Kennedy Center Honors
Logotype symbolizing "a spectrum of many skills within the performing arts"
Awarded forLifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts.
CountryUnited States
Presented byBoard of Trustees of the Kennedy Center
First awarded1978 Edit this at Wikidata
The 2006 honorees at the Kennedy Center on December 6, 2006, with President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush; from left, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Steven Spielberg, Dolly Parton, Zubin Mehta, Smokey Robinson, Vice President Dick Cheney and Second Lady Lynne Cheney.

The Kennedy Center Honors are annual honors given to those in the performing arts for their lifetime of contributions to American culture. They have been presented annually since 1978, culminating each December in a gala celebrating five honorees in the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, D.C.[1] While the awards are primarily given to individuals, they have occasionally been given to couples or musical groups, as well as to one Broadway musical and one television show.


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,[2] 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. Stevens Jr. asked Isaac Stern to become involved, and then pitched the idea to the television network CBS, who bought it. With the first honors event and honorees, CBS vice president for specials, Bernie Sofronski, stated:[3][4]

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.

The first host was Leonard Bernstein in 1978, followed by Eric Sevareid in 1979 (with Gene Kelly closing it) and Beverly Sills in 1980. Walter Cronkite hosted from 1981 to 2002 and Caroline Kennedy hosted from 2003 to 2012. Glenn Close hosted in 2013 and Stephen Colbert hosted from 2014 to 2016.[5][6] Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry Entertainment were the Executive Producers of the 38th annual Kennedy Center Honors (2015) after George Stevens Jr. stepped down.[7] There was no formal host in 2017, although Caroline Kennedy delivered an introduction. In 2018, mid-2021, and 2023 Gloria Estefan hosted, LL Cool J hosted in 2019, and David Letterman hosted in late 2021. There was no formal host in 2022, though several former honorees delivered an introduction.

This awards show 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.[8][9] 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. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 edition was postponed[10] and eventually held between May 17 and May 22, 2021, and the edited broadcast aired on June 6, 2021.[11]

Selection process

Honoree recommendations are accepted from the general public,[12] 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.[13] The selections are typically announced sometime between July and September.


The invitation-only, weekend-long ceremony includes the Chairman's Luncheon, the State Department dinner, White House reception, and the Honors gala performances and supper.

The Chairman's Luncheon is held on Saturday at the Kennedy Center. Surrounded by the Honorees, the chairman of the board of trustees launches the event with a welcoming speech. 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.[13] 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.[14]

On Sunday, there is an early-evening White House reception,[15] 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.

Prior to 2017, there had been three occasions in which the president did not attend the gala performance. President Jimmy Carter did not attend in 1979 during the Iran hostage crisis; First Lady Rosalynn Carter served as his surrogate.[16] President George H. W. Bush was on a trip to Brussels and could not attend in 1989; First Lady Barbara Bush served as his surrogate.[17] President Bill Clinton was on a trip to Budapest and could not attend in 1994; First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton served as his surrogate.[18]

For the 2015 gala performance, President Barack Obama joined First Lady Michelle Obama late after addressing the nation in a live telecast from the White House.[19]

In 2017, President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump 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."[20] The 2017 ceremony was held on December 3, 2017 without them, marking the first time that neither the president nor the first lady attended; 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.[21] Donald and Melania Trump also did not participate in any of the events of the 2018 or 2019 editions.[22]

Because of changes imposed on the delayed and abbreviated 2020 edition due to the COVID-19 pandemic, President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden welcomed that year's Honorees to the White House in May 2021 but did not attend any other events.

For the 2021 edition, Joe and Jill Biden attended the gala performance on December 5, 2021, marking the first time since 2016 that a sitting president and first lady had attended the event.[23]


2005 Kennedy Center Honorees Julie Harris, Robert Redford, Tina Turner, Suzanne Farrell and Tony Bennett with President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, in the Blue Room at the White House, December 4, 2005.
The surviving members of Led Zeppelin were honored in 2012 and are pictured here with President Barack Obama.
President Joe Biden giving a speech to the 2021 honorees Justino Díaz, Lorne Michaels, Bette Midler, Berry Gordy, and Joni Mitchell.

Two hundred forty-eight Kennedy Center Honors have been awarded as of 2022.[24] One award, given to stand-up comedian and actor Bill Cosby in 1998, was rescinded in 2018, following a sexual assault conviction.[25] The vast majority have been bestowed on individuals. On twelve occasions since 1985, awards have been presented to duos or groups, including three married couples who were actors: Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy; Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; and Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Dancers The Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold were honored, along with three musical theater songwriting duos: Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and John Kander and Fred Ebb. Members of five music groups were awarded: Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who; John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin; Don Henley, Timothy B. Schmit, Joe Walsh and (posthumously) Glenn Frey of the Eagles; Philip Bailey, Verdine White, Ralph Johnson and (posthumously) Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire; and Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. of U2.

