Kennedy Center Honors

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Kennedy Center Honors
Kennedy center honors logo.png

Rainbow logo symbolizing "a spectrum of many skills within the performing arts"

Awarded forLifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts.
CountryUnited States
Presented byBoard of Trustees of the Kennedy Center
Websiteofficial website

The Kennedy Center Honors are annual honors given to those in the performing arts for their lifetime of contributions to American culture. They have been presented annually since 1978, culminating each December in a gala celebrating five honorees in the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, D.C. While the awards are primarily given to individuals, they have occasionally been given to couples or musical groups, as well as to a Broadway musical and a television show.

The honorees are selected based on excellence in music, dance, theater, opera, motion pictures, or television. The Honors medallions are hung around the necks of the recipients with a wide rainbow-colored ribbon which was designed to reflect the wide spectrum of skills within the performing arts. In this way, recognition is given to those who throughout their lifetimes have made significant contributions to American culture, bringing the highest standard expressions of beauty and joy to the public.


The Kennedy Center Honors began in 1977, after that year's tenth-anniversary White House reception and Kennedy Center program for the American Film Institute (AFI). Roger L. Stevens, the founding chairman of the Kennedy Center, asked George Stevens Jr. (no relation), the founding director of the AFI, to hold an event for the center.

George Stevens Jr. created the Kennedy Center Honors with Nick Vanoff and produced the first gala in 1978. Stevens Jr. asked Isaac Stern to become involved, and then pitched the idea to the television network CBS, who bought it. According to Bernie Sofronski, CBS vice president for specials:

George [Stevens] came to us with this. What turned us on is that this is the only show of its kind. In Europe and most countries, they have ways of honoring their actors and their athletes. England has its command performances for the queen. We see this as a national honoring of people who have contributed to society, not someone who happens to have a pop record hit at the moment ... Our intention is not to do just another award show. We're going to make an effort in terms of a real special. We don't see this as a fabricated show, just there for television, but as a legitimate event. We see it that way - as truly legitimate.[1]

Stevens was the producer and co-writer through the 2014 awards,[2] after which he sold the production rights to the Kennedy Center, and Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry Entertainment became the Executive Producers of the 38th annual Kennedy Center Honors (2015).[3]

A variety of well-known stars took on the role of host: The first host was Leonard Bernstein in 1978, followed by Eric Sevareid in 1979 (with Gene Kelly closing it) and Beverly Sills in 1980. Walter Cronkite hosted from 1981 to 2002 and Caroline Kennedy hosted from 2003 to 2012. Glenn Close hosted in 2013 and Stephen Colbert hosted from 2014 to 2016.[4][5] There was no formal host in 2017, although Caroline Kennedy delivered an introduction. In 2018 and mid-2021, Gloria Estefan hosted, LL Cool J hosted in 2019, and David Letterman hosted in late 2021. There was no formal host in 2022, though several former honorees delivered an introduction.

The 2006 honorees at the Kennedy Center on December 6, 2006, with President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush; from left, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Steven Spielberg, Dolly Parton, Zubin Mehta, Smokey Robinson, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Second Lady Lynne Cheney.

This awards show does not air live (with the exception of closed-circuit venues), but an edited version lasting approximately two hours is normally televised on CBS between Christmas and New Year's.[6]

In a departure from this tradition, the 2019 Kennedy Center Honors aired on regular television in early December and was later made available on CBS All Access. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 edition was postponed[7] and eventually held between May 17 and May 22, 2021, and the edited broadcast aired on June 6, 2021.

Selection process

Honoree recommendations are accepted from the general public, and the Kennedy Center initiated a Special Honors Advisory Committee, which comprises two members of the board of trustees as well as past honorees and distinguished artists. The executive committee of the board of trustees selects the honoree recipients based on excellence in music, dance, theater, opera, motion pictures, or television.[8] The selections are typically announced sometime between July and September.


The invitation-only, weekend-long ceremony includes the Chairman's Luncheon, the State Department dinner, White House reception, and the Honors gala performances and supper.

The Chairman's Luncheon is held on Saturday at the Kennedy Center. Surrounded by the Honorees, the chairman of the board of trustees launches the event with a welcoming speech. At that evening's reception and dinner at the State Department, presided over by the Secretary of State, the Honorees are introduced and the Honors medallions are presented by the chairman of the board. The wide rainbow-colored ribbon, then hung around the necks of the recipients and prominently noticeable when the events are televised, was designed by visionary illustrator and graphic designer Ivan Chermayeff. He explained that the rainbow design symbolizes the range and versatility of skills in the field of performing arts: "That spectrum was what I had in mind in the first place, in that it's a spectrum of many skills within the performing arts," Ivan said. "Singing, dancing, and so on." [9]

On Sunday, there is an early-evening White House reception, traditionally hosted by the President of the United States and the First Lady, followed by the Honors gala performance at the Kennedy Center and supper.

