Five American Legends of Arts Are Honored : Culture: Musicians, actor and director receive Kennedy Center awards, tributes from dignitaries in a weekend of events in the capital.
The capital paid tribute to five of America’s artistic legends this weekend when screen icon Kirk Douglas, “queen of soul” Aretha Franklin, folk musician Pete Seeger, orchestral composer Morton Gould and Broadway director Harold Prince received this year’s Kennedy Center Honors.
The weekend was a swirl of activity for the honorees and guests as some of the biggest names from film, television, music, theater and government met over fine wine and food at some of Washington’s grandest sites.
After a White House reception hosted by President Clinton on Sunday, the honorees made their way to the Kennedy Center for the annual gala.
The weekend also included a black-tie dinner and awards ceremony for more than 200 guests at the State Department’s elegant diplomatic reception rooms Saturday night, where the five received the highest honor the nation bestows on its artists.
Douglas arrived at the State Department with his family, including actor sons Michael and Eric. “The most special thing is that I have a chance to be here with my sons and grandson,” he said.
Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, said Douglas’ induction was long overdue. He toasted the 77-year-old film star as a man who helped break Hollywood’s blacklisting practices during the waning days of the McCarthy period.
While Douglas helped break the blacklist, Seeger had a tougher struggle: His name was on it. His folk-music group, the Weavers, was branded as subversive when Seeger refused to answer questions about Communist affiliations. But the influential artist maintained a solo career throughout the 1950s, and he was at the forefront of the anti-war and civil rights movements in the 1960s. His songs include “If I Had a Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
“Songs can do more than entertain--they can give people hope,” Seeger said at a Sunday brunch that was part of the festivities.
Garrison Keillor said of Seeger at the later gala, “He makes you love your country.”
Franklin, the daughter of a Baptist minister in Detroit, helped turn black, gospel-inspired soul into mainstream pop music during the 1960s and ‘70s with her powerful, emotion-packed voice. Such songs as “Respect,” "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Chain of Fools” established Franklin as a legend among female vocalists and a voice in the civil rights movement.
Arriving at the Saturday dinner in a blazing red dress, Franklin said receiving the award was “the pinnacle of my career.” At 52, she is the youngest person ever chosen for the award.
Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, toasting Franklin, said that early in the 1960s he spotted her playing piano at the Adams Theater in Los Angeles.
“She had a wonderful swinging style, bluesy in nature--it sounded fabulous. And then, she sang,” Hancock said as the audience enthusiastically murmured its agreement.
“My, my, my,” Hancock continued. “What came out filled the entire room, the entire planet, and filled everybody’s life.”
At the Kennedy Center, she was saluted in song by the Four Tops, Patti LaBelle and the choir from her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit.
Prince, who began his directing career in the 1950s, directed such Broadway hits as “Evita,” “Phantom of the Opera” and his 1993 Tony Award-winning “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
Prince, 66, was saluted at the gala with songs from some of his hits.
“Hal Prince took an art form that was popular and allowed it to be serious,” said George Wolfe, the playwright and Broadway director who created “Angels in America.” “He allows (theater) to be as complicated as America is.”
Gould, a prolific and versatile composer who has served as president of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, is best known for his orchestral works for radio, ballet, film and television.
Tony Randall and the U.S. Army Concert Band led the tribute to Gould, 80. The child prodigy and later radio star was honored with his “An American Salute” that ended with fireworks exploding over the Opera House stage.