Filmmaker George Lucas, singer-songwriter Carole King and dancer-actress Rita Moreno are among an unprecedented six honorees to be saluted at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors.
Seventies rockers the Eagles, actress Cicely Tyson and conductor Seiji Ozawa will also be honored at the Dec. 6 event, Kennedy Center officials said Wednesday. A major fundraiser for the arts center, the gala celebration will be televised on CBS on Dec. 29.
“What a night it’s going to be,” Moreno said. “I’m beside myself. I feel like I’m 5 years old.”
Producer-director Lucas joked that the “lifetime” aspect of the honor had the opposite effect.
“That sobers you up, to realize you’re at the point where they’re honoring your body of work,” said Lucas, 71, who received the 2012 National Medal of Arts from President Obama. “It’s frightening and daunting to realize you’ve reached the state of life that these are the honors you get.”
This year’s 38th annual event marks the first under producers Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry Entertainment, the company behind the Tony Awards. They replace George Stevens Jr., who had produced the event every year since 1978. It also honors one more artist than the usual five, although it follows past tradition by featuring artists from various disciplines and ethnic backgrounds.
Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter, who took over the arts center after last year’s event had already been planned, said there are no rules for the selection.
“The good news is there’s no best picture, best director, best actor,” Rutter said, referring to other awards shows. “There’s nothing that says we can’t do what we want to do.”
The selection process includes public nominations, and candidates are put forth by former honorees and members of the arts center’s artistic committee. As in years past, they tried to strike a balance of art forms and artists, Rutter said.
“It’s a little like putting a menu together in a fine restaurant,” she said.
The Kennedy Center was sharply criticized in 2012 for its failure to honor Hispanic artists, and the arts center responded in 2013 by showcasing two, Carlos Santana and Martina Arroyo. Last year’s roster did not feature any artists of Hispanic descent, while this year’s class includes Puerto Rican-born Moreno.
Felix Sanchez, chairman and co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, was a vocal critic of the Kennedy Center’s track record for including Latin artists. But he was pleased by this roster, and he gave Rutter credit for the change.
“This is a long overdue acknowledgment of Rita Moreno’s extraordinary talent,” he said. “This reflects the ongoing changes at the Kennedy Center that have enabled them to be more inclusive. This is directly related to Deborah Rutter’s ascension to the Kennedy Center’s presidency.”
This year’s group also features fortuitous marketing connections. King, for example, will be honored just weeks after the touring production of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” stops at the Kennedy Center Oct. 6-25. And “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” hits theaters between the live awards presentation and the television show. Those are coincidences, Rutter said.
Lucas is most famous for his Star Wars franchise and the “Indiana Jones” movies he produces with 2006 honoree Steven Spielberg. But Lucas also directed “American Graffiti” and has been praised for the technological innovations of his company, Industrial Light & Magic.
“It’s a great honor, especially for film people, since we’re not quite the performing arts,” Lucas said.
Moreno’s six-decade career includes roles in theater, movies and TV. She won an Oscar for her role as Anita in “West Side Story,” but she’s the rare performer who has nabbed all four major awards, including a Tony, Emmy and Grammy.
News of the Kennedy Center Honor brought her back to her childhood. She and her mother arrived in New York in 1936, when Moreno was 5.
“The first thing that comes to mind is my mama,” she said. “We came from Puerto Rico; we were very poor. It was not a friendly city at that time for people like us.
“My mother had this enormous spirit and gumption and stamina,” she said. “I’m sharing this amazing recognition with her.”
Ozawa, 79, said he was pleased to join friends and colleagues John Williams and Mstislav Rostropovich, who were honored in 2004 and 1992, respectively. The Japanese conductor led orchestras in Toronto, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston, where he spent 29 years as music director of the Boston Symphony. He has recorded more than 140 works by more than 50 composers.
“It was a big surprise, and I am super-happy and honored,” Ozawa said from his home in Tokyo. “This kind of honor, I never thought of it.”
Tyson, 90, has enjoyed a long and critically acclaimed career in theater, movies and television, winning a Tony Award for “The Trip to Bountiful” in 2013 and three Emmy Awards, two for her appearance in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” Her movie credits include “Sounder,” “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “The Help.”
“It’s an incredible honor,” she said. “It took my breath away. I couldn’t breathe.”
Tyson is currently filming episodes of the upcoming season of “House of Cards,” and in September she returns to Broadway to star with James Earl Jones in “The Gin Game.”
“I’m quite smitten with the fact that it has just two characters, and that’s different from having an entire cast of people,” she said.
King, 73, wrote her first No. 1 hit “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” at the age of 17. Some 400 of her songs have been recorded by more than 1,000 artists, resulting in 100 hit singles. Some of her best-known songs were recorded by others, such as “You’ve Got a Friend” (a hit for James Taylor) and “A Natural Woman” (recorded by Aretha Franklin).
“I’m humbled and grateful to accept. I’ve been very lucky to be able to do the work I love for so many years. And it’s even more rewarding to know that what I do has touched the lives of so many people,” she said in a statement.
The Eagles — featuring Don Henley, 67, Glenn Frey, 66, Timothy B. Schmit, 67, and Joe Walsh, 67 — is one of the most commercially successful American rock bands. The group has sold more than 120 million albums, had six No. 1 albums and five top singles.
In a statement, the group said it was “deeply grateful” for the honor. “Popular music is one of America’s greatest exports, a bridge that spans geographical and cultural boundaries. We are truly humbled to have been able to be a part of this global connection.”
The arts center unveiled the honorees two months earlier than in years past, giving organizers more time to create the show and book performers, Rutter said. The Kennedy Center will launch a social media campaign, #SendMeToHonors, with its winner receiving two free tickets to the event, which raised $6 million last year and is a much-coveted social date in the District. It will also remain true to its traditions, Rutter said. The honorees will sit with the president and watch as colleagues and friends perform for them.