|Kennedy Center Honors|
|Awarded for||Lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts.|
|Presented by||Board of Trustees of the Kennedy Center|
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 the five honorees in the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, D.C. While the awards are primarily given to individuals, it has 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, 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:
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. 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. There was no formal host in 2017, although Caroline Kennedy delivered an introduction. In 2018 and mid-2021, Gloria Estefan hosted and in 2019, LL Cool J hosted.
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. 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 and eventually held between May 17 and May 22, 2021, and the edited broadcast aired on June 6, 2021.
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, the 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 Obama attended 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.
In 2017, President Trump and his wife 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." The 2017 ceremony was held on December 3, 2017, without them and 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.
Two hundred forty-eight Kennedy Center Honors have been awarded as of 2021. One award, given to stand-up comedian and actor Bill Cosby in 1998, was rescinded in 2018, following a sexual assault conviction. 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.
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.
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, although 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 chose instead 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 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. 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. He was honored 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, although the center made him and the three surviving members 2016 honorees.
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. 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".
Mrs. Carter: 'As you know President Carter has had to cancel his public appearances.'