WASHINGTON – The Kennedy Center Honors have returned to tradition this year with an in-person gala on Sunday night and the President’s presence for the first time since 2016.
Lifetime Artistic Achievement Awards went to Motown Records creator Berry Gordy, Saturday Night Live mastermind Lorne Michaels, actress-singer Bette Midler, opera singer Justino Diaz and folk music legend Joni Mitchell.
This year’s event at the main Kennedy Center Opera House represented a return to tradition, with the participation of President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden.
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump skipped the show for the first three years of his tenure after several of the artists honored in 2017, his first year in office, threatened to boycott a White House reception if he participated in it. Last year, the pandemic forced a delay and major changes to the program.
The Bidens received a sustained standing ovation as they entered the presidential box at the opera house. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed the national anthem and encouraged the audience to sing the final lines together.
The theater was packed and there were no social distancing restrictions, but recent negative Covid-19 vaccinations and tests were required for all attendees.
The tributes included testimonials and performances that were kept secret from the winners. Mitchell’s tribute included performances of his songs by Nora Jones, Brandi Carlile, Ellie Goulding and Brittany Howard. Diaz was honored with a performance of the opera “Carmen” and a song by his two daughters, Katya and Natascia.
For Michaels, organizers have put together three “Weekend Update” segments on stage with several generations of fictional news presenters – Kevin Nealon, Seth Myers and Amy Poehler, and the current duo of Michel Che and Colin Jost. Che joked that Biden would fall asleep before the show was over and Poehler teased Toronto-born Michaels by claiming that Joni Mitchell had been declared “the best Canadian ever.”
Midler received testimonials from close friends Goldie Hawn and Barbara Hershey, and a performance from Tony Award-winning Billy Porter of his iconic song, “The Wind Beneath My Wings”. Gordy’s career was celebrated with performances of several Motown hits by Andra Day and Stevie Wonder and an extended tribute from close friend Smokey Robinson. The event ended with the participation of several of the evening’s artists for a performance of Wonder’s hit “Higher Ground”.
Ahead of the Kennedy Center event, Biden rekindled another tradition that was missing under Trump, a White House reception for the laureates.
“We welcome everyone,” he told a crowd of around 150 seated in the East Room, adorned with Christmas trees and wreaths. Guests included Vice President Kamala Harris, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Caroline Kennedy, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Chita Rivera, Steve Martin and Herbie Hancock.
“Our nation is stronger, more vibrant and more vibrant because of you,” Biden told the award recipients.
Biden praised the artists’ work, their ‘sixth sense’ that helps them create and move so many people, saying, “I don’t think you fully appreciate what you do for so many people. “
He spoke of Diaz’s “soul sound”, Gordy’s creation of “one of the most iconic businesses” in American history with Motown Records. With Michaels, he joked, “Finally, it’s my turn to say something about him,” mocking Michaels’ SNL show, which regularly pokes fun at presidents, including the current Commander-in-Chief. .
“You make me laugh at myself a lot,” Biden said, then added that Michaels is currently auditioning actors to then play him on SNL. Biden asked Steve Martin to come forward as an example of the type of talent Michaels has cultivated over the past decades.
Martin paused and asked the president, “Do you want me to play you?” The crowd erupted into laughter.
Biden then professed his admiration for Mitchell and Midler, telling Midler that “people will never forget how you make them feel. It’s your gift, it’s amazing.
And finally: “Joni. Your words and melodies touch the deepest parts of our soul, ”said Biden.
Last year, the pandemic forced organizers to postpone the annual ceremony from December to May 2021. Tributes to the artists were filmed over multiple nights and at multiple locations on campus.
This year’s main Covid-related change was to move the annual Saturday ceremony, where award winners receive their medallions on rainbow-colored ribbons, to the Library of Congress instead of the State Department .
Sunday’s ceremony, which airs Dec. 22 on CBS, is the centerpiece of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy Center’s cultural programming. The center opened in 1971.