WASHINGTON — As a magician at Disneyland and a performer at Knott's Berry Farm, Steve Martin never imagined that his earliest show-business experiences would help propel his career to the Kennedy Center Honors, the nation's highest achievement in the performing arts.
"It's a giant leap," he said. "I can't believe I'm here."
Hollywood stars joined Washington politicians at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday night for a dazzling ceremony celebrating the achievements of this year's honorees: Martin, pianist Leon Fleisher, singer Diana Ross, film director Martin Scorsese and composer Brian Wilson.
"In the careers of these five Americans, we see the very definition of excellence and passion," President Bush said during a White House reception for the honorees before the evening's main event.
Actor Robert De Niro, whose collaboration with Scorsese began with "Mean Streets" in 1973, found himself standing on the Kennedy Center stage but wishing he could be closer to the presidential box, where the honorees were seated.
"It feels a little silly talking to a close friend from this distance," said De Niro, whom Scorsese has directed in a number of tough-guy roles. "But the Secret Service has seen me in some of your movies. It's the closest I'll ever get to the president."
Bush couldn't resist poking fun either, alluding to one of Martin's classic sketches from "Saturday Night Live."
"I'm hoping that later this evening Vice President Cheney will get to shake hands with Steve Martin," he said. "It's about time those two wild and crazy guys got together."
Singers Vanessa Williams and Yolanda Adams, among others, paid tribute to Ross and had the audience swaying to her soulful songs.
The gala is to be broadcast Dec. 26 on CBS.
The Kennedy Center Honors, in their 30th year, were officially bestowed on the recipients Saturday night after toasts and playful roasts at a State Department dinner hosted by Secretary Condoleezza Rice. The congenial atmosphere at a pre-dinner reception sparked an impromptu performance by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman, who accompanied members of the Marine Corps band.
After Fleisher made his Carnegie Hall debut at 16, he became one of world's most celebrated pianists before a rare neurological disease in 1965 stripped him of the use of his right hand. Undeterred, he became a conductor and revitalized the left-hand repertory until a series of grueling medical procedures enabled him to play with his right hand again.
Rice, who studied piano for years, saluted Fleisher, 79, for helping shape her own career path. "When I hear your passionate playing, your extraordinary skill, I am reminded why people like me gave up the piano," she said.
Martin, 62, was described as "a magician whose hat seems endlessly stocked with rabbits" by his "Bowfinger" co-star Christine Baranski.
A stand-up comedian, playwright and best-selling author, Martin has hosted "Saturday Night Live" 14 times (first in 1976, most recently in 2006) and has starred in such films as "The Jerk," "L.A. Story," "Three Amigos!" and "Father of the Bride."
Aretha Franklin, a 1994 Kennedy Center Honors recipient, said that as a teenager attending a variety show at Harlem's Apollo Theater, she was intrigued by the lead singer of a group called the Supremes.
"There was something about the girl singer in the middle," she said. "Needless to say, that young lady was Diana Ross."
Raised in the Detroit projects, Ross, 63, became the queen of Motown, first with the Supremes and then solo, with such hits as "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." She was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in "Lady Sings the Blues" and won a Tony for her one-woman Broadway show, "An Evening With Diana Ross."
Scorsese, 65, who was afflicted with asthma as a young boy, would sometimes find relief in air-conditioned movie houses, said Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote the screenplay for "Goodfellas" under Scorsese's direction.
"He was mesmerized," Pileggi said. "He watched that gray screen hour after hour, night after night, year after year. And it opened up to him the wonders of the world."
Scorsese abandoned plans to enter the priesthood and drew on his experiences growing up in New York's Little Italy for "Mean Streets," "Goodfellas," "Raging Bull" and "The Departed." The latter earned him the 2007 Academy Award for best director.
Starting in 1962, Wilson, 65, created the Beach Boys' quintessential California surfer sound with such hits as "Surfin' Safari" and "California Girls," then moved beyond the sunny harmonies with the complexities and introspection of the 1966 album "Pet Sounds." That was followed quickly by "Good Vibrations," which has frequently been described as one of the greatest singles ever produced. In his remarks, violinist Perlman toasted this "perennial Beach Boy" for his "everlasting place in the musical canon."
Rice said she was honored to work with the Kennedy Center to promote "cultural diplomacy" that can help deepen connections around the world.
"Because the arts touch us at a very deep place, it reminds us of our common humanity," she said.