In 2018, the award for "trailblazing creators of a transformative work that defies category" was created and presented at the annual ceremony to the creators of the musical Hamilton: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Andy Blankenbuehler and Alex Lacamoire.[26]

The 2019 honorees included, for the first time, a television program; the co-founders of Sesame Street, Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, accepted the Kennedy Center Honors on behalf of all of the creators.[27]





Kennedy Center honorees 2009 Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck, Grace Bumbry, Robert De Niro, and Bruce Springsteen, with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in the Blue Room, White House, December 6, 2009.


The 2019 honorees Michael Tilson Thomas, Earth, Wind & Fire, Linda Ronstadt, Sally Field and Sesame Street with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at far left


The 2022 honorees George Clooney, Amy Grant, Gladys Knight, Tania León, and U2 with Secretary of State Antony Blinken at far left

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.[3]

Actress Katharine Hepburn declined the committee's first offer, although she relented in 1990.[3]

Doris Day repeatedly turned down the honor because her fear of flying prevented her from attending the ceremony.[43]

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). He was also in failing health, using a wheelchair following a series of strokes, and could not attend a public event. The Center chose instead to pay special tribute to him at the 1987 Gala. He died in 1989.[44]

Paul McCartney was selected as an honoree in 2002, but was unable to attend due to 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 did not award McCartney in 2003.[45] McCartney later became a 2010 honoree.[46]

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. He was honored in 2009, the first year Barack Obama was president.[47][48]

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.[36] 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, although the center made him and the three surviving members 2016 honorees.[49][35]

In 2017, Norman Lear accepted the honor, but boycotted the White House ceremony because of his opposition to President Donald Trump, citing Trump's proposal to end the National Endowments for the Humanities and for the Arts.[50] 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".[21]

