I didn’t see the first Kennedy Center Honors broadcast in 1978. Hosted by Walter Cronkite, the first five honorees receiving this prestigious award were artists who were awarded, to quote President Kennedy, for their “contribution to the human spirit.”
“I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.” ~President Kennedy
Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rogers and Arthur Rubinstein. All luminaries in the world of the creative arts who were honored for their lifetime of excellence and unparalleled achievements.
“I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for our victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.” ~President Kennedy
The following year the same honor was awarded to Aaron Copland, Ella Fitzgerald, Henry Fonda, Martha Graham and Tennessee Williams. When I think of these five legends sitting together in that familiar top tier row it takes my breath away.
As I got older I’d look forward to the week between Christmas and New Year’s when the Honors were broadcast on CBS. As a devotee of the arts, it thrilled me to watch these tributes that were always conducted in such a dignified manner. No Red Carpet or, “What are you wearing?” Only thoughtfully curated tributes with short biographies detailing the recipients’ astonishing careers. Chic. Fun. Impeccable.
“I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty.” ~President Kennedy
I began losing respect for the Honors’ choices a few years ago. While I admire Steve Martin as an artist, his artistic resume was not deserving of a Kennedy Center Honor. Not yet anyway.
The tide seemed to be turning toward pop, something the original CBS vice president clearly didn’t want.
“Our intention is not to do just another award show. We’re going to make an effort in terms of a real special.” ~Bernie Sofronski, CBS Vice President, 1978
Now get ready. Here comes an opinion that’s probably going to get me into a lot of trouble.
I don’t think Oprah Winfrey was an appropriate choice for this award.
Oprah has done so much for so many. She recreated the talk show by making it more positive and intimate.She reignited a passion for reading books, and her philanthropy is legendary. She’s had a few marvelous film roles such “The Color Purple”, “Lincoln” and “The Butler.” She may be Oscar or Emmy worthy, but I don’t think she was the right candidate for a Kennedy Center Honor.
David Letterman and Lily Tomlin. Wonderfully gifted performers that I’ve enjoyed over the years. But, in my opinion, their careers don’t warrant a Kennedy Center Honor.
A recent article in The New Yorker titled “The Kennedy Center Honors Goes Pop”, the author Alex Ross wrote:
“As in previous years, the selection demonstrates the degree to which the awards have diverged from their original mission—to pay tribute to luminaries of theatre, dance, classical music, and show business—and instead become one more temple of celebrity culture, magnifying the fame of already familiar faces. Of the five honorees, (Patricia) McBride is the only one whose career has unfolded on the kinds of stages that are included in the Kennedy Center complex.”
This year I agree with the choice of Tom Hanks. At age 58 he’s still young, but his acting is superb, from “Forrest Gump” to “Philadelphia” to “Saving Private Ryan.” He seems so purely American, a throwback to honorees Henry Fonda and James Stewart.
After posting The New Yorker article on Facebook, adding how disappointed I was with a few of this year’s honorees, I found not everyone agreed with me. I willingly admitted I’m not knowledgeable enough to make an informed choice of artists in ballet, opera or classical music.
I was happy when my (almost) 87 year old father came to my rescue. He is more than qualified to offer an informed choice:
“Martha Argerich (born1941) is an Argentine-born pianist and– to this 87 years young who has heard them all since 1940– the finest and most accomplished on the piano since Vladmir Horowitz–and on a par with him. She concertizes throughout the U.S. and was married to and had children by an American. If the standard for honors is to make a substantial contribution to American performing arts, then Martha Argerich well qualifies. (Listen to her in her prime on youtube in the Rachmaninoff piano Concerto #3–especially the last movement.” ~My Dad
There are many other deserving artists who’ve been passed over. Faithful readers of this blog know I’ve long admired Alan Alda, who more than qualifies for an Honor. An actor, director, screenwriter and author, he’s won six Emmy and Golden Globe Awards, was nominated for an Academy and Grammy Award, won several Directors Guild Awards, and has appeared in eleven Broadway plays. At age 78, I’d say he’s Honor worthy.
Whether you agree or disagree with me, the bottom line is that President Kennedy was right about America and the arts. The contributions to the human spirit are what lifts a nation in good times and bad. I am thankful that all of these dedicated and creative giants have walked, and do walk, among us.