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The Kennedy Center Honors is an annual honor given to those in the performing arts for theirlifetime of contributions to American culture. The Honors have been presented annually since 1978 in Washington, D.C.marker, during gala weekend-long events which culminate in a performance for—and honoring—the Honorees at the Kennedy Centermarker Opera House.

The Honors were created by George Stevens, Jr. and the late Nick Vanoff; as of 2009, Stevens remains involved as producer and co-writer for the Honors Gala. From 1978 until 2002, the ceremony was hosted by Walter Cronkite; since 2003, it has been hosted by Caroline Kennedy. It is also one of two holiday specials from Stevens' production company (the other being Christmas in Washington).

Selection process

Each year the Kennedy Center's national artists committee and past honorees (such as Carol Burnett and Bill Cosby) present recommendations for proposed Honorees to the Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The selection process is kept secret, though "certain criteria seem apparent: a mix of artistic disciplines, the inclusion of men and women, minority recognition."

The announcement is made in the Fall, with the ceremony held over a weekend in early December. The complete, uncut award ceremonies have never been broadcast live in the United States. However, highlights from the gala performance are televised in a 90-minute (without commercials in a 2-hour slot) version broadcast on CBS between Christmas and the New Year. The 2009 honorees were announced on September 9, and the ceremony will be held on December 6.

The events

The weekend-long ceremony consists of lunch, dinner, reception and a performance introducing and honoring the new Honorees. The lunch is on Saturday at the Kennedy Centermarker, with a welcoming speech by the President of the Board of Trustees. At that evening's reception and dinner at the State Departmentmarker, presided over by the Secretary of State, the year's Honorees are introduced. On Sunday, there is an early evening White Housemarker reception with the President of the United States, who will then hang a specially designed ribboned award around their necks.

The performance takes place Sunday evening at the Opera House in the Kennedy Center; the Honorees (wearing their medals) and guests sit in the front of the Box Tier, a few seats away from the President and the First Family. The Honorees do not appear on stage nor do they speak to the general audience. The show consists of events from the recipients' lives, presented documentary style in film and live onstage, with the complete list of guest performers kept unpublicized until the show is in progress. George Stevens, Jr. said: "Our tradition of surprises and surprise guests is particularly special..." For example, for Dolly Parton, a 2006 Honoree, Jessica Simpson, Carrie Underwood, Kenny Rogers, Alison Krauss and Shania Twain performed. The pre-taped portion of the presentations typically include excerpts from the honoree's work, donated by rights' holders, with revenues generated by the occasion supporting the nonprofit arts and education activities of the Kennedy Center.

The Honors Gala is "really two different shows", according to George Stevens, Jr., its producer; the priority is on the 2300-member audience in the Opera House, some of who pay over $6000 for their seats, a source of revenue that provides (as of 2005) almost 10% of the center's annual contributions.


The Kennedy Center Honors were conceived in 1977, in the wake of that year's 10th-anniversary White House reception and Kennedy Center program for the American Film Institute (AFI). Roger Stevens, the founding chairman of the Kennedy Center, asked George Stevens, Jr. (no relation), the founding director of AFI, to have an event for the Center; George Stevens got Isaac Stern involved, then pitched the idea to CBS, who "bought it."


2005 Kennedy Center Honorees, with President and Mrs. Bush.
There were 168 recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors Awards during the Honor's first 32 years , mostly for their individual contributions. Eight times since 1985 awards have gone to artistic collaborators, including three married couples: lyricist Alan Jay Lerner & composer Frederick Loewe, actors Hume Cronyn & Jessica Tandy, musical-comedy duo Betty Comden & Adolph Green, the Nicholas Brothers (Fayard & Harold), actors Paul Newman & Joanne Woodward, Kander and Ebb (John Kander & Fred Ebb), actors Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee, and musicians Pete Townshend & Roger Daltrey of The Who.





Those not honored

Pianist Vladimir Horowitz was to be an honoree, but the selection committee withdrew the offer when Horowitz conditioned his acceptance on being honored alone and at 4 in the afternoon. Actress Katharine Hepburn declined the committee's first offer, though she relented in 1990.

The Center, criticized for not honoring composer Irving Berlin, paid tribute to him at the 1987 Gala. Berlin wanted to be honored, only if he surpassed his 100th birthday, which was rejected. Also, he had to appear in person to receive this honor, however, he was confined to a wheelchair, and could not attend any public event in person.

Paul McCartney was selected as an honoree in 2002, an award postponed a year when McCartney was unable to attend because of an "inescapable personal obligation"; in August 2003 the Kennedy Center issued a one-sentence statement saying that "Paul McCartney will not be receiving a Kennedy Center Honor."


In 1995, columnist Frank Rich of The New York Times dubbed the award the "Kennedy Center Dishonors", with particular criticism for the Honors Gala, which he described as "more mortifying with each passing year":
Perhaps the Kennedy Center Honors should just be laughed off as Washington's own philistine answer to Hollywood's Golden Globes, and let it go at that. But in a country that honors culture so rarely, this annual presentation of lifetime achievement awards is by default a big deal. It's the only national event celebrating the performing arts as distinct from show business. Yet it has fallen so far in esteem even within the arts community that A-list performers are more likely to show up on the Honors' various committee lists than on stage or even in the audience at the gala.

Rich also questioned the selection process, suggesting that candidates such as John Cage, Orson Welles, Marlon Brando, and Bob Dylan had yet to be chosen because "the cultural bureaucrats running the show would rather not risk roiling their patrons with artists most likely to sting."

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