See also


  1. ^ "About the Honors". John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Archived from the original on May 16, 2008. Retrieved October 4, 2015.
  2. ^ Harris, Paul (December 7, 2014). "George Stevens Jr. to End 37-Year Run as Kennedy Center Honors Producer". Variety.
  3. ^ a b c Crews, Chip (December 27, 2005). "The Honors, Take 2". The Washington Post.
  4. ^ Shales, Tom (September 28, 1978). "Crowning America's Culture Superstars". The Washington Post. p. B1.
  5. ^ McGlone, Peggy (November 19, 2014). "Stephen Colbert Will Host 37th Annual Kennedy Center Honors". The Washington Post.
  6. ^ Park, Andrea (December 27, 2016). "Kennedy Center Honors 2016". CBS News.
  7. ^ "Tony Awards Team Chosen". The Washington Post. May 5, 2015.
  8. ^ "Kennedy Center Honors 2017: How to Watch Online and on TV, Start Time and Pre-Show". CBS News. December 26, 2017.
  9. ^ "2017 Honors" (PDF) (Press release). John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. December 3, 2017.
  10. ^ "Kennedy Center Cancels Most Previously Scheduled Performances Through the End of 2020 Due to COVID-19" (Press release). Washington, District of Columbia: John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. June 23, 2020. Retrieved June 23, 2020.
  11. ^ "The Kennedy Center Honors". Kennedy Center. Retrieved May 23, 2021.
  12. ^ "Honors". John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
  13. ^ a b "Eagles, Carole King, George Lucas, Rita Moreno, Seiji Ozawa and Cicely Tyson to Receive 38th Annual Kennedy Center Honors" (PDF) (Press release). John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. July 15, 2015.
  14. ^ Chermayeff, Ivan (December 7, 2008). "Q& A: Ivan Chermayeff, Designer of the Kennedy Center Honors Medal". The Washington Post (Interview). Interviewed by Jennifer Frey.
  15. ^ "A Vision in Blue". Mrs. O. December 4, 2011. Retrieved December 30, 2015.
  16. ^ 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.'
  17. ^ Silvassy, Kathleen (December 4, 1989). "Kennedy Center Honors: dazzling surprises". UPI.
  18. ^ Pareles, John (December 25, 1994). "Performers Receive Kennedy Center Awards". Sun-Sentinel. Fort Lauderdale.
  19. ^ McGlone, Peggy (December 6, 2015). "President Obama Will Be Late to Kennedy Center Honors Performance". The Washington Post.
  20. ^ "Trump to Skip Kennedy Center Arts Award". The Washington Post. August 19, 2017. Archived from the original on November 3, 2018.
  21. ^ a b McGlone, Peggy (December 3, 2017). "At the Kennedy Center Honors, Plenty of Politics Make Up for Trump's Playing Hooky". The Washington Post.
  22. ^ Harris, Paul (December 9, 2019). "Heartfelt Tributes Trump Politics at Kennedy Center Honors". Variety. Retrieved December 18, 2019.
  23. ^ McGlone, Peggy (December 1, 2021). "The Bidens will attend Sunday's Kennedy Center Honors, restoring a tradition that Trump rejected". The Washington Post. Retrieved December 5, 2022.
  24. ^ "History of the Kennedy Center Honors: Past Honorees". Retrieved December 5, 2022.
  25. ^ Holloway, Daniel (May 8, 2018). "Bill Cosby's Kennedy Center Honors, Mark Twain Prize Revoked". Variety. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  26. ^ a b Gans, Andrew (July 25, 2018). "Hamilton Creators Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Andy Blankenbuehler, Alex Lacamoire Will Receive Special Kennedy Center Honors". Playbill.
  27. ^ a b Gans, Andrew (July 18, 2019). "Sally Field and Linda Ronstadt Among 2019 Kennedy Center Honorees". Playbill.
  28. ^ "Kennedy Center rescinds Bill Cosby's Honors and Twain awards". The Washington Post. May 7, 2018.
  29. ^ "Bill Cosby's sex assault conviction overturned by court". CTV News. The Associated Press. June 30, 2021. Retrieved June 30, 2021.
  30. ^ "Barbara Cook, Neil Diamond, Yo-Yo Ma, Sonny Rollins & Meryl Streep to Receive 34th Annual Kennedy Center Honors". John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Retrieved September 6, 2011.
  31. ^ Gans, Andrew (September 12, 2012). "Dustin Hoffman, David Letterman, Natalia Makarova, Buddy Guy, Led Zeppelin Are Kennedy Center Honorees". Playbill. Archived from the original on November 9, 2012.
  32. ^ Gans, Andrew (September 12, 2013). "Martina Arroyo, Herbie Hancock, Billy Joel, Shirley MacLaine and Carlos Santana Are 2013 Kennedy Center Honorees". Playbill. Archived from the original on October 21, 2013.
  33. ^ Harris, Paul (September 4, 2014). "Tom Hanks, Lily Tomlin, Sting to Receive Kennedy Center Honors". Variety. Retrieved September 4, 2014.
  34. ^ Viagas, Robert (July 15, 2015). "Carole King, Cicely Tyson, Rita Moreno and More Named 2015 Kennedy Center Honorees". Playbill.
  35. ^ a b "Martha Argerich, Eagles, Al Pacino, Mavis Staples, James Taylor To Receive 39th Annual Kennedy Center Honors" (PDF) (Press release). John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. June 23, 2016. Retrieved July 25, 2016.
  36. ^ a b Clark, Cindy (November 4, 2015). "Kennedy Center Postpones Honors to Eagles". USA Today.
  37. ^ Hipes, Patrick (June 23, 2016). "Kennedy Center Honors: Al Pacino, Eagles, James Taylor & More". Deadline Hollywood.
  38. ^ Gans, Andrew. "Audra McDonald, Cynthia Erivo, more perform on 42nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors broadcast December 15". Playbill. Retrieved September 24, 2022.
  39. ^ "Announcing the 43rd Kennedy Center Honorees". January 13, 2021. Retrieved January 16, 2021.
  40. ^ Gans, Andrew (July 21, 2021). "Bette Midler, Berry Gordy, Joni Mitchell, More Among 44th Annual Kennedy Center Honorees". Playbill. Retrieved July 21, 2021.
  41. ^ Ulaby, Neda (July 21, 2022). "George Clooney and Gladys Knight are among the 2022 Kennedy Center honorees". NPR. Retrieved July 21, 2022.
  42. ^ Ulaby, Neda (July 21, 2022). "Queen Latifah and Billy Crystal are among the 2023 Kennedy Center honorees". NPR.
  43. ^ Pollock, Allen. "About Doris".
  44. ^ Molotsky, Irvin (December 7, 1987). "Five Receive Kennedy Center Honors for Artistic Contributions". The New York Times.
  45. ^ "The Kennedy Center Honors: This Year's Bid for Glamour". The New York Times. August 6, 2003.
  46. ^ Trescott, Jacqueline (September 7, 2010). "Oprah Winfrey Among Five Recipients of 2010 Kennedy Center Honors". The Washington Post.
  47. ^ "Mel Brooks on His New Box Set and the 1 Million Great Stories that Come with It". Vulture. November 13, 2012.
  48. ^ "Mel Brooks: 'I'm An EGOT; I Don't Need Any More'". NPR. Fresh Air. May 20, 2013.
  49. ^ Morton, Victor (January 18, 2016). "Glenn Frey, Eagles guitarist, dies at 67". The Washington Times. Retrieved January 18, 2016.
  50. ^ Held, Amy (August 5, 2017). "Norman Lear, Kennedy Center Honoree, To Skip White House Reception In Protest". The Two-way. NPR. Retrieved July 18, 2019.