Prior to 2017, there had been three occasions in which the president did not attend the gala performance. President Jimmy Carter did not attend in 1979 during the Iran hostage crisis; First Lady Rosalynn Carter served as his surrogate.[10] President George H. W. Bush was on a trip to Brussels and could not attend in 1989; First Lady Barbara Bush served as his surrogate.[11] President Bill Clinton was on a trip to Budapest and could not attend in 1994; host Walter Cronkite offered opening remarks and introduced a pre-recorded segment in which President Clinton welcomed the honorees to the White House.[12]

For the 2015 gala performance, President Barack Obama joined First Lady Michelle Obama late after addressing the nation in a live telecast from the White House.[13]

In 2017, President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump decided not to participate in events honoring recipients of the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors awards to "allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distraction." The 2017 ceremony was held on December 3, 2017 without them, marking the first time that neither the president nor the first lady attended; Caroline Kennedy was the host and presented the honorees. The traditional dinner at the State Department on the Saturday evening before the ceremony was hosted by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and the White House reception was canceled.[14] Donald and Melania Trump also did not participate in any of the events of the 2018 or 2019 editions.[15]

Because of changes imposed on the delayed and abbreviated 2020 edition due to the COVID-19 pandemic, President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden welcomed that year's Honorees to the White House in May 2021 but did not attend any other events.

For the 2021 edition, Joe and Jill Biden attended the gala performance on December 5, 2021, marking the first time since 2016 that a sitting president and first lady had attended the event.[16] President Biden also hosted the White House reception in 2022.[17]


2005 Kennedy Center Honorees Julie Harris, Robert Redford, Tina Turner, Suzanne Farrell and Tony Bennett with President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, in the Blue Room at the White House, December 4, 2005.
The surviving members of Led Zeppelin were honored in 2012 and are pictured here with President Barack Obama.

Two hundred forty-eight Kennedy Center Honors had been awarded as of 2022, with five Honorees selected for lifetime artistic achievements honorees in 2023.[18] One award, given to stand-up comedian and actor Bill Cosby in 1998, was rescinded in 2018, following a sexual assault conviction.[19] The vast majority have been bestowed on individuals. On twelve occasions since 1985, awards have been presented to duos or groups, including three married couples who were actors: Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy; Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; and Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Dancers The Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold were honored, along with three musical theater songwriting duos: Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and John Kander and Fred Ebb. Members of five music groups were awarded: Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who; John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin; Don Henley, Timothy B. Schmit, Joe Walsh and (posthumously) Glenn Frey of the Eagles; Philip Bailey, Verdine White, Ralph Johnson and (posthumously) Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire; and Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. of U2.

In 2018, the award for "trailblazing creators of a transformative work that defies category" was created and presented at the annual ceremony to the creators of the musical Hamilton: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Andy Blankenbuehler and Alex Lacamoire.[20]

The 2019 honorees included, for the first time, a television program; the co-founders of Sesame Street, Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, accepted the Kennedy Center Honors on behalf of all of the creators.[21]

Kennedy Center honorees 2009 Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck, Grace Bumbry, Robert De Niro, and Bruce Springsteen, with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in the Blue Room, White House, December 6, 2009.
The 2019 honorees Michael Tilson Thomas, Earth, Wind & Fire, Linda Ronstadt, Sally Field and Sesame Street with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at far left

Honorees who declined/postponed

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.[22]

Actress Katharine Hepburn declined the committee's first offer, although she relented in 1990.[22]

Doris Day repeatedly turned down the honor because her fear of flying prevented her from attending the ceremony.[23]

When considering Irving Berlin for the 1987 awards because of criticism for overlooking him, the center was informed that Berlin wanted to be honored only if he surpassed his 100th birthday (which would not be until May 1988). Also, he was in failing health, used a wheelchair following a series of strokes and could not attend a public event. The Center chose instead to pay special tribute to him at the 1987 Gala. He died in 1989.[24]

Paul McCartney was selected as an honoree in 2002, but was unable to attend due to an "inescapable personal obligation," his cousin's previously planned wedding. After initially saying that McCartney's award would be postponed until the following year, the Kennedy Center did not award McCartney in 2003; instead McCartney became a 2010 honoree.[25]

Mel Brooks has stated that he refused the honor when George W. Bush was in office, due to his distaste for Bush's Iraq policy. He was honored in 2009, the first year Barack Obama was president.[26]

In November 2015, one month before the actual ceremony, the Eagles postponed their honors until the following year because Glenn Frey had intestinal problems that required major surgery and a long recovery period. Despite their absence, they were still honored in 2015 via a performance of "Desperado" by country singer Miranda Lambert.[27] Frey died on January 18, 2016, although the center made him and the three surviving members 2016 honorees.[28]

In 2017, Norman Lear accepted the honor, but boycotted the White House ceremony because of his opposition to President Donald Trump: "As an artist and a human being, I cannot celebrate this incredible honor ... at a White House that has no interest in supporting the Arts and Humanities."[29] Lear did attend the 2017 events and ceremony, but Donald and Melania Trump were not present, in order "to allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distraction."[14]


