WASHINGTON — A pantheon of out-of-town celebrities flooded the capital over the weekend to witness the Kennedy Center Honors--the nation's highest tribute to performing artists. For two days, they subverted the city's proclivity for starchy dress and stuffy style as Washingtonians greeted their Hollywood guests to their stately digs.
Welcomed with ceremonies fit for a foreign head of state, this year's honorees were Lionel Hampton, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Ginger Rogers, Mstislav Rostropovich and Paul Taylor.
On Saturday night, they were courted to the diplomatic reception rooms of the State Department for dinner and addressed by acting Secretary of State Larry Eagleburger. They were then spirited off to an evening White House reception with President Bush and his wife on Sunday. Meanwhile, they lunched with congressional and governmental leaders and deep-pocket contributors to the Kennedy Center.
The State Department dinner, held in the ornate Franklin Room, portrayed the sometimes outlandish meeting between officialdom and stardom. The opulent but refined eighth-floor quarters, which boasts among its decorations the desk of Thomas Jefferson and a portrait of George Washington, clashed with the flamboyant and spirited personalities of their guests.
But there were unexpected shows of rapport between the two worlds: "Hey, what's up, buddy?" said Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, throwing his arms vigorously around his apparent friend, actor Tom Selleck.
Larry Eagleburger, despite his intense consultations about the U.S. forces being shipped to Somalia, gave the customary introduction to the Honors ceremony after the dinner.
But before he turned the podium over to Gregory Peck for individual tributes, Eagleburger churned out a series of witty one-liners, and finished by saying that he had tried to better fulfill the "acting" part of his title.
The celebrity-filled audience of around 250 included actresses Lynn Redgrave and Michele Lee and choreographers Jacques D'Amboise and Gerald Arpino, as well as some of last year's nominees, such as musical comedy writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green and tap dancers Fayard and Harold Nicholas.
Honoree actors (and husband and wife) Joanne Woodward, 62, and Paul Newman, 67, won the largest applause of the evening for their contribution to the arts and to charity.
Newman said he is working on a new film and is considering taking up car racing again. "My wife is encouraging me to go back to racing because I'm so sour in the summer," he said. Woodward said she had just finished a small part in an upcoming Jonathon Demme film, which she said was about AIDS.
But if the stars felt on foreign turf at the State Department, they could feel more at home at the Kennedy Center, which hosted the Sunday night gala, a series of surprise performances in tribute to the honorees.
The gala was directed by George Stevens Jr., who inaugurated the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978 along with the late Nick Vanoff and who has since co-produced and co-written the ceremonies each year.
The hottest item of the gala was expected to be the finale, a tribute to cellist Rostropovich that was to include an ambitious orchestra of 80 cellos, a 170-voice choir and about 12,000 pounds of bells hanging from the ceiling. (Four musicians furiously pound mallets on the bells, which had been transported especially from a church in Minnesota.)
Stevens said the piece, from Mikhail Glinka's opera "A Life for the Czar," was Rostropovich's favorite, which Stevens had found out by secretly talking to the musician's wife, Gallina, and daughter, Olga. "It will stir up a love affair between them (the cellos) and him (as he watches)," said Stevens before the live performance.
"I've never been a nut for classical music, but this was really something," said Walter Cronkite of the cello piece, which he had seen earlier while rehearsing for his role to introduce the tribute.
Rostropovich was clearly overjoyed Saturday evening when he received his Honors medallion, "It's great. It's better than I expected," he said of the ceremony at the State Department.
"I'm very excited," said Rogers of her award, "Its at the very top . . . with the academies."
Hampton, 84, is considered one of the leading players of the jazz vibraphone since he first added the instrument to a recording in 1930. Still possessing his large and perpetual smile, Hampton walks a little slower these days but apparently only to store enough energy to go on his next tour. He just arrived home from touring for seven weeks in Europe and Japan, where he played nightly shows.
Taylor, whose dance choreography is renowned for its vigor, was saluted by fellow honoree Woodward. "Turn by turn, (his dance) challenges us to question our subtle expectations . . . it delights and disturbs," she said.
The Kennedy Center Honors are awarded in recognition for contribution to the cultural life of the nation through the performing arts. The gala was taped for national broadcast on CBS Dec. 20. Past recipients include the late Roy Acuff, Dizzy Gillespie, Katharine Hepburn, Harry Belafonte, James Cagney, Jessica Tandy, Bob Hope, Beverly Sills, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Benny Goodman, Helen Hayes, George Burns, Bette Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Lucille Ball, Ray Charles, Aaron Copland and Tennessee Williams.