To the Editor:
In your Dec. 8 spread on the 25th anniversary of the Kennedy Center Honors, you included a list of deceased artists for whom "it's too late now." Regarding Irving Berlin, I do not think your comments are accurate. You state: "Irving Berlin remains perhaps the most controversial omission from the Kennedy Center Honor Roll. No one questioned the great songwriter's place at the very forefront of American culture. But Berlin, who died at 101 in 1989, was unable to make the trip to Washington -- and to be honored, you have to show up."
As I recall, Irving Berlin's name was mentioned as one of the top potential honorees from the time the Honors first appeared in 1978, and I remember specifically reading articles on this matter in The Post from the time I moved to this area in 1980. My strong recollection is not that Mr. Berlin could not physically make the trip from New York City (where he lived) to Washington, but that he no longer liked to travel at all and simply would not make the trip here. Furthermore, Kennedy Center Chairman Roger Stevens (or someone in a similarly high position) stated that if Mr. Berlin ever changed his mind about traveling, he should let the Kennedy Center board know, and he would be made an honoree at the next available time. While I continue to be sad that Irving Berlin never received the Kennedy Center Honors, I think the board made a wise decision from the beginning, requiring attendance at the ceremonies, to assure this honor the prestige it truly deserves.
As artists deserving this honor continue to pass on, I think the Kennedy Center board should reconsider the selection process in terms of who should be honored next. A number of long-retired artists who greatly deserved the honor were passed over until it was too late -- Jascha Heifetz, Ira Gershwin, Frank Capra and Kate Smith fit that bill -- and even some who were performing until they died, such as Vladimir Horowitz, Benny Goodman, Yul Brynner and Rosemary Clooney, never received the call, either.
Meanwhile, a number of relatively youthful artists, many still quite active in their careers, have been honored, perhaps prematurely. This list would include Leontyne Price, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Beverly Sills, Ray Charles, Harry Belafonte, Mstislav Rostropovich, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Stephen Sondheim, Aretha Franklin, Jessye Norman, Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Chuck Berry, Jack Nicholson, Quincy Jones, and even several of this year's honorees. Obviously the board has had its reasons for the mix of honorees it has picked each year. I would suggest, however, that as more of the "greats" leave us without having been selected, the distinction of this honor would perhaps decrease, given the haphazard way the selection process appears to have been done over the years.
We already know that that youngster Paul McCartney is in the wings for next year. I hope the board will consider the fact that Sid Caesar, Carol Channing, Jerry Lewis, Robert Merrill, Roberta Peters, Mickey Rooney and Artie Shaw, among others, won't be around forever. Perhaps a posthumous honor should be considered to fill in the gaps as well.
PETER A. BYRD
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