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Capitol Hill Welcomes Hollywood : Awards: Washington turns out in black-tie to honor Roy Acuff, Gregory Peck, the Nicholas Bros. and others with the nation's highest tribute to performing artists.

December 09, 1991|JENNIFER TOTH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When three stars turn up to testify before Congress, it's enough to cause a traffic jam on Capitol Hill.

When clusters of them showed up in Washington this weekend for the Kennedy Center Honors--the nation's highest tribute to performing artists--Washington cleared the streets and turned out in its best tuxedos and dresses.

In its own sophisticated, formal, East Coast style, the artists committee of the Kennedy Center Honor bestowed its rainbow-stripped ribbons on country singer Roy Acuff, musical comedy writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, acrobatic tap dance duo Fayard and Harold Nicholas, actor Gregory Peck and choral conductor Robert Shaw.

There were splashes of smiles and color, but basically the State Department (a Saturday dinner hosted by Secretary of State James A. Baker III) and the White House (a Sunday reception with President and Mrs. Bush) were flooded with subdued elegance in a conservative tide of black tuxedos and dresses. The weekend culminated in a gala performance honoring the recipients in the Kennedy Center's Opera House on Sunday evening, and finally concluded that night with a supper dance in the Kennedy Center's Grand Foyer.

Saturday night's State Department dinner and awards ceremony set the tone for the weekend.

The word from most of the visiting stars, like guests in a foreign land, was that they "love Washington." But as usual, there was a little more to it for some.

"It's such an ugly, squat, square building with so little style on the outside," one star said of the State Department building--clandestinely, "not wanting to be rude to any Washingtonians."

"But inside. . . ." She rolled her eyes toward the six opulent chandeliers, and then trailed the marble Corinthian pillars past moody 19th-Century portraits down to the red carpet, where antique wood furniture stood. "It's quite ornate in a subtle way. Beautiful, really. Very East Coast. Unbearably stuffy and old."

The distinguished and imposing figure of Gregory Peck stood tall in a dark suit with a small silver eagle attached to his lapel in remembrance of Pearl Harbor. Lauren Bacall, in a black velvet pantsuit, exuded her demure yet glowing presence. And Anthony Hopkins, with his blue eyes and Hannibal Lecterbeard (he claimed he couldn't afford a razor), held a presence all his own.

Leontyne Price, Gene Kelly, Carol Burnett, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Jack Lemmon, playwright Wendy Wasserstein and Geoffrey Holder (with his wife, Carmen De Lavallade, in a stunning black and gold gown he designed) were among others who turned out to give Washington the illusion that it was the American cultural capital for one weekend.

Secretary of State Baker commended the honorees for helping to define the "vibrancy of American culture."

The honorees, he said, are "world-class practitioners of diplomacy." Shaw, he explained, is a constant negotiator, bringing music out of cacophony. The Nicholas Brothers' fancy footwork should be used as a model for "shuffle diplomacy." And Comden and Green simply stand as "a model for lasting partnership."

It was more than a bit warming in Washington's December nip to see the stars just a little bit in awe. When asked how he felt about being honored, Shaw said sincerely, "full of tears." Comden said she was so excited she could hardly speak. And Roy Acuff said in his typically modest manner that he felt "very lucky--there are a lot more people who deserve it more than me."

Acuff, 88, the first country music performer to be honored by the Kennedy Center, was country's first superstar. Starting in the late 1930s, he wrote and recorded hits such as "The Great Speckled Bird," "Wabash Cannonball," "Fireball Mail" and "Night Train to Memphis," and starred in the Grand Ole Opry for four decades. He was also a founder of Hickoy Records and the major music publishing firm Acuff-Rose.

Comden and Green drew the most enthusiastic whoops at the ceremony Saturday night for their light, romantic musical comedies such as "Singin' in the Rain," "Bells Are Ringing" and "Wonderful Town."

"Kids, you make me proud," Jule Styne said with a touching sincerity that brought a standing ovation.

Perhaps the longest applause, however, went to Peck, honored after five decades as one of Hollywood's leading men and 55 major motion pictures, including "Gentleman's Agreement," "Twelve O'Clock High," "The Gunfighter" and "To Kill a Mockingbird," for which he won an Academy Award.

The Nicholas Brothers beamed as they were honored for their creation of an exciting hybrid of tap dancing and acrobatics. They started dancing at an early age, and by 1932, when Harold was 11 and Fayard was 18, they were hits at Harlem's legendary Cotton Club.

Shaw--"without a doubt the leading choral conductor in the United States," as Isaac Stern once said--brought with him his son Tommy, a high school freshman. The younger Shaw seemed to sum up the excitement that the stars held back or simply missed. "Tomorrow we're going to the White House!" he said.

The Kennedy Center Honors is not just a publicity extravaganza. Last year, the Kennedy Center netted $1.65 million from it, and the Center expected to raise about the same amount this year. Tickets, which were sold out within 24 hours, ranged from $75 to $7,500. The money is used primarily to fund the half-price tickets program for senior citizens, student and military personal, and for educational programs.

The honors have been awarded since 1978 in recognition of talent, endurance, achievement and contribution to American culture. Past recipients include Katharine Hepburn, Dizzy Gillespie, George Burns, Bette Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Lucille Ball, Ray Charles, Jessica Tandy, Beverly Sills, Lena Horne, Arthur Miller, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Helen Hayes, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Tennessee Williams.

The Sunday performance gala and broadcast was produced by George Stevens Jr. and Don Mischer, and was taped for national broadcast on CBS Dec. 26..

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