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Oprah Winfrey among five recipients of 2010 Kennedy Center Honors

Receiving this year's Kennedy Center Honors are television host Oprah Winfrey, musicians Paul McCartney and Merle Haggard, dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones and lyricist Jerry Herman.

Receiving the tribute staggered Haggard: "Well, it knocked me down, of course. It caught me totally off guard. It is like an anonymous vote and the whole country says you are okay."

Another very happy fellow, when notified of the Honors, was Herman, a show-tune master with "Mame" and "La Cage aux Folles" among his vibrant musicals. "There is nothing like this, because it comes from my country. Nothing comes near. It is truly overwhelming," Herman said.

Herman, 79, has been writing songs since he was a teenager, and first broke through on Broadway in 1960 with a revue called "From A to Z." His writing partners were Fred Ebb and Woody Allen. His first Tony nomination came in 1962 for "Milk and Honey," and then the trophy floodgates opened with "Hello, Dolly!" in 1964. It won 10 Tonys, then an unmatched record.

Currently "La Cage" is a hit on Broadway once again, the third time. "It is a thrill to know it will go on," Herman said of the musical about the families of two gay men. Unlike many other composers, he doesn't hesitate to talk about his favorite show. " 'Mack & Mabel' still moves and touches me," Herman said of his love story of silent film director Mack Sennett and actress Mabel Normand -- an early work, which starred Bernadette Peters. " 'I Won't Send Roses' is one of my favorite compositions," Herman said. "It so expresses what Mack is all about: I wouldn't send roses. I wouldn't hold the door. So I wouldn't send roses and they suit you so."

'A psychic freeze'

Jones, who won a Tony this year for "Fela!," said he was taken aback by the selection, only because it was such good news. "It is almost like being told you have 11 Tony nominations. I don't take good news well. I have a psychic freeze. 'What -- you are talking to me?' I have to retreat and think about it," said Jones, 58, who is no stranger to accolades. He has been a MacArthur fellow and won a Tony for "Spring Awakening's" fast-paced footwork.

Twenty-seven years ago, he co-founded his dance company with Arnie Zane, his late partner, and they found a way, through modern dance, to express questions about politics, identity, sexuality, illness and other contemporary topics. In the 140 works he has created, Jones has found inspiration in American literature, visual arts and music. He says the Honors are another kind of affirmation for having dared to be provocative and groundbreaking. "We are cultural workers," Jones said, "and to be seated with the president, I am a product of the United States' cultural environment. I hope the people can see if I am worth it, they can see America is worth it."

The 2010 lineup is an ideal Oprah-esque round table. Each chosen artist's life has been brushed by hardship and tragedy. Winfrey, 56, has talked about her own teenage abuse and homelessness. But she found a niche in the news business, working as an anchor in Nashville and Baltimore, where she had her first talk show. She is now one of the most successful and wealthy business executives, with her own network debuting in January.

Her acting credits include an Oscar nomination for her work in "The Color Purple." She later produced the Broadway musical based on the "Purple" movie and book, and produced and starred in the film "Beloved." In the business world, Winfrey is credited with helping to revive the book industry with her on-air book club, which will resume this month.

The honorees are selected by the Kennedy Center board, its advisory committee of artists, and past honorees. The public can also suggest candidates.

The Honors medallions will be given by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Dec. 4 at a private State Department dinner. The artists will be saluted Dec. 5 at an all-star gala and sold-out performance at the center. The show, produced by George Stevens Jr. and Michael Stevens, will be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 28. The broadcast itself has won numerous Emmys, including one this year, as well as a Peabody Award.

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