  1. Tom Shales, Crowning America's Culture Superstars The Washington Post (September 28, 1978). Retrieved July 19, 2023.
  2. Paul Harris, George Stevens Jr. to End 37-Year Run as Kennedy Center Honors Producer Variety (December 7, 2014). Retrieved July 19, 2023.
  3. Peggy McGlone, Tony Awards Team Chosen The Washington Post (May 5, 2015). Retrieved July 19, 2023.
  4. Peggy McGlone, Stephen Colbert Will Host 37th Annual Kennedy Center Honors The Washington Post (November 19, 2014). Retrieved July 19, 2023.
  5. Andrea Park, Kennedy Center Honors 2016 CBS News (December 27, 2016). Retrieved July 19, 2023.
  6. Kennedy Center Honors 2017: How to Watch Online and on TV, Start Time and Pre-Show CBS News (December 26, 2017). Retrieved July 19, 2023.
  7. Kennedy Center Cancels Most Previously Scheduled Performances Through the End of 2020 Due to COVID-19 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (June 23, 2020). Retrieved July 19, 2023.
  8. Adam Hetrick, Kennedy Center Honors Invite Public to Join Selection Process; Chita Rivera Appointed to Advisory Committee Playbill (May 17, 2013). Retrieved July 19, 2023.
  9. Leila Kozma, Why Are the Kennedy Center Honors Ribbons Rainbow? It's Not What Some Assume Distractify (June 6, 2021). Retrieved July 20, 2023.
  10. Barbara Gamarekian, Kennedy Center Honors Five for Life Achievements in Art The New York Times (December 3, 1979). Retrieved July 20, 2023.
  11. Kathleen Silvassy, Kennedy Center Honors: dazzling surprises UPI (December 4, 1989). Retrieved July 20, 2023.
  12. Kennedy Center Honors 1994 The Paley Center for Media. Retrieved July 20, 2023.
  13. Peggy McGlone, President Obama Will Be Late to Kennedy Center Honors Performance The Washington Post (December 6, 2015). Retrieved July 20, 2023.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Peggy McGlone, At the Kennedy Center Honors, Plenty of Politics Make Up for Trump's Playing Hooky The Washington Post (December 3, 2017. Retrieved July 20, 2023.
  15. Paul Harris, Heartfelt Tributes Trump Politics at Kennedy Center Honors Variety (December 9, 2019). Retrieved July 20, 2023.
  16. Peggy McGlone, The Bidens will attend Sunday's Kennedy Center Honors, restoring a tradition that Trump rejected The Washington Post (December 1, 2021). Retrieved July 20, 2023.
  17. 45th Kennedy Center Honors - President Biden Lauds Honorees at the White House Reception The Kennedy Center. Retrieved July 20, 2023.
  18. The Kennedy Center Honors: Past Honorees The Kennedy Center. Retrieved July 20, 2023.
  19. Daniel Holloway, Bill Cosby’s Kennedy Center Honors, Mark Twain Prize Revoked Variety (May 7, 2018). Retrieved July 20, 2023.
  20. Andrew Gans, Hamilton Creators Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Andy Blankenbuehler, Alex Lacamoire Will Receive Special Kennedy Center Honors Playbill (July 25, 2018). Retrieved July 20, 2023.
  21. Celebrate the 2019 Honorees! The Kennedy Center. Retrieved July 7, 2023.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Chip Crews, The Honors, Take 2 The Washington Post (December 27, 2005). Retrieved July 19, 2023.
  23. Allen Pollock, About Doris Doris Day. Retrieved July 20, 2023.
  24. Irvin Molotsky, Five Receive Kennedy Center Honors for Artistic Contributions The New York Times (December 7, 1987). Retrieved July 20, 2023.
  25. Jacqueline Trescott, Oprah Winfrey among five recipients of 2010 Kennedy Center Honors The Washington Post (September 7, 2010). Retrieved July 20, 2023.
  26. Mel Brooks: 'I'm An EGOT; I Don't Need Any More' Fresh Air, NPR (May 20, 2013). Retrieved July 20, 2023.
  27. Joseph Hudak, See Miranda Lambert Sing ‘Desperado’ for Eagles at Kennedy Honors Rolling Stone (December 30, 2015. Retrieved July 7, 2023.
  28. Kennedy Center Honors 2016 Highlights The Kennedy Center. Retrieved July 7, 2023.
  29. Amy Held, Norman Lear, Kennedy Center Honoree, To Skip White House Reception In Protest NPR (August 5, 2017). Retrieved July 20, 2023.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Gill, Brenden. John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1981. ISBN 0810922630
  • Honored: Celebrating Twenty-five Years of the Kennedy Center Honors. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2003. ASIN B004U80PH6
  • Roth, Leland M. A Concise History of American Architecture. Westview Press, 1982. ISBN 9780064300865
  • Weeks, Christopher. AIA guide to the architecture of Washington, D.C. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. ISBN 9780801847134

External links

All links retrieved July 20, 2023.


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