WASHINGTON — Washington may be known for its politics, but the secret sauce
of life in the nation’s capital is the consistent treat of welcoming
giants of culture to receive national awards.
On Sunday night, the 37th annual Kennedy Center Honors paid tribute to actor
Tom Hanks, comedian Lily Tomlin, ballerina Patricia McBride and musicians Al
Green and Sting in the Opera House of the Kennedy Center.
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama sat in the balcony
alongside the five honorees, who had received their medals at the White House.
The event was emceed by the always-hilarious Stephen Colbert, who poked plenty
of fun at Washington gridlock along the way. But this wasn’t a night for
political grandstanding; this one was all about tribute performances.
The night kicked off with a bang, as R&B artists celebrated
Al Green, whose “iconic voice stirs our souls in a style that is all his own,”
said Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein.
Al Green was introduced by Whoopi Goldberg, followed by performances by Earth,
Wind & Fire, Jennifer Hudson and Usher, whose rendition of “Let’s Stay Together”
brought the crowd to its feet, dancing and clapping.
“To receive the Kennedy honors is heartwarming,” Green tells WTOP. “It kind of
gets you choked up a little.”
The tribute to Green wrapped up with a duet by Mavis Staples and Sam Moore,
who tells WTOP he originally wanted to sing “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,”
but was instead asked to perform “The River.” Either way, the gospel rendition
soared with a choir on stage.
“This is the second time I’ve done this,” said Moore, half of Sam & Dave of
“Soul Man” fame. “The first time was for Smokey (Robinson). If you had to pick
between Smokey and Al, Al is gonna be the man.”
Next up was ballet legend Patricia McBride, a
muse for such legendary choreographers as Jerome Robbins and George
Balanchine. McBride was honored by a handful of ballet dancers from across the
country in a medley of dances.
“It’s extraordinary to be an honoree. It’s gone beyond my wildest dreams to be
here,” McBride said.
She also had advice for any budding ballerinas: “I’d say
follow your dreams, work hard and anything can happen,” McBride said. “Trust
in yourself, be yourself and listen to your teachers.”
Third on the slate was acting great Tom Hanks, star of such film classics as
“Big,” “A League of Their Own,” “Philadelphia,” “Forrest Gump,” “Toy Story,”
“Apollo 13” and “Saving Private Ryan.” It’s this versatility, Rubenstein says,
that “ranks him among the greatest actors of any generation.”
Hanks was introduced by late-night legend David Letterman, who gave a deadpan
reading to some of Hanks most famous movie quotes: “Life is like a box of
chocolates,” “There’s no crying in baseball” and “Houston, we have a problem.”
Director Steven Spielberg had a different line in mind. He quoted Hanks’ final
line in “Saving Private Ryan,” saying that Hanks’ Kennedy Center Honor
answered the call to “earn this.” Spielberg described Hanks as an
extraordinary man who is so beloved because he seems so ordinary.
“I think he’s as good as any actor who acts in movies today,” Martin Short
tells WTOP. “As President Obama said tonight, some say he’s our Jimmy Stewart;
some say he’s our Gary Cooper; I say he’s just Tom Hanks.”
Short himself honored Hanks by introducing a ’60s-style band from “That Thing
You Do,” then donning a top hat for “Yankee Doodle Boy,” surrounded by a room
full of military heroes, hailing Hanks as an All-American boy.
Hanks’ every man charm was on full display on the red carpet. He tells WTOP
the Kennedy Center Honors are more relaxing than other awards shows — because
he already knows he’s going to win.
“The other ones are often a sweepstakes competition, where you
get all dressed up, you feel great about the work that you did, great
about the people you worked with, and then they say somebody else’s name and
you feel horrible for about six hours,” Hanks joked. “Nobody’s losing
Hanks also sized up his fellow honorees.
“No one’s gonna top the Rev. Al Green, and if anybody’s gonna
steal anything, it’s gonna probably be Lily,” Hanks said. “You can’t compete
with Sting because he’s so damn good-looking. And Patricia McBride could
probably kick me in the head without having to move too hard, because she’s so
After a brief intermission around 9 p.m., the second half of the program
brought a bunch of laughs, as it came time to honor Tomlin’s acting and comic
She was introduced by Garrison Keillor, followed by a comedy tribute with Jane
Lynch, Reba McEntire, Jane Fonda and Kate McKinnon, including a replica of
Tomlin’s giant rocking chair. The four ladies ended their salute by
sticking out their tongues and quoting Tomlin’s signature line, “That’s the
Tomlin said one of the highlights of her stay in Washington was visiting the
White House and meeting with the president.
“I laughed a lot, but I became very moved, because as I looked at the other
honorees … and what they’ve contributed to the arts, and what the arts mean
to the country … I felt like we should be called upon to do something
meaningful,” Tomlin said.
After Tomlin, the big final act belonged to Sting, whose “unique voice and
memorable songwriting have entertained audiences for decades,” Rubenstein
The former Police frontman was introduced by Meryl Streep, who recounted a sex
scene she once shot with Sting, drawing laughs from the crowd. Streep wasn’t
the only one swooning over Sting — CBS’s Norah O’Donnell expressed her
affection on the red carpet.
“Probably one of the sexiest men in my book, other than Chef Geoff,” O’Donnell
joked, referencing her husband, Geoff Tracy.
Sting himself thought he looked dapper with his Kennedy Center Honors medal
around his neck.
“I’m not sure when I’ll wear it again, but I think I look rather fetching in
it,” Sting tells WTOP.
The musical tributes to Sting poured in, with performers including Lady Gaga,
Bruce Springsteen, Herbie Hancock and Bruno Mars.
“To meet the President of the United States in the White House was
something I never expected to do, frankly,” Sting said. “But it’s been a long
and interesting journey.”
The evening wrapped with a black-tie supper dance in the Grand Foyer.
You can watch the entire ceremony from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 30 on