The Kennedy Center Honors will return in December with a class that includes Motown Records creator Berry Gordy, “Saturday Night Live” mastermind Lorne Michaels and actress-singer Bette Midler. Organizers expect to operate at full capacity, after last year’s ceremony was delayed for months and later conducted under COVID-19 restrictions.
This 44th class of honorees for lifetime achievement in the creative arts is heavy on musical performers. The honorees also include opera singer Justino Diaz and folk music legend Joni Mitchell.
All will be honored on Dec. 5 with a trademark program that includes personalized tributes and performances that are kept secret from the honorees.
Deborah Rutter, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, said the current plan is to pack the center's opera house to full capacity and require all attendees to wear masks. But the plans remain fluid and Rutter said they're ready to adapt to changing circumstances depending on the country's COVID-19 situation.
“We don’t know for sure what it’s going to be like,” Rutter said in an interview. “But don’t you think we all deserve to have a party?”
The 43rd Kennedy Center Honors class was delayed from December 2020 as the center largely shut down its indoor programming. A heavily slimmed-down ceremony was finally held in May of this year, with a series of small socially distanced gatherings and pretaped video performances replacing the normal gala event.
“We know how to do it now. We will make whatever adjustments we need,” Rutter said. “We're going to be wearing masks right up until we don't have to.”
Midler, 75, has won four Grammy Awards, three Emmys, and two Tony Awards, along with two Oscar nominations. Her albums have sold over 30 million copies. In a statement, Midler said she was “stunned and grateful beyond words. For many years I have watched this broadcast celebrating the best talent in the performing arts that America has to offer, and I truly never imagined that I would find myself among these swans.”
Mitchell, 77, emerged from the Canadian coffee shop circuit to become one of the standard-bearers for multiple generations of singer-songwriters. In 2020, Rolling Stone magazine declared her 1971 album “Blue” to be the third-best album of all time. In a brief statement, Mitchell said, "I wish my mother and father were alive to see this. It’s a long way from Saskatoon.”
The Dec. 5 ceremony will be the centerpiece of the Kennedy Center's 50th anniversary of cultural programing. The center opened in 1971 and a young Diaz, now 81, actually performed at the grand opening of the opera house.
“It's a very special thing,” said Diaz, a bass-baritone from San Juan, Puerto Rico. “It's such a great privilege to be able to say I shared this space with all these geniuses.”
Gordy, 91, founded Motown Records — the Detroit-based hit factory that spawned what became known as the Motown Sound and launched the careers of a huge list of artists, including Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Ritchie, Marvin Gaye and Martha and the Vandellas.
Gordy said in an interview that he always held President John Kennedy as one of the greatest leaders in American history.
“So to be honored in his name just means the world to me,” he said.
Michaels, 76, is a comedy institution unto himself — creating and producing “Saturday Night Live” since 1975 and producing dozens of movies and television shows, including “Wayne's World,” "Kids in the Hall" and "Mean Girls." He received the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Award for lifetime achievement in comedy in 2004.
Not normally an onstage performer, Michaels recalls the Mark Twain evening as “mostly nerve-wracking” because he spent the evening dreading the traditional end-of-night speech he had to deliver.
But the Kennedy Center Honors bring no such pressures, and Michaels said he intends to sit back in the special honorees box at the opera house and see what surprises the organizers have in store.
“You don't have to give a speech at the end, which is huge,” he said. “You're just there with your friends.”