Hollywood on the Potomac: Kennedy Center Honors

by Janet Donovan

Michelle and Barack Obama with David Rubenstein at the 2016 Kennedy Center Honors. (Photo by John P. Filo courtesy CBS)

It was the eighth and final Kennedy Center Honors of the Barack Obama presidency, and the commander-in- chief, who has attended the show each year since taking office, and Gucci-clad first lady Michelle Obama received several standing ovations.The audience and guest presenters, including former president Bill Clinton, Sheryl Crow and Ringo Starr, seemed to applaud the first couple as much as the five honorees at this 39th annual national celebration of the arts.

This year’s honorees, who were feted at the White House immediately before the black-tie event and at the State Department the night before, were Argentine pianist Martha Argerich, rock band the Eagles, screen and stage actor Al Pacino, gospel and blues singer Mavis Staples and musician James Taylor.

“This is history-making because this is the last time this will happen with this president, so I’m really happy and I’m really honored,”Staples told us.“These ribbons – that means I made it. I made it baby.”

Three of President John F. Kennedy’s grandchildren – Jack, Rose and Tatiana Schlossberg – made an appearance onstage to touchingly remind the audience of the centennial of their grandfather’s birth, which the Kennedy Center will be commemorating throughout 2017.

“The Kennedy Center Honors celebrates the spectacular talents of artists whose brilliance has left a lasting impact on our society,” said Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein, who also presented the Obamas with a golden ticket to attend Kennedy Center performances in perpetuity.

But an undercurrent of anticipation about how the Honors would be different under a Donald Trump presidency seemed to permeate the night.

Host Stephen Colbert set the tone early, welcoming guests with: “Good evening, endangered swamp dwellers.”

We asked performers and audience members for their thoughts about the honorees, the performances and the politics.

Aretha Franklin, who brought down the house the year before with her rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” in honor of 2015 honoree Carole King was asked if she would be performing at the inauguration of President-elect Trump, if invited. Her answer:“That’s a good question. That’s a very good question.”

“Politics and art is always a complicated place,” said Colombian musician Juanes, who performed “Hotel California” during the Eagles tribute. The Eagles were to receive Kennedy Center Honors last year, but their award was postponed when co-founder Glenn Frey took ill and died a month later. Don Henley, Timothy Schmit and Joe Walsh received Kennedy Center medallions with Frey’s widow Cindy Millican.

Debra Allen and Phylicia Rashad did the sister thing on the red carpet, both pushing strongly for the arts no matter who leads the country. Allen said she doesn’t view Trump’s presidency as a threat.“The arts is something that is non-partisan.”

“CBS This Morning” co-anchor Gayle King, who sat in the presidential box, preferred to leave politics out of it.“I think the Kennedy Center Honors is always a special night,” she enthused.“It pays tribute to the talent that we have in this country. It’s people that you know. It’s people that maybe you forgot about. It just illustrates once again the wonder of the United States of America. I love it.”

Skirting around the political discussion, we asked King about recent traffic pattern changes in Manhattan. “You know how the traffic is in New York. Listen, you want the President-elect to be safe. So, if we have to have a little traffic jam, so be it.” Asked whether she thought celebrities would show up on Inauguration Day, King said: “I don’t know. Listen, it’s a brand new day. It’s a brand new ball game. It remains to be seen.”

R&B musician Sam Moore is apt to give Rick Perry some competition in the energy department – he wants to tell Hillary Clinton supporters to “just quiet down now and stop. It is what it is. Whether you agree or not, he’s here. Give him a chance … He didn’t put himself there. He campaigned and won. A lot of people don’t understand this.” The consensus among artists: support for the office of the presidency and no concern that Mr.Trump’s administration would negatively impact the arts. The after party: Guests went wild and pulled out their iPhone when James Taylor visited the back tables (near the press area) to thank musicians and producers. It was a also a chance for Sen. Debbie Stabenow to grab a word with her friend.

 This article appeared in the January/ February issue of Washington Life Magazine. 

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