Kennedy Center Honors
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:
The first host was Leonard Bernstein in 1978, followed by Eric Sevareid in 1979 and Beverly Sills in 1980. Walter Cronkite hosted from 1981 to 2002 and Caroline Kennedy hosted from 2003 until 2012. Glenn Close hosted in 2013 and Stephen Colbert hosted from 2014 to 2016. There was no formal host in 2017, although Caroline Kennedy delivered an introduction. In 2018, Gloria Estefan hosted and in 2019, LL Cool J hosted.
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.
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.
There have been 230 recipients to date of the Kennedy Center Honors award during the Honors' 42 years (as of 2019), although the award given to Bill Cosby in 1998 was rescinded in 2018, following his sexual assault conviction. The vast majority have been bestowed on individuals. On 11 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. The dancers Fayard Nicholas and Harold Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers 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. The musicians of four 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, and Philip Bailey, Verdine White, Ralph Johnson and (posthumously) Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire.
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 Dr. Lloyd Morrisett, accepted the Kennedy Center Honors on behalf of all of the creators.
- 1978 – Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers, and Arthur Rubinstein
- 1979 – Aaron Copland, Ella Fitzgerald, Henry Fonda, Martha Graham, and Tennessee Williams
- 1980 – Leonard Bernstein, James Cagney, Agnes de Mille, Lynn Fontanne, and Leontyne Price
- 1981 – Count Basie, Cary Grant, Helen Hayes, Jerome Robbins, and Rudolf Serkin
- 1982 – George Abbott, Lillian Gish, Benny Goodman, Gene Kelly, and Eugene Ormandy
- 1983 – Katherine Dunham, Elia Kazan, Frank Sinatra, James Stewart, and Virgil Thomson
- 1984 – Lena Horne, Danny Kaye, Gian Carlo Menotti, Arthur Miller, and Isaac Stern
- 1985 – Merce Cunningham, Irene Dunne, Bob Hope, Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe, and Beverly Sills
- 1986 – Lucille Ball, Ray Charles, Hume Cronyn & Jessica Tandy, Yehudi Menuhin, and Antony Tudor
- 1987 – Perry Como, Bette Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Nathan Milstein, and Alwin Nikolais
- 1988 – Alvin Ailey, George Burns, Myrna Loy, Alexander Schneider, and Roger L. Stevens
- 1989 – Harry Belafonte, Claudette Colbert, Alexandra Danilova, Mary Martin, and William Schuman
- 1990 – Dizzy Gillespie, Katharine Hepburn, Risë Stevens, Jule Styne, and Billy Wilder
- 1991 – Roy Acuff, Betty Comden & Adolph Green, Fayard & Harold Nicholas, Gregory Peck, and Robert Shaw
- 1992 – Lionel Hampton, Paul Newman & Joanne Woodward, Ginger Rogers, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Paul Taylor
- 1993 – Johnny Carson, Arthur Mitchell, Georg Solti, Stephen Sondheim, and Marion Williams
- 1994 – Kirk Douglas, Aretha Franklin, Morton Gould, Harold Prince, and Pete Seeger
- 1995 – Jacques d'Amboise, Marilyn Horne, B.B. King, Sidney Poitier, and Neil Simon
- 1996 – Edward Albee, Benny Carter, Johnny Cash, Jack Lemmon, and Maria Tallchief
- 1997 – Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan, Charlton Heston, Jessye Norman, and Edward Villella
- 1998 – Fred Ebb & John Kander, Willie Nelson, André Previn, and Shirley Temple Black; Bill Cosby's honor was rescinded in 2018 due to sexual assault conviction
- 1999 – Victor Borge, Sean Connery, Judith Jamison, Jason Robards, and Stevie Wonder
- 2000 – Mikhail Baryshnikov, Chuck Berry, Plácido Domingo, Clint Eastwood, and Angela Lansbury
- 2001 – Julie Andrews, Van Cliburn, Quincy Jones, Jack Nicholson, and Luciano Pavarotti
- 2002 – James Earl Jones, James Levine, Chita Rivera, Paul Simon, and Elizabeth Taylor
- 2003 – James Brown, Carol Burnett, Loretta Lynn, Mike Nichols, and Itzhak Perlman
- 2004 – Warren Beatty, Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee, Elton John, Joan Sutherland, and John Williams
- 2005 – Tony Bennett, Suzanne Farrell, Julie Harris, Robert Redford, and Tina Turner
- 2006 – Andrew Lloyd Webber, Zubin Mehta, Dolly Parton, Smokey Robinson, and Steven Spielberg
- 2007 – Leon Fleisher, Steve Martin, Diana Ross, Martin Scorsese, and Brian Wilson
- 2008 – Morgan Freeman, George Jones, Barbra Streisand, Twyla Tharp, and The Who (Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey)
- 2009 – Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck, Grace Bumbry, Robert De Niro, and Bruce Springsteen
- 2010 – Merle Haggard, Jerry Herman, Bill T. Jones, Paul McCartney, and Oprah Winfrey
- 2011 – Barbara Cook, Neil Diamond, Yo-Yo Ma, Sonny Rollins, and Meryl Streep
- 2012 – Buddy Guy, Dustin Hoffman, David Letterman, Natalia Makarova, and Led Zeppelin (John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant)
- 2013 – Martina Arroyo, Herbie Hancock, Billy Joel, Shirley MacLaine, and Carlos Santana
- 2014 – Al Green, Tom Hanks, Patricia McBride, Sting, and Lily Tomlin
- 2015 – Carole King, George Lucas, Rita Moreno, Seiji Ozawa, and Cicely Tyson
- 2016 – Martha Argerich, Eagles (Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Timothy B. Schmit, Joe Walsh), Al Pacino, Mavis Staples, and James Taylor
- 2017 – Carmen de Lavallade, Gloria Estefan, LL Cool J, Norman Lear, and Lionel Richie
- 2018 – Cher, Philip Glass, Reba McEntire, Wayne Shorter, and the creators of Hamilton: An American Musical (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Alex Lacamoire, and Andy Blankenbuehler)
- 2019 – Earth, Wind & Fire (Philip Bailey, Verdine White, Ralph Johnson and Maurice White), Sally Field, Linda Ronstadt, Sesame Street, and Michael Tilson Thomas
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".
- Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the Kennedy Center's award for contributions to American humor