In its first 20 or so years, the Kennedy Center Honors—annually allocated to performing artists of purported preeminence—there were more than enough leading lights still living to assure that the well of meritorious honorees would not quickly run dry. While there is truth to Frank Rich’s observation, in 1995, that “this country, like any other, has a limited supply of Balanchines and Grahams and Astaires and Sinatras,” for years it seemed as though figures of such prominence did, in fact, grow on trees.

The otherworldly fivesome of Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers, and Arthur Rubinstein made up the inaugural group of honorees in 1978; but no one could argue with, say, the choices of George Abbott, Lillian Gish, Benny Goodman, Gene Kelly, and Eugene Ormandy in 1982. Or Merce Cunningham, Irene Dunne, Bob Hope, Beverly Sills, and Lerner and Loewe in 1985.

Since the new millennium, however, there have been ever-diminishing efforts to separate the chaff from the wheat and ever-increasing attempts to lasso “names” readily identifiable to the television audience. This has made for some amusing sights in those box seats perched high in the Kennedy Center Opera House, where each year’s honorees are seated next to the president and first lady. In 2012, for example, prima ballerina Natalia Makarova was parked next to, among others, David Letterman. As Makarova listened to Tina Fey introducing Letterman, littering thetalk-show host’s life story with one cliché after another (“The guy who broke all the rules became the most decorated man in television”), the former Kirov Ballet dancer must have wondered to herself: Did I defect from the Soviet Union for this? To be honored in the company of the creator of Stupid Pet Tricks?

Yet what ails the Kennedy Center Honors is not just who is sitting next to whom. Part and parcel with the decline in quality of the honorees is the slippage in seriousness, entertainment, and quality of the show itself. I have seen nearly every installment since the early 1990s, and, airing as it does after Christmas, I associate the Kennedy Center Honors with newly opened presents and the last of the season’s eggnog. Perhaps it is for these reasons that I am apt to wax nostalgic about what the show once was and continue to give it a chance, even when I know better. Because the honorees are divulged months in advance, I am always prepared for the newest unfathomable selection—Steve Martin (2007), Neil Diamond (2011),Billy Joel (2013)—and I harbor no illusions that Leonard Bernstein will have been resurrected to lend the evening some gravitas.

Yet I am convinced that the Kennedy Center Honors earned my affection in my first years of regular viewing. Mounted by producer George Stevens Jr. with a kind of solemn grace, the most memorable shows drew on the riches of midcentury popular culture. The glorious 1989 tribute to Mary Martin included an invigorating performance of “I’m Flying” from Peter Pan (with Charlotte d’Amboise in the titular role Martin had played nearly 40 years earlier) as well as a hardy rendition of “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” and “Bloody Mary” from South Pacific, with a few choice substitutions: “Mary Martin is the girl we love!” Just as lively was Martin’s son, Larry Hagman, presenting the members of the Naval Academy Men’s Glee Club: “On that note, I want to introduce you to 90 men from the Navy who are going to go out here and sing for you!”

At such moments, the Honors had an agreeable air of unashamed patriotism, amplified by the attendance of the current occupant of the Oval Office—and reflected in things like a shot in the opening montage of an aged Jimmy Stewart giving a brisk, confident salute to the audience from his box seat.

By the time Mary Martin was honored in 1989, she was probably not as familiar to the general public as at least two of her fellowhonorees (HarryBelafonte and Claudette Colbert), but that was the point: It was an educationto watch the Honors, a way of learning about performers other than musicians and movie stars. Consider, for example, the 1996 tribute to Edward Albee, which included a biographical film that featured cues from Gustav Holst’s The Planets, followed by George Grizzard reading from Albee’s classic debut, The Zoo Story. Irene Worth even sauntered onstage to talk about Albee’s notable flop Tiny Alice. All of which demonstrated that the producers thought there was a degree of erudition—or curiosity, at least—in the viewing public.

The opening montage seemed to demonstrate this as well. It was always one of my favorite parts of the show, and in later years it became the uncontested high point. Set to a rousing theme, shots of honorees from shows past (such as Gene Kelly giving a thumbs-up) were intercut with moments from their tributes (the University of Nebraska Marching Band putting in an appearance for Johnny Carson) as well as clips of them doing what they did best (Fred Astaire dancing). It did not consist entirely of celebrities, however: In 1996, for example, the year Albee was honored, the montage included a shot of Helen Hayes, clasping her hands and smiling warmly. Hayes was once known as “the first lady of the American theater,” but her likeness would not have been known by sight to most viewers during the Clinton presidency. No matter: Those sufficiently intrigued would figure out who she was and come to know about one of the country’s great actors.

But the opening montage, like the rest of the show, has devolved. At some point, the shot of Helen Hayes was cut while shots of more recent, popular honorees have crept in. In 2003, the longtime master of ceremonies, Walter Cronkite, was succeeded by Caroline Kennedy, whose bored, uninflected delivery was a far cry from Cronkite’sfamously sonorous intonations. In fairness to Kennedy—who missed this year’s show because of her new ambassadorship in Tokyo—she has been asked to recite lines that sound surreal in light of the show’s pleasingly pompous past. Rock stars are now regularly storming the gates of the Opera House: Tina Turner (2005), Brian Wilson (2007), Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey (2008), and—God help us—Led Zeppelin (2012). Indeed, of Led Zeppelin, Kennedy was impelled to read the following:

With primal sounds at once beautiful and dangerous, these English lads built a band that gave a new dimension to rock, and that earned from an admiring world a whole lotta love.

It got worse. Later that evening, a bedraggled Jack Black lumbered onstage and hollered “Led Zeppelin!” at the top of his lungs to kick off the tribute. We are a long way from Larry Hagman introducing singing midshipmen for Mary Martin.

Whenever I am tempted to lose heart, however, I call to mind the charm the Honors used to have: Joanne Woodward introducing honoree Edward Villella in 1997 by talking about her daughter’s girlhood crush on the New York City Ballet icon after seeing him in Balanchine’s Jewels (“I loved the boy in the red velvet,” she told her mother); or, that same year, Brian d’Arcy James singing “More I Cannot Wish You” from Guys and Dolls as part of the tribute to Charlton Heston. It was, Walter Cronkite informed us, a favorite tune of Heston and his wife, who were celebrating their 53rd year of marriage. As James sang, shots of Heston’s pensive expression and furrowed brow revealed how deeply affected he was by the gesture—and by the lyrics, too.

Both moments, in a way, encapsulated what was best about the Kennedy Center Honors: the conveyance of genuine feeling through the magic of the performing arts. And, as we have learned in the fullness of time, this is not the easiest sentiment to put across by having Tina Fey lionize David Letterman.

Peter Tonguette is at work on a book about Peter Bogdanovich.

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