Every year for the past 14, "The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts" has been a way for television to end the year on a graceful note that elevates TV's brow and the viewers' spirits for two glorious hours.
The 15th anniversary edition of the broadcast (9 p.m. to 11 p.m. tonight, WBAL, Channel 11) is marred by a jangling note of disharmony from the real world.
The note was struck by Robyn Astaire, widow of Fred, who demanded $17,500 from the producers for use of clips from her husband's movies with Ginger Rogers, one of six artists being honored this year (with actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, jazzman Lionel Hampton, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and choreographer Paul Taylor).
The producers refused to pay, the widow refused to budge, so barring a last-minute deal the tribute to Ms. Rogers will have no clips of her peerless hoofing with Astaire -- an omission as glaring as a Three Stooges tribute without a nyuk-nyuk-nyuk.
According to the producers, this is the first time in 15 years an honoree or family member has demanded payment for use of archival material. The producers also say that Ms. Astaire enthusiastically gave her OK when first asked months ago, then changed her mind.
Robyn Astaire has made herself scarce recently, leaving Kennedy Center producers to deal with her lawyers -- not a good omen for a final-hour change of heart.
It's inconceivable that Fred would have wanted it this way.
Ironically, some of the clips the producers wanted to use probably were seen on the first Kennedy Center broadcast in 1978 when Fred Astaire was feted.
The apparent pettiness of the widow Astaire is magnified by the poignant figure that Ms. Rogers has become. Those who haven't seen a recent photo of her will be stunned by the bloated, infirm woman in the balcony of the Kennedy Center.
At 81 she bears faint resemblance to the vivacious beauty who won an Oscar for "Kitty Foyle" (1940) and glided magically through 11 hit musicals with Astaire.
But poignancy never descends to pathos. At the conclusion of a tribute that includes scenes from her movies and a live dance performance, Ms. Rogers, with Mr. Rostropovich lending a discreet arm for support, rises to acknowledge the hosannas with smiles and blown kisses.
It's that sort of moment -- buckets of sentiment, high dignity and a dollop of showbiz -- that makes "Kennedy Center" a unique TV event.
CBS has two versions of the broadcast: One with the Astaire-Rogers dance clips -- which were seen by those in the hall when the show was taped Dec. 6 -- and one minus the clips, due to air tonight unless the widow relents.
Even in diminished form, this edition of "Kennedy Center" stands out as a peak amid the many valleys of network TV.
The show opens with tributes to Ms. Woodward and Mr. Newman, who appears uncomfortable amid the pomp, including the multi-colored, gold-clasped Kennedy Center ribbon that looks like something taken off a veteran of the French Foreign Legion.
Sally Field delivers an affectionate tribute to the couple and relates a telling anecdote about Mr. Newman's modesty. Robert Redford, looking a bit haggard, makes some teasing remarks about his old buddy.
Mr. Newman's stoic facade cracks when he and Ms. Woodward are serenaded by 26 children of the Hole In The Wall Gang, from the camp they established for kids with life-threatening illnesses.
As always, the broadcast features some of the finest live performances of the year by talents rarely seen on TV.
The cast of the Broadway musical "Crazy For You" salutes the TC honorees with "I Got Rhythm," and the Paul Taylor Dancers perform excerpts from Mr. Taylor's latest work, "Company B."
Aretha Franklin does a few (too few) bars of "You Send Me" in the tribute to Mr. Hampton, which includes some intense jamming by vibraphone master Gary Burton and the Golden Men of Jazz.
Cellist Yo Yo Ma, in a bow to Mr. Rostropovich, dazzles the hall with a solo, then joins an 80-cello ensemble (including "CBS This Morning" anchor Paula Zahn) that surprises the expatriate Russian with a performance of his favorite piece by Glinka.
At that moment the bearish virtuoso can't be the only one in the hall, or in living rooms across America, with a quivering chin and glistening eyes.