WASHINGTON — Some of the biggest names from the political and entertainment worlds came together this weekend for the presentation of the 16th annual Kennedy Center Honors to former "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson and four others for their contributions to excellence in the performing arts.
Besides Carson, the honorees were Arthur Mitchell, founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem; conductor Georg Solti; composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and gospel singer Marion Williams.
The honorees were scheduled to be greeted by President Clinton at the White House on Sunday night before attending a performance at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Produced by George Stevens Jr. and Don Mischer and hosted by Walter Cronkite, the show was to include a series of surprise tributes.
Sunday's events followed a Saturday night black-tie awards dinner in the State Department's opulent diplomatic reception rooms for 200 guests.
Actress Angela Lansbury, who introduced the honorees at the dinner, called Carson "one of the most influential performers in the history of television," one who is paradoxically also a "famously private man." Film executive Lew Wasserman, who toasted Carson, agreed, describing him as "the shyest man we know."
"His humor is something he lets out, not something he forces upon us," Wasserman said.
Carson, 67, who has generally declined to be interviewed since his retirement from television a year and a half ago, had arrived fashionably late with his wife. Earlier, he had missed a luncheon at the Kennedy Center.
"We were out late last night," he commented.
Of the award, he said, "I'm flattered. Just to be in that company is pretty good."
Mitchell, 59, who was recognized for his contributions as founder, artistic director and president of the Dance Theater of Harlem, is noted for revolutionizing the position of African Americans in the dance world. "Socially, economically and politically, everyone is aware that you've got to have the arts in your life," he said, adding that the award was like "icing on the cake."
Williams, 66, was honored for her recordings, including her work in the first gospel musical, "Black Nativity," a 1958 Broadway hit that starred the gospel ensemble Stars of Faith.
"This is the first time anything like this has happened to me," she said upon being congratulated by actress Cicely Tyson. "I was crying and weeping about that."
Williams, who suffers from kidney problems and uses a wheelchair, was accompanied by two doctors.
Solti, 81, was honored for his long career with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic and London's Royal Opera at Covent Garden. He has produced numerous recordings, including "Salome" and Wagner's "Ring Cycle," and has won 30 Grammy awards.
Sondheim, 63, honored for his numerous musical scores, has won five Tony Awards for his scores of "Company," "Follies," "A Little Night Music," "Sweeney Todd" and "Into the Woods."
Among those in the audience were Leontyne Price, Betty Comden, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Sissy Spacek, National Endowment for the Arts head Jane Alexander, Ted Koppel, Cronkite, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) and U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith.
The Sunday night gala was a fund-raising benefit for the Kennedy Center's performing arts and public service programs. It was taped for national broadcast, and will be aired on CBS in late December.