HONORED TO BE HERE Kennedy Center gala mixes politics and fun to celebrate the achievements of six artists


Washington -- If this were England, Joanne Woodward mused they would be knighted. But this being America, they were simply -- and more democratically -- honored.

But this also being Washington circa the Bush-Clinton transition, this year's Kennedy Center Honors -- celebrated this weekend by a head-turning celebrity crowd flocking to a city that usually makes do with committee chairmen and undersecretaries for its people-spotting -- seems more big-D Democratic than little-D democratic. Not only is any arts gathering assumed to be more Democrat-leaning, the annual Kennedy Center honors first were held in 1978 -- during the last period the big-Ds were in the Big Time.

President Bush still presided from his box at the performing arts center as this year's crop of artists, actors Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Ginger Rogers, dancer Paul Taylor, jazzman Lionel Hampton and cellist-conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, was lauded. But the transition of power from Republican to Democrat seemed to pervade the thoughts and chatter of many, with those whose party is ascending indulging in some pre-inaugural glee and those on the other side, well, calling for a spirit of cooperation.

"I think they'll be much more sympathetic [to the arts]," said Paul Newman, a man of few words and a seemingly sardonic, one-eyebrow-flexed skepticism toward being honored in such a grand and tuxedo-ed manner. ("We're just trying to support Dad on this," said Susan Newman, one of a bevy of daughters accompanying the couple to the festivities. "I don't know if this is exactly his element.")

"I think one thing celebrities can do is be less partisan," offered actor Tom Selleck, who says he's a "registered independent" but has been known to favor an occasional Republican. "If the president calls, you should go."

Mr. Selleck was just one of the stars to take the stage of the Kennedy Center last night to pay tribute to the honorees in a show that was taped for broadcast on Dec. 30 on CBS. From the cast of the Broadway show, "Crazy For You" (an update of the Gershwin show that introduced Ginger Rogers to the theater world) to turns by Robert Redford, Aretha Franklin and the Paul Taylor dance company, the program could have been stamped proudly and truly, "Made in America" with its emphasis on native art forms such as jazz, tap and musical comedy.

For all the talent that took the stage, though, the high-powered audience of politicians and entertainers seemed particularly moved by a group of amateur singers -- children from the Hole in the Wall camp that honorees (and longtime married couple) Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward run for children with cancer.

The show was just the crowning touch to a weekend of events; it began with a dinner for 250 guests Saturday night in a sumptuous eighth-floor room in the State Department, where eight massive chandeliers rivaled the city lights and the shimmer of the water view through the curtains.

The man of the moment, Clinton transition chief Vernon Jordan, was there, as was Democratic doyenne Pamela Harriman.

But the spirit of the weekend was friendly bipartisanism and awed celebration of the artists. Meaning the crowd was as mixed as it gets in terms of politics, entertainment and benefactors.

Represented were Hollywood (the still cute-as-a-button Sally Field, Gregory Peck, Cyd Charisse, Cicely Tyson), dance (Maria Tallchief, Gerald Arpino, Jacques D'Amboise), classical and jazz music (Herbie Hancock, Eugene Istomin, Leontyne Price) and all those writers and/or directors and/or producers (A.R. Gurney, Alan Pakula, Ken Ludwig, Larry Gelbart, Cy Coleman). Mixed in were the standbys of permanent Washington, transition or not, the likes of Joseph Califano and Meg Greenfield, and executives of CBS, which will air the program, such as Larry Tisch and Howard Stringer.

This being Washington, of course, there were politicians and thus the kind of seating arrangements made for, if not strange, then disparate table-fellows as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Colin Powell, and actor Christopher Plummer and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

"This is the most glamorous weekend of the year in Washington, and glamorous is not a word used often in Washington," observed Georgette Mosbacher, one of the more glamorous wives of the Bush administration. "Washington is a company town, and it's exciting if you're in the company. If you're not, well, it's still peripherally exciting."

Indeed. Even the celebrated seemed to be breathless at sharing the same room with such stars.

"Here you have more great artists in America in one place," said a towering Geoffrey Holder, accompanying an elegantly gowned Carmen DeLavallade to the festivities.

"It's always a thrill to be here whether you're going to win a prize or not," said Gregory Peck, an honoree last year who was called in to do "what's laughably called work" and emcee Saturday night's dinner during which the honorees were given their rainbow-ribboned laurels and toasted by their friends and associates. "It's a highlight of the best of America."

Part of the fun of such an event, of course, is seeing stars in real life and real height -- meaning, those who are taller (Michelle Lee) or shorter (Mr. Newman and all dancers except Cynthia Gregory) than you expect.

The honorees, though, are all "giants of American culture," said Acting Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, adding to great laughter that in preparing his remarks about each, "the department's passport files contained little of any use."

Still, he and others found more than bountiful bouquets to lavish on the honorees. Joanne Woodward, a supporter of dance, seemed just as tickled to be leading the toast to Paul Taylor as being honored herself.

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