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Kennedy Center Honors
Annual American honor in the performing arts
Kennedy Center Honors
Logotype symbolizing "a spectrum of many skills within the performing arts"
The Kennedy Center Honors is an annual honor given to those in the performing arts for their lifetime of contributions to American culture. The honors have been presented annually since 1978, culminating each December in a star-studded gala celebrating the honorees in the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, D.C.
George Stevens Jr. created the Kennedy Center Honors with Nick Vanoff and produced the first gala in 1978. He was the producer and co-writer through the 2014 awards, after which he sold the production rights to the Kennedy Center.
The Kennedy Center Honors started in 1977, after that year's 10th-anniversary White House reception and Kennedy Center program for the American Film Institute (AFI). Roger L. Stevens, the founding chairman of the Kennedy Center, asked George Stevens Jr. (no relation), the founding director of the AFI, to hold an event for the Center. George asked Isaac Stern to become involved, and then pitched the idea to the television network CBS, who bought it. With the announcement of the first honors event and honorees, CBS vice president for specials Bernie Sofronski stated:
George [Stevens] came to us with this. What turned us on is that this is the only show of its kind. In Europe and most countries, they have ways of honoring their actors and their athletes. England has its command performances for the queen. We see this as a national honoring of people who have contributed to society, not someone who happens to have a pop record hit at the moment ... Our intention is not to do just another award show. We're going to make an effort in terms of a real special.
Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry Entertainment were selected as Executive Producers of the 38th annual Kennedy Center Honors (2015) after George Stevens Jr. stepped down.
This is one of the few awards shows that does not air live (with the exception of closed-circuit venues), but an edited version lasting approximately two hours is normally televised on CBS after Christmas. Normally, the show has been aired between Christmas and New Year's on CBS television, but, in a departure from this tradition, The 2019 Kennedy Center Honors aired on regular television in early December and was later made available on CBS All Access.
It has since been announced that the 2020 edition will be postponed and rescheduled for March 2021, due to the current COVID-19 crisis.
Honoree recommendations are accepted from the general public, and the Kennedy Center initiated a Special Honors Advisory Committee, which comprises two members of the Board of Trustees as well as past honorees and distinguished artists. The Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees selects the honoree recipients based on excellence in music, dance, theater, opera, motion pictures or television. The selections are typically announced sometime between July and September.
The invitation-only weekend-long ceremony includes the Chairman's Luncheon, State Department dinner, White House reception, and the Honors gala performances and supper.
Surrounded by the Honorees, the luncheon is held on Saturday at the Kennedy Center, with a welcoming speech by the Chairman of the Board of Trustees. At that evening's reception and dinner at the State Department, presided over by the Secretary of State, the Honorees are introduced and the Honors medallions are presented by the Chairman of the Board. The wide rainbow-colored ribbon then hung around the necks of the recipients, and prominently noticeable when the events are televised, symbolizes "a spectrum of many skills within the performing arts" according to creator Ivan Chermayeff.
On Sunday, there is an early-evening White House reception, traditionally hosted by the President of the United States and the First Lady, followed by the Honors gala performance at the Kennedy Center and supper.
For the 2015 gala performance, President Barack Obama did attend after addressing the nation in a live telecast. Prior to 2017, there had been four occasions where the President did not attend the gala performances: President Jimmy Carter did not attend the December 1979 gala performance during the hostage crisis, President George H.W. Bush did not attend in December 1989 and President Bill Clinton did not attend in 1994.
On August 19, 2017, the White House announced that President Donald Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, had decided not to participate in events honoring recipients of the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors awards to "allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distraction." President and Mrs. Trump did not attend the 2017 ceremony, held on December 3, 2017. Caroline Kennedy was the host and presented the honorees. The traditional dinner at the State Department on the Saturday evening before the ceremony was hosted by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the White House reception was canceled. Donald and Melania Trump also did not attend the 2018 or 2019 events.
Prospective honorees who declined, canceled, or postponed
Pianist Vladimir Horowitz was to be an honoree, but the selection committee withdrew the offer when Horowitz conditioned his acceptance on being honored alone and at 4 in the afternoon.
Actress Katharine Hepburn declined the committee's first offer, though she relented in 1990.
Doris Day repeatedly turned down the honor because her fear of flying prevented her from attending the ceremony.
When considering Irving Berlin for the 1987 awards because of criticism for overlooking him, the Center was informed that Berlin wanted to be honored only if he surpassed his 100th birthday (which would not be until May 1988). Also, he was in failing health, used a wheelchair following a series of strokes and could not attend a public event. The Center instead chose to pay special tribute to him at the 1987 Gala. He died in 1989.
Paul McCartney was selected as an honoree in 2002, but was unable to attend because of an "inescapable personal obligation," his cousin's previously planned wedding. After initially saying that McCartney's award would be postponed until the following year, the Kennedy Center announced in August 2003 that "Paul McCartney will not be receiving a Kennedy Center Honor." McCartney later became a 2010 honoree.
Mel Brooks has stated that he refused the honor when George W. Bush was in office, due to his distaste for Bush's Iraq policy, but Brooks was an honoree in 2009, the first year Barack Obama was President.
In November 2015, one month before the actual ceremony, the Eagles postponed their honors until the following year because Glenn Frey had intestinal problems that required major surgery and a long recovery period. Despite their absence, they were still honored in 2015 via a performance of "Desperado" by country singer Miranda Lambert. Frey died on January 18, 2016, though the Center made him and the three surviving members 2016 honorees.
In 2017, Norman Lear announced that he would accept the honors, but would boycott the White House ceremony because of his opposition to President Donald Trump, citing Trump's proposal to end the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. Lear did attend the 2017 events and ceremony, but Donald and Melania Trump were not present, becoming the first U.S. presidential couple to skip the event, in order "to allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distraction".
^Gamarekian, Barbara (December 3, 1979). "Kennedy Center Honors Five for Life Achievements in Arts: Audience of Over 2,000 'She Led a Revolt' White House Reception". The New York Times. p. C14. Mrs. Carter: 'As you know President Carter has had to cancel his public appearances.'