Oprah Winfrey among five recipients of 2010 Kennedy Center Honors

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; C01

Well, hello, Oprah! The Kennedy Center announced Tuesday that Oprah Winfrey, the doyenne of daytime television, will be among the five artists receiving this year's Kennedy Center Honors.

The others are musician-songwriters Paul McCartney and Merle Haggard, dancer-choreographer Bill T. Jones and composer-lyricist Jerry Herman of "Hello, Dolly!" fame.

The selection of Winfrey may be startling, but it's not without precedent. The choice harks back to 1993 when late-night television host Johnny Carson was selected, breaking the long line of honorees who were strictly traditional performing artists. Winfrey, taking a break from taping for her 25th season and reviewing the nearly 5,000 hours of footage, let out with a buoyant "Wow-zee!"

She explained: "This feels like an official American citizenship in a very exclusive club of artists and contributors to the nation in a very special way. It feels like an elevated kind of award and there aren't many in this category. They look at your work, your life work, who you are as a human being and the spirit of who you are as a human being. Not many honors look at that depth."

David M. Rubenstein, the center's chairman, talked about the "cultural vibrancy" of all five honorees.

"For more than 25 years, Oprah Winfrey has established one of the most innovative careers in the entertainment world, with distinctive accomplishments in television and film," he said.

"The honesty of Merle Haggard's music and poetic lyrics has helped to shape the world of country music for nearly five decades. Jerry Herman's musicals rank him in the pantheon of Broadway's Golden Age," said Rubenstein, who will be hosting his first gala as chairman. "The inventive style and imaginative artistry of Bill T. Jones has had an invaluable impact on the varied landscapes of dance and theater. Sir Paul McCartney is one of the most influential and successful songwriters and musicians of all time."

Actually, this is the second time McCartney has been invited to receive the Kennedy Center Honors. In 2002, he accepted but then abruptly withdrew, citing a family obligation. "We first asked if he had any relatives getting married the first week of December," joked George Stevens Jr., the longtime producer of the event. "He is very pleased and we are pleased to have him in the group." For his own part, McCartney sent along a message: "President Kennedy was such an icon for us in the Sixties and his presidency was so inspiring for so many people that it is a great pleasure for this kid from Liverpool to receive this honour."

McCartney, who received the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in June and performed at the White House, has long led the list of most beloved and influential musicians. Now 68, he transformed the music scene with the Beatles and, after their breakup in 1970, enjoyed success with his own band, Wings, and continues to be an exhilarating performer on tour, drawing crowds of all generations. Music authorities rank his 1965 composition "Yesterday" as one of the best songs ever and declare that it has been played more than 6 million times on American radio.

For lifetime contributions

The Honors, marking their 33rd year, are a coveted tribute to artists who have made lifetime contributions to dance, opera, film, television, music and theater.

In a career that dates from the early 1960s, Haggard has entertained with more than 600 songs that touch all the themes of country, gospel and blues. When asked about his 38 straight No. 1 songs, Haggard laughs deeply. "Well, actually it's 41 straight Top 10 hits," he said. Few would argue with his influence and representation of working people and their dreams and mistakes. Haggard, 73, starting out with his fiddle and guitar, was encouraged to write about his own hard life, unhappy childhood, imprisonment and eventually love and a good family.

"Hungry Eyes," the 1969 song about an impoverished family, was followed by "Okie From Muskogee" and "Today I Started Loving You Again." "If We Make It Through December" and "The Bottle Let Me Down" are pure country. The audiences he finds on tour today, he said, request "Mama Tried," "Misery and Gin," "The Fugitive" and "Okie." Not minding continuing to sing the standards, Haggard said, "All those songs are right inside of me."

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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