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Kennedy Center show restores faith in quality entertainment


CBS helps the television year go out on a lovely note -- several, in fact -- as it airs "The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts" at 9 tonight (Channel 11).

For two glorious but all-too-fleeting hours viewers bask not only in artistic excellence, but in the needed reassurance that excellence is sometimes still rewarded in America, even if it's never featured on the cover of People magazine.

Of the seven honorees tonight, it's likely that most viewers could readily identify only two -- country music legend Roy Acuff and actor Gregory Peck.

Broadway musical writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, tap dancers Fayard and Harold Nicholas, even choral conductor Robert Shaw, are names that belong in any book of cultural literacy but probably would draw blanks from most viewers.

One reason, of course, is that we've been watching too much TV, which has had little use for the sorts of entertainment represented by those names, at least since "The Ed Sullivan Show" went off the air.

"Kennedy Center Honors" has become TV's sole conservator and showcase for artistry that might otherwise vanish from our collective consciousness. It's always a great show, supremely entertaining and unabashedly schmaltzy as show biz friends and proteges honor the honorees with inspired performances.

"Kennedy Center Honors" always leads the league in blown kisses, to and from the balcony (even besting the Miss America pageant), and in some years it leads in tears. This year's group proves more stoic, but the occasion is no less moving.

My favorite moment is violinist Isaac Stern's lyrical rendition of "Danny Boy" in tribute to Mr. Peck, whose roots are Irish. Mr. Peck remains dry-eyed throughout, but when the camera zooms in at the end there's a clenching of the jaw, a pursing of lips, a glistening of the eyes.

Gregory Hines and six other contemporary tap masters salute the Nicholas brothers with a dazzling ensemble number. The tribute to Mr. Acuff, who needs help standing to acknowledge the hurrahs, features Emmylou Harris, Bill Monroe and Chet Atkins.

A startlingly aged Gene Kelly poignantly salutes Ms. Comden and Mr. Green for the screenplay that made him immortal, at least in reruns.

"Because of you," he says, "somewhere tonight, on some screen, I'm just singin', singin' in the rain."

With unfailing showmanship, the producers save the Shaw tribute for last. Soprano Sylvia McNair performs "All the Things You Are," by Jerome Kern, and in the balcony Mr. Shaw seems transfixed, almost as if he were breathing with Ms. McNair.

Finally, this celebration is a welcome opportunity to hear the Kennedy name invoked without "assassination" or "rape" in the same sentence. The night begins with John F. Kennedy's voice, preserved in all its audacious, pristine idealism:

"I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty. I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.

"And I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we too will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit."

A tumultuous generation later, with American society in rudderless ferment, that no longer feels like a certainty. But for two exultant hours tonight, "Kennedy Center Honors" reminds us why it's not an impossibility, either.

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