Kennedy Center bestows honors on 5 top artists

December 03, 1990

STARS from the worlds of opera, theater, film, music and dance have converged in Washington, D.C., for what has become a tradition the last 13 years: the bestowing of the Kennedy Center honors.

The five artists honored last night at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for their cultural contributions to the nation are the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, the actress Katharine Hepburn, the mezzo-soprano Rise Stevens, the composer Jule Styne and the film director and writer Billy Wilder.

Stevens said she was thrilled.

"And to think," she added, "I don't have to do anything but just sit there and listen."

Styne likened the occasion to being knighted, and Wilder was his impish self, saying, "Don't tell anyone: I was really hoping to get the Heisman Trophy."

As for Gillespie, being chosen made him feel "prickly all over," he said.

The reclusive Hepburn has been wooed for years by the Kennedy Center, whose artists committee nominates those to be honored, but she has always resisted, saying she found the whole idea terrifying.

But the actress Angela Lansbury, Hepburn's friend, said, "George Stevens persisted, and finally this year she said, 'All right!' and slammed down the phone."

The arrangement, said Stevens, a co-producer of the event with Nick Vanoff, was that Hepburn need not attend a smaller event, a dinner on Saturday night at the State Department.

There the honor medallions were presented by James D. Wolfensohn, the chairman of the Kennedy Center, with Lauren Bacall as the master of ceremonies.

But there Hepburn was, regal in black evening trousers and a dark purple tweed tunic, the focus of all eyes.

"I have known her for years and can't think of a time I haven't adored here," the playwright and director Garson Kanin said in his toast to Hepburn. "The shelf life for a star is about 10 years, but she's been one for 50 years."

Hepburn corrected him. "Sixty," she said to a ripple of laughter.

The evening's performance at the Kennedy Center is to be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 28.

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