A loud, clear, piercing whistle is not the sort of sound you usually hear at black-tie events, especially black-tie Kennedy Center Honors events. But there it was, every time things got too quiet or the crowd needed to be jostled into movement, a whistle that dared you to ignore it. And there he was, actor and singer Danny Kaye with his black space shoes and cane, whistling away, egged on by actor Karl Malden and director Carl Reiner.
It was the kind of thing that might be expected to raise some eyebrows, but Kaye got away with it. When you're about to receive a Kennedy Center Honor, you can get away with almost anything. The honors are only given, after all, to people who are expected to remind us again and again that they are not only larger than life, they are larger than petty social formalities.
Agnes de Mille, a former honoree herself, knew that. While she read from the citation for singer and actress Lena Horne, one of the five recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, de Mille paused and looked up at the audience.
"There's no mention of Lena's good looks," she said, arching her body, which was draped in gold satin. "There was Helen of Troy and then Lena Horne. It's her magic. I have seen people lean out of their seats to watch her."
Saturday night, the audience of friends, actors, writers, producers, directors and politicians who have made this weekend Washington's most glittery and lauded social occasion did not satisfy itself with leaning. At the dinner where the honorees are actually awarded their medals, they stood in applause again and again.
Horne, 67, introduced as the first lady of American song, looked around her table as if the speech were about someone else. Kaye, 71, who was labeled "our oldest living child," bent his head to the table, only the pale red waves of his hair showing. Gian Carlo Menotti, 73, the composer and director who, it was said, "has proved once more that the classical artist can be a popular artist," looked straight ahead, smiling. Arthur Miller, 69, the playwright whose works, said de Mille, "teach us how to live and how to die," looked straight ahead without smiling. And Issac Stern, 64, the violinist who was saluted for his cultural activism, laughed at the stories about how he wouldn't practice the piano as a child.
The Kennedy Center Honors, now in their seventh year, are celebrated in a three-tiered event spread over two extremely social days, with unofficial satellite events sandwiched in. Starting with a Saturday night supper, the honorees, their guests, families and fans are the focus of a White House reception, a gala and another dinner at the Kennedy Center.
The first event, Saturday's formal dinner, was moved this year from the State Department to the Cannon House Office Building. Secretary of State George Shultz, resplendent in a red vest, still officiated and joked that State's Diplomatic Rooms were being "Congerized," or renovated by White House curator Clement Conger.
The entrance was a little less than auspicious, with the celebrities' limousines creeping up the deserted streets around the Capitol and the stars alighting before a shivering line of photographers leading to a brass revolving door graced by one unadorned light bulb. But the interior, with the building's marble and the guests' satins and jewels, redeemed all.
Something about the red coats and the musicianship of the military band prompted Stern to pose his whole family by the orchestra. Once he included Shultz. Then he got his wife, Vera Stern, his children, David, Michael and Shira Webber, to pose. "Daddy's such a teddy bear," observed Michael.
When singer Joe Williams crept up behind Horne, he started singing "He's just good-for-nothing Joe. But I love him so," and Horne gave him a smothering embrace. Standing by her side, designer Giorgio Sant'Angelo started taking pictures. "I am the family photographer," he noted. Horne described herself as "nervous," then "shaky." Then when Horne spotted dancer Debbie Allen and her sister, actress Phylicia Ayers-Allen, she lowered her voice to a command: "Hey, you."
For Miller and attorney Joseph Rauh, the Capitol Hill setting stirred up other memories. Rauh recalled this was the very building where he represented Miller when he was subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Those times, said Miller, "could hardly be worse." Rauh concurred. "I consider this a better day," he said.
While the honorees were being kissed, photographed and pampered, the celebrities in the supporting cast were orbiting around their own admirers and seeking out personal heroes.
Making up the parade were actors Donald Sutherland, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., George Segal, Sid Caesar, Lillian Gish, Jeanne Moreau, Ellen Burstyn, Maureen Stapleton, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Dina Merrill, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, director Frank Capra, producer Joseph Papp, playwright Edward Albee, Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley, sportscaster Vin Scully, singer Dionne Warwick, choreographer Arthur Mitchell and opera diva Grace Bumbry.
Local guests included Ethel Kennedy; Jean Kennedy Smith; Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America; attorney Vernon Jordan Jr.; and producers of last night's gala, Nick Vanoff and George Stevens Jr.
The political world was represented by Cabinet officers William French Smith and Margaret Heckler, former defense secretary Melvin Laird and former health, education and welfare secretary Joseph Califano, White House deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver and Sens. Charles Percy and James McClure.
The dinner, like the entire weekend, they all said, was something a little unusual.
