This year's recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors will fortunately have ample time to synchronize their orbits before the 10th Annual National Celebration of the Performing Arts in December: Yesterday, when their names were announced, they were busy all over the map.
Violinist Nathan Milstein was reportedly somewhere in New York, but inaccessible.
Actress Bette Davis was en route home to California after a visit to London, where she picked up an award from the British Film Academy and did some promotion for her book, "This 'n That."
Singer Perry Como was on a golf course in Florida, where between repeated crashes of thunder, he said he has known "no happier moment."
Singer-actor-comedian Sammy Davis Jr. and choreographer Alwin Nikolais were both on cloud nine, in Las Vegas and Tucson respectively. Several days after learning that they had been chosen for the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement in the arts, both said they were still having trouble believing it.
"My first reaction was disbelief -- total disbelief," Davis said from the Bally Grand Hotel, where he's working at the moment. "Roger Stevens was kind enough to phone me the day before I received the official letter. I had a delayed reaction. I came up to eat after the 11 o'clock show, and my wife and I sat around until about 1 o'clock; then we started getting ready for bed. Then I started giggling, and she did. We both began getting hysterical, saying 'Imagine; it's happening to us.' We acted like a couple of idiots -- no cool at all."
"I didn't expect this," said Nikolais. "When I got the National Medal of the Arts, I thought, that was it; no more awards like that. People will think, 'Nick has had enough.' I heard about it just before I flew out to Arizona, and I didn't need a jet.
"I plan to go back to New York and shoot my mouth off and brag about it all over the place," he said, then thought better of it. "I won't, really, but I will want to."
It took a few hours to track down Como. "He told me he was going fishing," said an associate, "and when he goes fishing he can be gone for a long time."
But he had gone to play golf instead, kept away from the ocean by storm warnings. "I just came down here to play a couple of holes and got chased off the course by a hurricane or something," he confided in his usual relaxed tone.
As for the award, he said, "I don't know what I did to deserve it, but I appreciate it." His most significant accomplishment, he believes, is surviving: "I'm most proud of the fact that I've been going for 55 years and I'm still going, doing concerts and things. After a while, just being around is an accomplishment."
Sammy Davis welcomed the award as "the arts giving a nod to a theatrical form that doesn't get many nods: saloon entertainment."
"I've been lucky enough to have done Broadway, films, concerts, etc., and to have had some hit records," he said. "But I get real pride out of knowing that I'm the first real saloon entertainer to get this award. We saloon entertainers are a dying breed, but I'm proud still to be one. Like the man says, I didn't forget my roots, which is night clubs. They have been very good to me."
Davis said that 10 or 12 years ago, his attitude on receiving such an award might have been different -- he might have pretended to be less surprised and pleased. "But for me the last five years have been a tremendous turnaround in a positive way, and my ego has shrunk. This is the best thing that could have happened to me, personally or on a professional basis. Sometimes, if you just lay back and relax, wonderful things happen to you."
Nikolais, whose previous honors include a 1968 Emmy, the Le'gion d'Honneur, the Dance Magazine Award, the Grand Prix of the 1968 Paris International Festival of Dance and awards from Yugoslavia and Chile, has not become complacent about such awards.
"I'm a pig," he said, "and I love them all."
Because the award is for life achievement rather than for any particular work, recipients tend to be retired or near the end of long, distinguished careers.
Although their average age is 74 (held down by one Davis, Sammy, who is only 61, and boosted by the other, Bette, who is 79, plus Milstein, who is 82), this year's recipients are still an active group. Nikolais spoke for more than one of his fellow honorees when he said, "I don't have the sense to retire. My life is what I'm doing, so I keep on doing it."
He said he would like "the opportunity to do a lot more exploring and experiment. I travel so much, it doesn't leave me much time to play house in the esthetic kitchen. With limited time, I have to be very sure about what I'm doing. I'd like time to pursue some more failures."
More than 50 American artists have been honored since the first awards were presented to Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers and Arthur Rubinstein in 1978. Twice, the usual five awards have been augmented to honor pairs of artists who have worked as a team: Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe in 1985, and Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in 1986.
Other past recipients include Lucille Ball, Ray Charles, Yehudi Menuhin, Bob Hope, Lena Horne, Gian Carlo Menotti, Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan, Gene Kelly, Count Basie, Helen Hayes, Leonard Bernstein, James Cagney, Leontyne Price, Ella Fitzgerald, Henry Fonda and Tennessee Williams.
The gala performance saluting the recipients, Dec. 6 in the Opera House, will be preceded by a Dec. 5 dinner of the Kennedy Center Board, at which the awards will be presented.