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 the talk-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 fellow honorees (Harry Belafonte and Claudette Colbert), but that was the point: It was an education to 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.