"I think it's the ambiance, the fact that you're in these vaunted buildings and you see the faces of people whom you admire," said Reiner. "I'm looking at Walter Cronkite, for example. I'm going to go talk to him, but he's busy now. Oh look, he's coming to me. I can't believe it."
Caesar, wearing a black-and-white-striped tuxedo shirt monogrammed "Sid," was making an encore as a guest. "We loved it so much we came back," he said. "The best weekend. To be able to walk up to the people you've admired for so long -- beautiful. People like Walter Cronkite, Isaac Stern. Beautiful people. There are no egos involved. It's a great thrill. This is what we've got to appreciate. It's living. We've got to appreciate life."
Renewing old friendships was the real first course before the 250 guests sat down to roast pheasant, wild rice and autumn vegetables. Papp recalled his first acting role in a California production of "Death of a Salesman." Though he has never produced one of Miller's plays, the two find themselves in other projects. "We picketed the Czechoslovakian Embassy together when Vaclav Havel, the playwright, was imprisoned."
Zimbalist traced his friendship with Menotti back to 1947 when he appeared in the Broadway productions of "The Medium" and "The Telephone." Said Zimbalist, "He is one of the most delightful people in the whole world, an inheritor of the mantle of Verdi and the great Italian opera."
The honors themselves evoked delight from the honorees and guests, and a few comments that suggested such things should be more common. Papp endorsed the practice as better "than those competitive awards, the Tonys, the Oscars," and Maureen Stapleton observed, "It's fun for us to honor our entertainers. In England, they make them sirs, and in Russia, maybe they give them an extra room." Honoree Miller added, "I am glad this happens because the writer in America can always do with a little recognition."
Stern said he was offered the honor last year but turned it down so he could keep a commitment at a synagogue on behalf of his daughter, a rabbi. "So it was not a surprise. A professional engagement you can change. When you give your word of honor, you don't change." Stern is young to receive a Kennedy Center Honor, and he said, "It is not the end. It is just a stopping place of joy before much more that is to come."
Yesterday, at a lunch for the honorees and entertainers at the Ritz-Carlton hosted by hotel owner John Coleman, Miller's wife, photographer Inge Morath, said, "Being European, I know the artists are much less recognized officially here."
Inge Feltrinelli, an Italian publisher who accompanied Miller and Morath to Washington, said, "There is a feeling in Europe artists have no power in this country. Even in the Soviet Union, intellectuals have more power, or they wouldn't be afraid of them."
The star-happy socializing was continuing at the hotel, where Stapleton said, "Of course, it's all very fast and hectic," but she didn't seem to mind as more than 200 people attempted to slide graciously through the crush, in search of tiny lamb chops, smoked salmon and stars.
"Is it true you're getting off the show?" Bumbry asked Michelle Lee, of CBS' "Knots Landing," with the appropriate dramatic emphasis.
"You'll have to watch," said Lee.
"I'm not always in the country," said Bumbry.
Sympathy prevailed. Lee leaned close to Bumbry and whispered a brief message into her ear.
"Very good," said Bumbry, who then plunged farther into the crowd.
Throughout the weekend, costume-watching provided as much excitement as star-searching. Lee may have won the award for casual attire at the lunch, with her aviator-style jacket coated in several kinds of fur, gold metallic leaves, swatches of leather and a variety of other substances. The previous night, Bumbry probably took the outerwear prize with her floor-length chinchilla coat. But for sheer daring and flair, no one beat the sister team of Debbie Allen and Phylicia Ayers-Allen on Saturday night. Ayers-Allen's snug, strapless blue-sequined dress (which she said her sister insisted she wear) seemed almost sedate beside Allen's red spaghetti-strap silk, which revealed just about every inch of a back that could only belong to a dancer.
Survival tactics at the lunch consisted of settling in a small, well-cushioned alcove and refusing to leave, as Stern's family did, or just shoving. Playwright Albee stopped shoving in order to answer a question and caused something of a traffic jam at the door, but that was nothing unusual yesterday.
"I've known Arthur for 25 years," he said yesterday of Miller, whom he honored in a toast on Saturday night. Miller has, over the years, received his share of bad reviews, but as Albee said, "Haven't we all? You go in and out of fashion. Some critics carry grudges. Some critics are smart, some are stupid. Sometimes you do good work, sometimes you don't. But Arthur's a survivor. That's nice. That's what's nice about him."
At Saturday's ceremony, Shultz emphasized the diplomatic role the artist can play. "It is interesting to think the relationship between people has more stability to it than relationships between governments . . . These human relations we make around the world provide a safety net for government relations." He recalled a promise from Stern. "Just after I was named, Issac said, 'If you can get something good done in the Mideast, I will get a couple of the boys together and we will do something,' " said Shultz, who posed with all the drama of the stage folk in his audience, "I am still working on it."