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Marylouise Oates

Politics Is the Main Course at Arts Dinner

December 07, 1987|Marylouise Oates

WASHINGTON — In true show-biz fashion, improvisational politics danced out of the chorus and into the spotlight Saturday night at the annual Kennedy Center Honors.

The swank and select dinner given at the State Department by the Artists' Committee had the mix of political and entertainment stalwarts that has marked all 10 of these national tributes to significant contributors in the performing arts.

But this city is gaga with pre-summit sizzle, and performance got upstaged by patriotism when Secretary of State George P. Shultz took the podium. Announcing that, "this room is full of wonderful talent, so you can do the unexpected," Shultz introduced Leontyne Price, who said that it was a thrill not just to be returning as an honoree, "but these days, to be an American." Unaccompanied, she sang "America" (a high musical drama compounded when, at one moment, a glass broke somewhere in the audience).

One Thing in Common

"As we look to next week, that's the message," Shultz said, and then went into a speech that observed that the honored artists and the nuclear treaty negotiators had one thing in common--"hard work and perseverance."

The elegant State Department room where the dinner is held resembles not so much an office-building accouterment, but rather a dining hall in a smaller European palace, perhaps Charlottenberg in Berlin or a palazzo in Rome. Maroon (the color of kings) is everywhere--with tablecloths, candles, even the rug in the color--fitting background for the portraits that hang there and also in the antique-crammed reception room, the furnishings a gift of former Ambassador Walter and Leonore Annenberg.

"Let's sell the portraits and balance the budget," CBS executive Fred Rappaport kidded.

Portraits of those at the dinner comprise a gallery of the famous of film and stage for the past 50 years: Helen Hayes (there with good friend Laura Mako), Jimmy and Gloria Stewart, the Honors gala chair Bonita Granville Wrather, writer Garson Kanin, Angela Lansbury, Maria Tallchief, Lucille Ball, Don Ameche, dancer Jacques D'Amboise and the "young chic" of Hollywood, director David Lynch and Isabella Rossellini.

"Everyone looks familiar," said Lynch dryly. No wonder. Scattered among the stars were Kennedy Center trustee Lew Wasserman and his wife, Edie; Sen. Abraham and Lenore Ribicoff; former H.E.W. Secretary Joseph Califano and his wife, Hilary, and Walter Cronkite.

It became apparent that a small cultural summit was set for the show Sunday night, revealed when Bolshoi Ballet stars Irek Mukhamedov and Ludmila Semenyaka showed up at the dinner.

Missing from the dinner and missing from his scheduled slot in the Sunday night show was Frank Sinatra. His good friend Robert Wagner said Sinatra would be in New York doing the Carnegie Hall concert that was canceled Friday night after someone on Sinatra's staff flew to Manhattan--but left his musical arrangements in California.

At the dinner, the citations and toasts were short, smooth and stylish. Nick Vanoff, who co-produces the annual Sunday night Honors show, toasted his old friend and colleague Perry Como. When he sings, Vanoff said, everyone "feels as if he is singing for them alone." With Como, "less is really more."

In the citation to Sammy Davis Jr., Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn pointed out that earlier in his career, "he played to packed houses, but he never could stay the night."

David Hartman toasted Bette Davis for following the motto on her needlepoint pillow: "No guts, no glory."

Sitting with honoree Nathan Milstein was violinist Pinchas Zukerman and his wife, Tuesday Weld. After the party, the Israeli-born Zukerman was asked about reports that he is wearing a yarmulke at any performances in Austria, to protest President Kurt Waldheim's alleged former activities with the Nazi occupation in Yugoslavia. "I will wear a yarmulke as long as that man is president," he said.

A Kennedy Center trustee, Sen. Edward Kennedy, spoke at the dinner this year after what insiders said was a seven-year absence from the podium (though not from the dinners) because of Ronald Reagan's presence in the White House. He kiddingly told the audience that "never have so many Republicans waited so long for a Ted Kennedy speech," then praised Vanoff and George Stevens Jr. for their 10 years with the Honors--"they have made it their gift to the nation." He also had strong praise for outgoing Kennedy Center chairman Roger Stevens.

Strong was still an appropriate word for Bette Davis. In the crushed reception preceding the dinner, the tiny actress sat regally, punching the air with her cigarette, held stiletto fashion. "We do expect a certain amount of anxiety in ever getting to where the award is given," she said, obviously not enjoying the jaunt to D.C. Frequently she asked herself, she related, "Couldn't they just mail it?"

But Washington was wonderful for inaugurals, she added. She'd been to three--"The first one for Mr. Roosevelt. The one for Kennedy. And the one for Carter."

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