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LOS ANGELES, Dec 7, (Agencies): Unveiling a variety of touches that broke from longstanding tradition, the Kennedy Center toasted five titans of the performing arts on Sunday in the 38th annual presentation of its Kennedy Center Honors. The careers of director George Lucas, actors Cecily Tyson and Rita Moreno, conductor Seiji Ozawa and singer/songwriter Carole King were feted in a tight and fluid ceremony, which is slated to air Dec 29 on CBS.
The first honors program under new the Kennedy Center’s new president Deborah Rutter coincided with a new production team, Tony Awards veterans Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry Entertainment. The duo was tapped last May under a one-year tryout deal to succeed George Stevens Jr, who conceived the Honors program and co-produced from its inception through last year.
The gala celebration, as usual, drew a top shelf turnout of showbiz and D.C. glitterati, including President Obama, who arrived at intermission after delivering his primetime address to the nation from the Oval Office on terrorism. Sunday’s gala capped a busy weekend of festivities for the honorees.
The new production team sought to maintain certain elements of the program while seizing opportunities to freshen up others. For example, honorees remained seated in the presidential box at the center’s Opera House and did not participate, two longstanding traditions. But the team sprinkled new video segments throughout the show to supplement biographical films of each honoree, changed the look of sets and clearly aimed for a breezier flow of proceedings.
Emceed for the second year by Stephen Colbert, the show began with a toast to Moreno that included a lively perf of “America” from “West Side Story” and ended with Aretha Franklin delivering a rousing rendition of King’s “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.”
The King tribute was hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry, a long-time friend and neighbor of the artist. It wove in scenes and songs from the King bio tuner “Beautiful” performed by Jessie Mueller, supplemented by James Taylor (“Up on the Roof”), Sara Bareilles (“You’ve Got a Friend”) and Franklin. An exuberant King could barely contain herself from her box seat, especially during Franklin’s number.
The Ozawa segment, presented by Itzhak Perlman, included a testimonial from singer Renee Fleming and a performance by cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
The toast to director Lucas was the evening’s most elaborate segment. Emceed by Usher, it included appearances by Carrie Fisher (by “video voicemail”), as well as former honorees Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. James Earl Jones narrated the biographical film for Lucas as well as a shorter video clip that highlighted Lucas’ many technological achievements in film. It ended with a laser-filled tribute to “Star Wars” that plowed new ground for the Honors event.
The segment for Tyson offered the evening’s most touching moments. Hosted by Tyler Perry, it saluted Tyson’s numerous film, TV and stage performances. Participants included actress Viola Davis and Kerry Washington and trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who performed a version of “My Funny Valentine” in the style played by Tyson’s former husband, Miles Davis.
In his remarks to the gathering, Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein issued special praise to former producer Stevens, who conceived the Honors program. He said the evening’s show continues to fulfill Stevens’ legacy.
The KenCen gala was again preceded the previous evening by an intimate gathering at the U.S. State Department hosted by Kerry. Honorees were presented with their rainbow ribbons, surrounded by invited members of the artists committee and some past honorees, Kennedy Center board members, a smattering of D.C. politicos and media celebs.
Kerry, taking a quick break from Paris global warming talks, said he welcomed the reception and dinner as “Washington’s true politics-free zone.” But he set a serious tone by decrying the brutal war being waged by ISIS terrorists against culture, art and world peace.
Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock emceed the post-dinner festivities which featured tributes to each honoree by a special friend. “Scandal” star Washington saluted Tyson, followed by the toast to Lucas by Usher. Former Perlman lauded colleague Ozawa, followed by an especially heartfelt testimonial to Moreno by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
King’s tribute was delivered by longtime colleague Taylor, who said that when he first released King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” he never dreamed the tune would be “my first and last number one single, and a song I would sing every night for the rest of my entire life.”
The technology that Lucas brought to moviemaking came back to haunt him at the Kennedy Center Honors.
As the tribute to Lucas began at Sunday night’s gala honoring him and four others for contributing to American culture through the arts, the crowd was asked to welcome Carrie Fisher. But the star of the original “Star Wars” trilogy and the upcoming “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” didn’t appear in person. Instead, one of Lucas’ beloved creations, the feisty droid R2-D2, rolled onstage and projected her image.
Fisher said she wanted to be there in person to honor Lucas, “but since you invented video voicemail, I didn’t have to.”
Spielberg and Scorsese, fellow directors who along with Lucas brought new energy to American cinema in the 1970s, offered more conventional tributes to the “Star Wars” creator, hailing him for his technological wizardry and his commitment to storytelling.
Lucas also created the “Indiana Jones” franchise, directed by Spielberg, and his special-effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, had a part in seven of the top 10 grossing movies of all time.
“He’s a pathfinder and a pioneer like Edison and Bell and Tesla and Jobs,” Spielberg said. “George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars’ absolutely changed films forever.”
President Barack Obama was a late arrival to the event after delivering a rare televised address in which he said America would overcome the threat posed by Islamic State militants.
Moreno, a native of Puerto Rico who started dancing at age 9, became the first Latina to win an Academy Award when she was honored for her performance as Anita in “West Side Story.” She was honored for her diverse and boundary-pushing career, including memorable stints on children’s television.
Moreno is one of a handful of artists to win an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony. At an earlier White House ceremony for the honorees, Obama said she pushed back against Hollywood typecasting.
“She’s still a leading lady of her era, a trailblazer with courage to break through barriers and forge new paths,” Obama said.
Tributes to Moreno came from her “Jane the Virgin” co-star, Gina Rodriguez, and Rosie Perez, who sang “Fever” with the overzealous Animal of “The Muppets” on drums — a performance Moreno originated, winning an Emmy. They said Moreno paved the way for themselves and other Latino actors.
“She was herself,” Perez said. “She celebrated her heritage but did not stereotype it.”
Renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who performed on stage, said that the Kennedy Awards “keeps away the darkness of fear, of terror, of hate, of violence.”
King added: “We hope that we can, for a moment, having people think about music, and arts, and film, and dance.”
Obama attended the event with his wife Michelle after delivering a rare primetime address in the wake of a brutal mass shooting in California that he described as an “act of terrorism.”
Obama earlier hosted the honorees at the White House, and described them as artists “who helped tell the story of the first American century through music, theater and film.”
“Each of these artists was born with something special to offer their country and the world,” the president said.
As for Lucas, he said the filmmaker was “at the vanguard of the New Hollywood, blending genres and combining timeless themes with cutting-edge technology.”
It’s “pretty remarkable that nearly 40 years after the first star destroyer crawled across the screen, we are still obsessed with George’s vision of a galaxy far, far away,” Obama added.
Missing from the event: rock band The Eagles, best known for their 1976 hit album “Hotel California.”
The group postponed their appearance for one year due to unspecified health problems of Glenn Frey, a member of the quartet.