By Ashraf Khaleel | The Associated Press
WASHINGTON – The Kennedy Center Honors will return in December with a class that includes Motown Records producer Berry Gordy, “Saturday Night Live” mastermind Lorne Michaels and actress-singer Bette Midler. Organizers are expected to work at full capacity, as last year’s ceremony was delayed for months and later held under COVID-19 restrictions.
This 44th category of awardees for lifetime achievement in the creative arts weighs heavily on music artists. Among those honored are opera singer Justino Diaz and folk music legend Joni Mitchell.
All will be honored on December 5th with a trademark event that includes personal tributes and performances that are kept secret from the honorees.
Deborah Rutter, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, said the current plan is to pack the center’s opera house to full capacity and require all attendees to wear masks. But plans remain fluid and Rutter said they are prepared to adapt to changing conditions based on the country’s COVID-19 situation.
“We don’t know for sure what it will be like,” Rutter said in an interview. “But don’t you think we all deserve a party?”
The 43rd Kennedy Center Honors Class had been delayed since December 2020 because the center largely closed its indoor programming. A heavily slimmed-down ceremony was finally held in May of this year, replacing the usual gala event with a series of small socially-distancing gatherings and pre-taped video performances.
“We know how to do it now. We will make whatever adjustments are needed,” Rutter said. “We are going to wear masks until we have to.”
Midler, 75, has won four Grammy Awards, three Emmys and two Tony Awards, along with two Oscar nominations. His albums have sold over 30 million copies. In a statement, Midler said she was “shocked and grateful beyond words. For many years I have watched this broadcast celebrating the best talent in the performing arts that America has to offer, and I never really thought was that I would find myself among these swans.”
Michelle, 77, emerged from the Canadian coffee shop circuit to become the standard-bearer for several generations of singer-songwriters. In 2020, Rolling Stone magazine declared their 1971 album “Blue” the third best album of all time. In a brief statement, Mitchell said, “I wish my mom and dad were alive to see this. It’s far from Saskatoon.”
The December 5 celebrations will be the centerpiece of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy Center’s cultural program. The center opened in 1971 and a young Diaz, now 81, actually performed at the opera house’s grand opening.
“It’s a very special thing,” said bass-baritone Diaz of San Juan, Puerto Rico. “It’s a great privilege to be able to say that I have shared this space with all these talents.”
Gordy, 91, founded Motown Records—the Detroit-based hit factory that became known as the Motown Sound—and launched the careers of a vast list of artists, including Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Marvin Gay and Martha and the Vandellas.
Gordy said in an interview that he always hailed President John Kennedy as one of the greatest leaders in American history.
“So being honored in his name means the world to me,” he said.
Michaels, 76, is a comedy institution in his own right—producing and producing “Saturday Night Live” since 1975 and producing dozens of movies and television shows, including “Way’s World,” “Kids in the Hall” and “Mean Girls.” He received the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Award for Lifetime Achievement in Comedy in 2004.
Not usually an on-stage performer, Michaels remembers Mark Twain’s evenings as “mostly nerve-wracking” because he spent the evening dreading the traditional end-of-the-night speech he was to give.
But the Kennedy Center Honors bring no such pressure, and Michaels said he’d like to sit back in the special honors box at the Opera House and see what surprises the organizers have.
“You don’t have to give a speech at the end, which is huge,” he said. “You’re just with your friends.”