It can be hard for Kennedy Center or Library of Congress to give away awards

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; C01

Being named the winner of one of Washington's prestigious arts prizes might seem like a crowning achievement of any performer's life and career. But over the years, it hasn't always been so easy to persuade some artists to pick up a trophy.

Vladimir Horowitz, the Russian-born piano virtuoso, said he would accept Kennedy Center Honors under two conditions: that he be the only person honored that year and that the ceremony take place on a Sunday afternoon. Nyet, Vladi, the Kennedy Center replied.

Katharine Hepburn declined Kennedy Center Honors for several years, saying she found such a public celebration painful. She relented after the show's co-creator and longtime producer, George Stevens Jr., told her that her shyness was at odds with her "Yankee fiber."

Bill Cosby turned down the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor multiple times because he was offended by all the profanity he heard in the presentation to the award's first recipient, Richard Pryor. (Cosby apparently never saw Pryor's act.) After enough years passed, Cosby, too, accepted.

When this year's crop of Kennedy Center honorees -- Paul McCartney, Oprah Winfrey, Merle Haggard, choreographer Bill T. Jones and Broadway legend Jerry Herman -- arrive in Washington to accept their medallions in December, the awards will once again be as much a celebration of five legendary figures as a triumph of logistics, careful balancing and celebrity wrangling. Like other big-time Washington arts awards (think the Twain Prize and the Library of Congress's Gershwin Prize for Popular Song), it's not just whom a selection committee wants to honor, it's also who's available.

Each of the award-selection committees has run into reluctant would-be recipients, scheduling conflicts and diva eruptions. Sometimes it's coaxing a hard-to-get celebrity to show up for an evening or two -- Mel Brooks and Woody Allen have been particularly hard "gets" over the years -- and sometimes it's a chore to corral the celebrity's friends to show up for the tribute.

The complications start with the selection itself. Months before the winners' names are announced, each of the awards committees consults a panel of artists, including past winners, to generate a list of nominees. The names are submitted to a committee that debates a nominee's qualifications. Preliminary selections emerge. Honoree-designates are asked if they would deign to be officially fawned over. If they would -- and they would far more often than not -- then the deal is sealed.

Because the Kennedy Center annually honors five people from diverse artistic backgrounds, the list of winners is the most complicated to assemble. Stevens, who has written and produced the Emmy-winning "Honors" telecast since it began in 1978, says diversity is an important criterion. "They can't be all women, or all men, or all the same color," he says. They also can't be from the same artistic field -- not too many pop legends or movie stars.

Problem is, the Honors are a TV show, too, so the production needs big names to draw an audience. Hence, the balancing act: For every Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen (both previous honorees), there have been relatively obscure honorees such as Virgil Thomson, Nathan Milstein and Maria Tallchief.

This has led to some spirited discussion about who's been left out or what artistic disciplines have been overlooked. Stevens says that "we were a little late" to honor country music's greats, although such giants as Roy Acuff (1991), Johnny Cash ('96), Willie Nelson ('98), Loretta Lynn (2003), Dolly Parton ('06), George Jones ('08) and now Haggard have been celebrated.

Dwight Blocker Bowers, curator and historian at the National Museum of American History, faults the Honors for not including "more of a sweep of history" and not highlighting professionals who may not have been household names but were engines of culture. "It is more reflective of a contemporary point of view. I understand they need contemporary people and need to produce a good television program," said Bowers, who collects the Smithsonian's entertainment memorabilia. "I wish they were catching some of the oldsters before they are gone, like Carol Channing, who not only has had a remarkable career but does great things for arts education."

Who else? "I suspect the committee, if it were going back in time, would address the omission of Hoagy Carmichael, Bill Monroe, Peggy Lee, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Sarah Vaughan, Max Roach, Artie Shaw, Celia Cruz and Tito Puente," says John Hasse, the Smithsonian's curator of American music. Among living artists, he would propose Fats Domino, Little Richard, Johnny Mandel, Randy Newman, James Taylor, Gunther Schuller, Elliott Carter, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman.

The dynamics in selecting the Twain and Gershwin prizes are somewhat different because each award recognizes an individual each year. Peter Kaminsky, one of the executive producers and creators of both awards, says the recipients have to have a high degree of trust in the producers before they accept. "They're not just a segment on the show," he says. "This [the telecast of the award] is probably the most in-depth look and presentation of their lives' work that they will get, so they have to feel that you're going to see" their careers presented accurately and fairly.

Of course, the accolades are a limited-time offer. After Vladimir Horowitz declined Kennedy Center Honors, the selection committee never asked again. He died soon after the first offer was extended.

The Kennedy Center doesn't ask much of its honorees, but showing up alive is required.

Staff writer Jacqueline Trescott contributed to this story.

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