Kennedy Center Honors

December 03, 1990|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Washington In a way, Katharine Hepburn gave the producers of the Kennedy Center Honors extravaganza an honor of their own this past weekend.

She showed up for the glittery gala. And she beamed.

After years of declining the prestigious performing arts award (you have to show up to get it), the legendary actress -- wearing her signature slacks with a turtleneck and white scarf, long black coat and walking shoes -- shared the Kennedy Center's center box last night with this year's four other honorees: jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, mezzo-soprano Rise Stevens, composer Jule Styne, and film director and writer Billy Wilder.

And the music and dance-filled tributes flowed their way:

Personal salutes by comedian Bill Cosby, singer Marilyn Horne, actors Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Lauren Bacall, and choreographer Jerome Robbins; sizzling jazz by Dizzy Gillespie's United Nation Orchestra; a Jule Styne medley with "Gypsy" star Tyne Daly; a performance by opera singer Aprile Millo.

The awards show, to be aired on CBS-TV Dec. 28, was the highlight of a festive Washington weekend for the honorees that included a White House reception yesterday afternoon, dinner at the State Department Saturday -- and a star quotient that dizzied even some of the celebrated award recipients.

"Every time you turn around there's somebody else," Mr. Gillespie said at the State Department dinner hosted by Secretary of State James A. Baker III and his wife, Susan.

Somebody like Ms. Bacall, in a sleek gray pants suit, or Ms. Close in a black, monk-like Geoffrey Beene ensemble. Somebody like a blond Tyne Daly or a chatty Willem Dafoe. Claudette Colbert or Garson Kanin. Or Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who, in acknowledging his reputation as a playboy, pointed to his escort, sister Jean Kennedy Smith, quipping, "unidentified blonde."

Even Ms. Hepburn attended Saturday night's dinner and awards ceremony -- although she entered through the back to avoid the cameras and a pre-dinner reception.

"It's very exciting that she's here at all," actress Rosemary Harris said.

"It was difficult for her to say yes," said Angela Lansbury, one of Ms. Hepburn's longtime friends. "She's a rather reclusive person. [Kennedy Center Honors producer] George Stevens [Jr.] kept after her year after year. Finally she said, 'Allllll right!' and slammed down the phone."

Asked at yesterday's White House reception if all the fanfare was as bad as expected, an array of expressions danced on Ms. Hepburn's face before she replied, "It's charming."

Ms. Hepburn, 83, was accompanied to the gala events by her longtime New York companion, Phyllis Wilbourn, as well as Sun publisher Michael J. Davies and his wife, television producer Cynthia McFadden, who are friends of Ms. Hepburn.

But if it took years to bring the all-time Oscar champion to the Kennedy Center, the other honorees required no special coaxing at all.

"This award has the dignity of being knighted," said Mr. Styne, 84, who wrote the scores for such Broadway classics as "Gypsy," "Peter Pan," and "Hallelujah, Baby!" "To think that my country has honored me is a very warm feeling. It reaches nerves that have never been reached before."

"This award is unique," said Mr. Wilder, 84, whose credits include "Ninotchka," "Some Like It Hot," "Sunset Boulevard" and six Academy Awards. "You can only get it once. Don't tell anyone, but I was hoping to get the Heisman Trophy. Maybe next year."

Bebop king Mr. Gillespie, 73, blew a whistle from his trademark cheeks to express his excitement, and Ms. Stevens, 77, the Metropolitan Opera's reigning soprano for decades, called the honor "the culmination" of her career.

As usual, there was a touch of Washington to the otherwise strictly show-biz affair, with chat about the crisis in the Persian Gulf and Secretary Baker's upcoming trip there.

Mr. Matthau, upon meeting Secretary Baker, offered a little friendly advice. "I said, 'Mr. Secretary, don't go to Baghdad.' He said, 'Why not?' I said, 'They may keep you as a hostage.' He said, 'My mother just called and told me the same thing.' "

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