usual," exclaimed Washington businessman Melvin Estrin, seated happily in the first row of the Opera House before an obviously hurting Walter Cronkite, his right foot in a black "space shoe" from a tendon injury, limped out to the podium to a standing ovation from the crowd shortly before 8 p.m. to do master of ceremonies honors for the 23rd year in a row.

Nostalgia was the order of the night. Titular host President Bill Clinton, seated in the presidential box with wife Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter Chelsea, both women in dark blue gowns, was seen on videotape from the White House an hour earlier saying that "You may find people who do this night better in the future, but you will never find anybody who loves it as much [as I do]."

He was saluted by the entire cast and the audience at the end of the program with sustained cheers and applause that only ended when the family left the box.

Mr. Berry, whose life story was the finale among the five, roused the crowd to a hand-clapping fervor in spontaneous appreciation for his groundbreaking talent. He was heard telling people during the weekend that he plans to produce a new album.

Introducer Goldie Hawn, luminous in an apricot chiffon Versace gown, called him "the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll" and then couldn't help breaking into dance mode on stage with Mr. Baryshnikov's introducer Gregory Hines while Little Richard electrified the assembly in his yellow and blue sequin suit and gold high heel shoes.

An obviously moved Mr. Berry stretched out his arms to one and all, following a performance by the Black Crowes and the B-52's music groups.

The days and hours were full of contrasting sights and personalities.

Mr. Domingo, for example, sat in the Opera House next to Mr. Berry, American's rock 'n' roll king. The famously mobile Mr. Baryshnikov, accompanied by daughter Aleksandra, sat virtually motionless throughout, roused briefly by the sight of a pantheon of American dance stars and former Kennedy Center honorees hailing him from the stage after a performance by Mark Morris' troupe.

Broadway's "Blast" (which opens at the Kennedy Center on Dec. 19) led off the show — 12 male drummers in black and white — followed by Miss Close, in black all the way to her fingertips, who hailed Miss Lansbury's film and theatrical talent, praising her "incredibly fertile imagination … no one yet has yet found a part she couldn't play."

Actor Donald Sutherland took on Mr. Eastwood ("sublimely passionate and his passion is sublimely cool") with actor-comedian Don Rickles ribbing his friend in turn with barbs delivered borsht belt circuit style, breaking the solemnity of the occasion.

Former honoree Beverly Sills joked of the peripatetic Mr. Domingo that he was "looking for a full-time job" before a performance by two outstanding winners of Mr. Domingo's Operalia competition and the appearance of nearly all of Washington Opera's employees, chorus members and supernumeraries.

"This year marks both an end and a beginning," remarked Kennedy Center Chairman Jim Johnson, asking the crowd to acknowledge outgoing President Lawrence Wilker and incoming President Michael Kaiser. (At lunch, during Mr. Johnson's recital of future projects at the center, the loudest applause was for his announcement promising "900 new parking spaces.")

"And that's the way it is," as Mr. Cronkite said in his trademark farewell. But not before a gala dinner for 1,850 people in the foyer that went on until well past 1 a.m.

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