Kennedy Center Honors blends the glitterati of Hollywood with the politically select

December 09, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Washington -- Only during the weekend of the Kennedy Center Honors is one likely to find legendary tap dancer Fayard Nicholas hoofing it up for cameras in the lobby of the State Department. Or Gregory Peck holding forth at the White House. Or Congress and Cabinet types jostling to get an audience with the likes of Lauren Bacall, Carol Burnett, Patti LuPone or Martin Scorcese.

In fact, only during this annual weekend of glitter and glamour -- capped by last night's star-packed show of music and dance at the Kennedy Center attended by the President and Mrs. Bush -- does official Washington seem to be awe-struck by something other than itself.

Of course, Washington was hardly the only contingent lavishing a weekend full of adulation on this year's honorees -- country music singer Roy Acuff, musical comedy writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, dancers Fayard and Harold Nicholas, actor Gregory Peck and conductor Robert Shaw -- chosen for their achievements in the performing arts. Last night's 14th annual gala, to be aired Dec. 26 on CBS, featured heavyweights from Broadway to Nashville to Hollywood paying tribute to the seven arts and entertainment giants.

The spectacle featured cloggers and fiddlers and Grand Ole Opry stars Emmy Lou Harris and Bill Monroe in a country tribute to Roy Acuff, as well as a razzzle-dazzle production number from Comden and Green's "Will Rogers Follies" -- with stars such as Audrey Hepburn, Gene Kelly, and Gregory Hines appearing throughout.

On Saturday night, the gilt-edged roster of celebrities sipped sparkling wine, dined on rack of lamb and power-mingled in the elegant, chandeliered reception and dining rooms of the State Department. "I've never seen so many famous people in one room in my life," said Broadway singer Howard McGillin.

In one corner, Lauren Bacall, mixed it up with lawyer and civil rights activist Vernon Jordan and planted a nuclear kiss on Adolph Green. "Congratulations, daaaahling!" she gushed. In another, Gregory Peck, explaining that while such awards are nice, it's the longevity of his movies, such as the 1962 classic "To Kill A Mockingbird," that is most heartening. "It's as much as you can hope for in an acting career to have something that lasts 30 years."

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. recalled memories of being on a destroyer in the Atlantic 50 years ago Saturday when a message came through about an air raid on Pearl Harbor. "I thought, 'Where the hell is that?' I went to the captain of the ship and said, 'I don't know if this is important or not.' He said, 'You don't know? You damn fool, we're at war!' "

Beside him, model Cheryl Tiegs (married to Anthony Peck, the actor's son) showed off her flowing black Armani dress. Actor Anthony Hopkins showed off his short new beard. And an ebullient Fayard Nicholas showed off his pride at receiving, with his younger brother, this year's award. "When I got the letter I couldn't believe it. This is the greatest in the land. I'm taking it all in."

As were most of the guests. "This is fascinating, such an odd mix of theater people and Washington people," said "Heidi Chronicles" playwright Wendy Wasserstein, herself accompanied by a Washington person, New Republic columnist Michael Kinsley.

Even Secretary of State James A. Baker III blended the worlds of politics and the arts in his tributes at the Saturday night awards ceremony. He cited the Nicholas brothers' famous "double staircase" act in which, after much acrobatics, "the dancers end up together on the same beat at the bottom of the steps. That I think could suggest some choreography for the Middle East talks. . . . We could call it shuffle diplomacy."

In describing Roy Acuff's background, Mr. Baker noted that the Grand Ole Opry star started out selling snake oil in a medicine show and then ran unsuccessfully on the Republican ticket for governor of Tennessee. "Some might say that's a natural progression," he joked.

In an especially moving tribute to and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra director Robert Shaw, Isaac Stern recalled a Carnegie Hall performance earlier this year in which he was brought to tears by Mr. Shaw's chorus of 2,800. "In the 31 years that I've been associated with the Hall, I've never heard the walls, the ground, the ceilings reverberate with the sound of man singing and believing in the way they did that day."

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