- The Washington Times - Monday, December 9, 2002

The Kennedy Center last night held its 25th annual Honors gala, celebrating the achievements of screen stars James Earl Jones and Elizabeth Taylor, singer-songwriter Paul Simon, conductor James Levine and dancer-actress Chita Rivera.
The gala performance, held in the center's Opera House, was the finale of a weekend celebration that began Saturday night with a State Department dinner in which the artists received their honors and concluded last night with a supper dance in the center's Grand Foyer.
Legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite emceed the gala, a diverse production of video montages, spoken tributes, and music and dance numbers.
Earlier on Sunday, President Bush and first lady Laura held a reception for the honorees and their guests in the East Room of the White House.
"This year, we brought together in one room a legend of Broadway, the conductor of the Met, the composer of 'Mrs. Robinson,' the face of Cleopatra and the voice of Darth Vader," President Bush said.
With many of the world's artistic elite in attendance, the event was the height of Washington's cultural season.
At the State Department building Saturday night, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell played host at the cocktail reception and dinner.
Mr. Powell led the traditional after-dinner toast with a tribute to Mr. Jones, an old friend and someone whom many people confuse Mr. Powell for at times.
"They wanted to make a movie of his life, but they put it off. I wasn't available," Mr. Powell said to raucous laughter and a body-rattling giggle from the honoree himself.
"He has the heart of a lion and the voice to match," Mr. Powell said, an aside to the actor's vocal work in Disney's "The Lion King."
Mr. Jones, 71, known for his deep bass voice as much as for his acting, was born in Arkabutla, Miss., and was afflicted by a severe stutter as a child. He found a cure through acting.
Actor Sidney Poitier paid tribute to Mr. Jones: "Jimmy, as I look across the lights to you, seated in that place of honor, I am moved by the power of your artistry and by the professional courage that has brought you to this place, this night."
Mr. Jones made his film debut in the Stanley Kubrick-directed "Dr. Strangelove" and turned in a memorable performances as a downtrodden coal miner in "Matewan" and a disenchanted writer in the baseball movie "Field of Dreams."
The two-time Tony Award-winning actor, who performed on stage as Shakespeare's Othello on Broadway and as boxer Jack Johnson in "The Great White Hope," is perhaps best known as the voice of Darth Vader, the faceless, black-clad villain of the original "Star Wars" trilogy.
"I regard you as a force of nature, the real deal, an actor's actor," said actor Kelsey Grammer.
Miss Taylor, 70, is one of the most celebrated actresses alive, emerging in the 1940s from an assembly-line Hollywood studio system that would collapse with the advent of television.
"[Her performances] form a road map of the high peaks and style and magnificence of American movies," said actor John Travolta of Miss Taylor.
Born in London to American parents, Miss Taylor was a movie star before she reached her teens, starring at age 12 in 1944's "National Velvet."
Miss Taylor won two Best Actress Oscars, one for her performance in "Butterfield 8" in 1960 and a second for her role as the alcohol-addled Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in 1966.
She is infamous for her serial marriages eight, at last count and has been an aggressive AIDS activist, credited with raising more than $100 million to combat the disease.
Mr. Simon, 61, was slated to receive a Kennedy Center Honor after Paul McCartney announced he couldn't attend the because it clashed with his niece's wedding.
Born in Newark, N.J., to a Hungarian-Jewish family and raised by musically inclined parents, Mr. Simon began writing songs as a teenager and in 1964 released his first album with high school pal Art Garfunkel.
The pair, famous for the hit "Sounds of Silence," split in the early '70s, after which Mr. Simon embarked on a successful solo career. His 1986 recording "Graceland," which incorporated South African rhythms and instrumentation, earned him an Album of the Year Grammy.
Mr. Levine, 59, has conducted more than 2,000 performances of 75 operas since debuting at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1971. Born in Cincinnati, he made his concert debut as a pianist at 10 and directed his first opera, Charles Gounod's "Faust," eight years later.
Now the director of the Munich Philharmonic, Mr. Levine will assume the directorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2004.
At the State Department dinner Saturday, National Symphony Orchestra Pops director Marvin Hamlisch said Mr. Levine revolutionized the role of orchestral work in modern operas.
"He came around at a time when the opera orchestra wasn't considered the important part of the evening," Mr. Hamlisch said. "By putting an emphasis on the orchestra, the whole level became unique."
Miss Rivera, 69, was born in the District and attended George Balanchine's School of American Ballet.
She earned her first Broadway role in 1952 as the lead dancer in "Call Me Madam."
Five years later, Miss Rivera won the role of a lifetime in the famous "West Side Story" production, dancing and singing in the role of Anita.
"Very simply, there was then and is now nobody who can dance, sing and act like Chita Rivera," said Harold Prince, the producer of original Broadway hit.
The Honors recipients, chosen by the Kennedy Center's national artists committee, are recognized for their contribution to American culture through the performing arts. The awards are not designated by category, and there is no competitive process to select each year's recipients.
Generally, the committee produces a balanced group of actors, musicians, singers and dancers. Past honorees include Mikhail Baryshnikov, Bob Dylan, Jack Nicholson and Neil Simon.
This year's Honors gala will be broadcast Dec. 27 at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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