By now, some folks probably take the Kennedy Center Honors for granted. After all, no matter who is president, they happen.
These awards are the country's most prestigious honors for the arts. Sure, everyone tunes in for the Academy Awards to see whether favorite movies won or what gowns stars squeezed into. Plenty of people tune in for the Emmys because everyone has a favorite TV show and they want to see starved starlets sashay in sequins.
The Kennedy Center Honors, however, are different. They are classy, not such an easy accomplishment when one considers behavior and attire at other awards shows. It's a safe bet Madonna will not be tongue-kissing anyone onstage, and all recipients will be in black tie.
This year's event, the 29th overall, airs Tuesday, Dec. 26 on CBS, from Washington, D.C., and honors singers Dolly Parton and Smokey Robinson, director Steven Spielberg, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, and conductor Zubin Mehta.
"We had no national recognition for the performing arts and it seemed like a good idea," says George Stevens, Jr., explaining why he created the honors and still produces and writes the show.
Each year he solicits nominations from some 150 artists spanning all fields. The main criterion is, "someone who has enriched American culture through their work in the performing arts," Stevens says.
Those selected have received scads of other awards, yet this one, they all maintain, is special.
"If you live long enough, you receive all different awards," Parton says. "This is like the whole country saying you have done something good in your life. When you start out, you are more concerned about making it day to day; things like this happen later in life, and you feel maybe you have done something right. When I found out about it, I was extremely honored and excited. And my second thought was what am I going to wear?"
Never one to fade into the woodwork, Parton and her designer decided on two suits for the luncheons, a black velvet gown with silver trim for one formal and a white beaded gown for the televised event.
"I am going to look cheap either way," Parton says, laughing. "It costs a lot to make someone look this cheap. What I paid for all of these outfits -- oh, my God, the government needs to pay me back."
She quickly adds that the taxpayers would not appreciate paying for this, considering, she says, "it's like Frederick's of Dollywood."
Parton, who describes herself as "patriotic, not political," has met Presidents Ford and Carter and the current President Bush. "I feel very blessed," she says. "I am going from an outhouse to the White House."
Another recipient, Robinson -- who once sang a duet with Parton -- also logged time at the White House.
"I met a bunch of the presidents," Robinson says. "I was really, really close with Bill Clinton, and he was a would-be musician, and I did many, many things with him, and I knew him when he became president. He's a wonderful man. The first time I went, Jimmy Carter was president. I was there a couple of years ago to receive a medal with President Bush. This is my second time back with him."
Unlike Parton, however, Robinson was not concerned about clothes and just knew he would wear a tuxedo.
A few years back, Robinson presented the same award to Stevie Wonder. He did not know who would be presenting to him this year or who would perform his work. Robinson provided the lyrics for a generation and was instrumental in making Motown a huge success. "Tears of a Clown," "The Tracks of My Tears," "Shop Around" and "My Guy" are all his.
Parton already knew that Reese Witherspoon would present her award, as they're pals and Witherspoon told her. Parton, who has more than 20 gold and platinum albums, wrote and performed "9 to 5" for her movie debut, and has been turning out hits such as "Halos & Horns" and "Grass" for decades.
The performances are usually surprises, but since the show taped on Dec. 3 with Caroline Kennedy hosting, Stevens allowed release of who will perform.
Witherspoon, Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, Carrie Underwood and Kenny Rogers, Vince Gill and Alison Krauss are all singing Parton's songs.
Aretha Franklin and the Temptations sing some of Robinson's hits. Christine Ebersole, Betty Buckley and Josh Groban perform Webber selections.
Webber, long a king on Broadway and the West End, composed "Cats," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Evita," among many others.
Itzhak Perlman and 30 members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra will play during the celebration of Mehta's work. Arguably the most exciting conductor of his generation, Mehta conducted from the Bosnian National Library in the ruins of Sarajevo and in Tel Aviv during the Gulf War.
For Spielberg, whose films include "Jaws," "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan," Liam Neeson and Tom Hanks will take the stage. The audience at the Center -- which includes President and Mrs. Bush and cabinet members -- and those at home will probably be reduced to tears when World War II heroes are brought on stage to thank Spielberg for telling their stories.
As people watch, Stevens says, "I hope it makes them feel good about the world and our culture and society in a time when many people find the world around them unsettling. And I think the arts have a healing quality as well as provide entertainment."