- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

“I am here tonight because the most trusted man in America has laryngitis, and that’s the way it is,” Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg said last night upon taking the stage of the Kennedy Center’s opera house to the thunderous applause of the surprised audience for the annual Kennedy Center honors award show.

Windy, wet and frigid weather couldn’t stop the Kennedy Center from hosting its annual honors celebration over the weekend, but laryngitis sidelined former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, traditional master of ceremonies of the awards gala. Mrs. Kennedy Schlossberg stepped in for Mr. Cronkite just hours before the taping of the program was to begin.

Otherwise, the two-day festival — the institution’s 26th — went off without a hitch, as by now the rituals of the program are well set.

In her introduction, Mrs. Kennedy Schlossberg hailed the five Kennedy Center honorees for their contributions to American cultural life:

“Loretta Lynn, a girl from Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, who used her life to transform country music and who is still proud to be a ‘coal miner’s daughter’; Mike Nichols, a boy from Berlin, Germany, whose transforming wit made him an artistic ‘Angel in America’; James Brown, a son of the South who raised himself from a one-room shack to inhabit the highest mansions of pop music as the one and only ‘Godfather of Soul’; Carol Burnett, a girl who grew up on the edge of Hollywood and moved herself to center stage as America’s premier funny girl and who makes us ‘so glad we’ve had this time together’; Itzhak Perlman, a prodigy from Tel Aviv, Israel, whose artistry and commitment have made him America’s top fiddle.”

In the second big surprise of the evening, former President George Bush appeared on stage to pay tribute to “family friend” Miss Lynn. “What Norman Rockwell did for painting, Loretta Lynn did for voice and guitar,” he said. He also poked fun at his own lack of innate musical talent and tweaked his son, the current president, for being “a couple of quarts low on musical talent also.”

Over the course of the weekend, the honorees were toasted and sometimes mildly roasted by celebrity peers and professionals of every stripe.

The festivities began Saturday afternoon with a trustees lunch in the Kennedy Center, followed in the evening with a dinner and formal presentation of medallions by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell at the State Department.

Yesterday, President Bush and first lady Laura Bush held a White House reception. “They are three of the most recognized musicians in the world, but they are not known to have ever performed together,” said the president, referring to the musical honorees Mr. Perlman, Mr. Brown and Miss Lynn. Then, after a pause for effect, he cracked, “The sight of it would be truly a picture to remember.”

In the evening, the culminating honors gala was taped in the newly renovated Kennedy Center Opera House for a Dec. 26 broadcast on CBS.

As outgoing center Chairman Jim Johnson noted at Saturday’s lunch, the five honorees mostly remain silent throughout: “There is no requirement but to eat quite often.”

And, of course, to smile, smile, smile.

At the luncheon, Mr. Johnson — whose term ends officially Jan. 20 — said he is “actually not a great expert on the performing arts.” He gave the credit instead to his wife, Maxine Isaacs.

Guests endured an unusually cold Saturday evening to fete the fabulous five at this year’s honors soiree at the State Department. Former honorees attending included Julie Andrews (2001), Chita Rivera (2002) and Edward Villella (1997). “It’s charming and chummy — like an alumni club,” said Mr. Villella, who attends every year.

Lyle Lovett, the rooster-haired crooner, called Miss Lynn a “strong female voice” during the cocktail reception prior to the dinner.

“When she sings, it’s all from the heart, it’s all real,” he said before Miss Lynn herself approached him in her cherry-red dress, fixin’ for a big hug.

Country crossover superstar Garth Brooks offered his praise, too.

“I just like the fact that she’s never had to change to fit in. She’s as far from fitting in as she can be,” said Mr. Brooks, clad in a black cowboy hat and tuxedo tails and accompanied by the voluptuous songbird Trisha Yearwood.

Country singer Reba McEntire, who charmed onlookers wherever she went, said the first albums she ever bought were from Dolly Parton and Miss Lynn.

“They helped me to figure out what route to take,” Miss McEntire said. “[Miss Lynn] was honestly blunt, and she’s still like that today. The ladies of country music owe so much to her.”

Saturday night’s soiree made for some rather incongruous scenes, mostly involving rapper LL Cool J.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams held court with the rap star and actor, a sight that may boost the politico’s approval ratings with the city’s younger set. Before the night was through, the rapper was seen exchanging a shoulder-bump salute with the secretary of state and swapping pleasantries with a delighted Carol Brady, a k a Florence Henderson.

LL Cool J, who capped his traditional tux with a black knit cap and diamond earring, said Mr. Brown’s influence on hip-hop can’t be overstated.

“There was a time in hip-hop when you couldn’t have a career without a sample of James Brown,” the rapper said of the late 1980s. “He kept hip-hop afloat.”

During last night’s gala, Mr. Brown was hailed by actor Dan Aykroyd as “proprietor of the greatest soul, funk, rhythm and blues performing today,” and then the fireworks began: appearances by singers Brian McKnight, Anastacia, and Yolanda Adams, among others.

During the Brown segment, it seemed just about everyone ended up on his or her feet, clapping rhythmically, except for the president, who kept his presidential demeanor through the act even while his parents, seated behind him, did their best to keep the beat.

Playwright Tom Stoppard came from London to honor Mr. Nichols, and Mr. Nichols’ former stand-up comedy partner Elaine May appeared as well. Actors Candice Bergen and Meryl Streep did a verbal duet that began with Miss Streep recalling, “When Mike arrived in New York, he was just 7 years old. He knew just two English phrases: ‘I do not speak English’ and ‘Please do not kiss me.’”

Christine Baranski from “The Birdcage” joined them, as did actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Patrick Wilson from “Angels in America.” Part one of the two-part miniseries, directed by Mr. Nichols, debuted last night on HBO.

Alan Alda took to the stage after intermission to call his friend Mr. Perlman “a virtuoso with life itself. … ”

“Itzhak makes music with his soul and then he lets it into his violin. He never considered himself disabled.” Mr. Perlman lost the use of his legs to polio when he was 4.

Loving reminiscences by Miss Andrews were part of the Burnett segment. This final segment featured one of the most elaborate sets of the evening, a grand staircase that formed a backdrop for antics by Bernadette Peters, Kim Cattrall, Miss Rivera, Miss Henderson and longtime “Carol Burnett Show” regular Harvey Korman, among others.

Miss McEntire, Mr. Brooks, Miss Yearwood, Mr. Lovett and Patty Loveless all paid tribute to Miss Lynn with such familiar songs as “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl.” Also appearing was Sissy Spacek, who played the singer in the 1980 biopic “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” a role for which she won a best-actress Oscar.

Carol Burnett and James Brown led the audience in the traditional finale from the box level. Red, white and blue balloons and confetti fell from the ceiling as the U.S. Army Herald trumpets joined the cast and crew in a spirited rendition of Mr. Brown’s “Living in America.”

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