The Kennedy Center will join the annual parade of award shows on television with the presentation of "Kennedy Center Honors" to five cultural superstars at a ceremony to be taped and packaged as a two-hour CBS TV special. The invitational benefit gala will be held in the Opera House on Sunday, Dec. 3, and televised by CBS Tuesday, Dec. 5.

Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers and Arthur Rubinstein have been selected by the Center's board of trustees as the first honorees for their "significant contributions to American culture."

A Center spokesman said yesterday all five have agreed to attend the gala and a White House reception in their honor, earlier in the day, to be hosted by President and Mrs. Carter.

In addition, some of those invited to the Kennedy Center gala - and paying up to $150 a ticket - will also be invited to a supper at the East Building of the National Gallery of Art after the show. Center spokesman Thomas R. Kendrick said yesterday the center hopes to net $300,000 from the benefit and the sale of the event to television.

The timing of the Center's announcement came as a surprise to both the White House and to CBS.

"The Kennedy Center kind of jumped the gun on this one," said White House spokesman Faith Collins. Neither she nor other White House sources reached would say whether President and Mrs. Carter would attend the Opera House gala, although a Kennedy Center spokesman said it was assumed that they would.

According to Bernie Sofronski, vice president for specials at the CBS Television Network, the project is the brainchild of George Stevens Jr., chairman of the American Film Institute and executive producer of the telecast.

"George came to us with this," Sofronski said. "What turned us on is that this is the only show of its kind. In Europe and most countries they have ways of honoring their actors and their athletes. England has its command performances for the queen.

We see this as a national honoring of people who have contributed to society, not someone who happens to have a pop record hit at the moment."

Sofronski did concede, however, that television is already heavily populated with award shows. Some of these - mainly established events like the Oscars, the Emmys and the Miss America Pageant - do well in the ratings, and others - like the American Film Institute's "Life Achievement Awards," also produced by George Stevens - do not.

"Our intention is not to do just another award show," Sofronski said. "We're going to make an effort in terms of a real special. We don't see this as a fabricated show, just there for television, but as a legitimate event. We see it that way - as truly legitimate."

Kendrick acknowledged that one purpose of the project is to get "national television exposure" for the "national cultural center" and to "get out to a much broader public" an awareness of Center activities.

"We're not silly," said Kendrick. "Money is an important consideration. And national television network exposure is the best way to reach the American public. We would have held the benefit anyway, but we wouldn't have reached nearly the number of people or raised nearly as much money as we will this way."

The event is of paramount importance, Kendrick said, because the Center is "recognizing very, very worthwhile people in our cultural life, not newcomers, and getting national recognition - meaning, presidential."

None of the honorees will be asked to perform at the gala, so the two hours will be filled with numbers by what Sofronski called "key entertainers" who have yet to be signed. He did promise that the lineup TV guest stars. "You'll see combinations of people you haven't seen together before," he said.

Although the Center has been the scene of several previous prime-time specials - the most recent a high-rated 75th birthday tribute to Bob Hope - it has not initiated and presented one itself. "This is our first special," Kendrick said.

The fee to be paid George Stevens for producing the show has not yet been decided, Kendrick said; Stevens himself referred all inquiries to Kendrick. Center Chairman Roger L. Stevens, who approved the project, was in East Berlin and could not be reached.

The actual award to be given the honorees is now "under design" and will be some sort of medal, Kendrick said.