- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2002

"Sir Paul" the erstwhile Beatle Paul McCartney and famed violet-eyed screen legend Elizabeth Taylor head up the Kennedy Center Honors class of 2002. Both are British-born entertainers who, like the three others on the list, are cited for their contributions to American performing arts.

The other honorees are conductor James Levine, actor James Earl Jones and dancer-actress Chita Rivera. The announcement was made Tuesday by the Kennedy Center, four months ahead of the award ceremonies that will take place Dec. 7 and 8.

The 25th annual awards gala, which is likely to be among the most lucrative in the center's history, will be broadcast on CBS as a two-hour prime-time special during Christmas week; the time and date are to be announced later.

"For the unique and extremely valuable contributions they have made to the cultural life of our nation," Kennedy Center Chairman James A. Johnson said in a prepared statement, "we honor an actor (Mr. Jones) whose extraordinary range and power have made him an American institution, a brilliant musician (Mr. Levine) who for three decades has led one of the world's foremost opera companies to unsurpassed artistic excellence, one of the most prolific and influential songwriters (Mr. McCartney) of our era, a musical theater star (Miss Rivera) of the highest magnitude and a luminous film actress (Miss Taylor) who for nearly 60 years has been a Hollywood icon treasured by millions throughout the world."

The honorees' ages range from 59 (Mr. Levine) to 71 (Mr. Jones). Typically, the performers chosen by the Kennedy Center's board of trustees are beyond the peak achievements of their careers, but often they remain active enough to continue making headlines. That certainly is the case this year.

Mr. McCartney's days as the "cute Beatle" would appear to be enough to secure his selection. Yet the singer-songwriter emerged from the Beatles' shadow to forge an enduring career both as a hit-making soloist and as the leader of Wings. True to his rock 'n' roll roots, he has been touring again recently in sold-out venues. Perhaps less well-known among his accomplishments has been his creative work in symphonic poems.

Mr. Jones' rumbling baritone carries so much weight that it alone is arguably the most recognizable sound in the whole "Star Wars" galaxy. The actor's role as that franchise's villainous Darth Vader, however, is but one in a challenging career that includes two Tony Awards and a host of memorable screen roles. Notable stage portrayals include Othello and Paul Robeson and a number of parts in plays by August Wilson and Athol Fugard. Proving his versatility, he also has appeared regularly in daytime soap operas.

"Several things onstage where it worked include 'The Great White Hope,' 'Fences' and 'Of Mice and Men,' Mr. Jones said yesterday in a brief telephone interview. "I'm still looking for the movie role that will be my legacy." The ones he cherishes most, he said, "nobody saw independent movies that were satisfying."

His great bass baritone will be publicly silent during the December event. "It's such a great party every segment in society and government attends," an elated Mr. Jones noted. He has been there before, he recalled, most notably in 1995 on behalf of his friend Sidney Poitier. "We honorees are with the president, and we aren't allowed to say anything. We just shut up and sit there and listen."

The ageless Miss Rivera actually a very vital 69 is a two-time Tony Award winner as well and has wowed theatrical audiences for decades with her work in "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "West Side Story" and "Chicago." The triple-threat performer actress, singer and dancer was born in Washington, the daughter of a Puerto Rican father who was a member of the U.S. Navy Band and a mother who became widowed and worked as a government clerk.

Longevity also marks Mr. Levine's conducting repertoire. The musician, the first recipient of the annual cultural award of New York City, is best known for his transcendent work with the Metropolitan Opera. Presently director of the Munich Philharmonic, he is scheduled to take on the very prestigious post of director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2004.

And who embodies our image of a leading lady better than Miss Taylor, whose films include "National Velvet," "Giant," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"? A film actress since 1943, she made her Broadway debut in 1981 in Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes," winning a Tony Award nomination. She is almost equally renowned as a humanitarian on behalf AIDS research.

The Kennedy Center Honors will be bestowed upon the Fab Five on Dec. 7 at a State Department dinner hosted by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. The president and the first lady will honor the quintet the following night at a White House reception before the televised show in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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