The Kennedy Center Honors have been handed out since 1978. Recipients hail from various branches of the American performance art world – including film, stage, music, and dance – even though performers more closely associated with British show business have managed to sneak in every now and then, e.g., Paul McCartney, Roger Daltrey, Elton John, Pete Townshend.
Since recipients are supposed to attend the Washington, D.C., ceremony in order to take home their Kennedy awards, Doris Day has remained unhonored by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Katharine Hepburn kept putting it off until she finally relented in 1990. (Irene Dunne, see above photo, was one who managed to be honored though absent due to ill health.)
Ginger Rogers, for her part, was present at the ceremony, but her films with Fred Astaire weren't – because Astaire's widow, Robyn Astaire, demanded payment for the televised clips. At the time, Kennedy Center Honors producer George Stevens Jr. announced that the Astaire-Rogers films and photos “regrettably are being removed from the tribute to Miss Rogers.”
Watching bits from the Kennedy Center Honors, I can only imagine what it must feel like to be all smiles while consorting with an American president you may have publicly criticized and/or despise in private. But that's show biz.
As can be attested below, U.S. ethnic minorities and women are carefully represented on the Kennedy Center Honors list.
1978: Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers, Arthur Rubinstein
1979: Aaron Copland, Ella Fitzgerald, Henry Fonda, Martha Graham, Tennessee Williams
1980: Leonard Bernstein, James Cagney, Agnes de Mille, Lynn Fontanne, Leontyne Price
1981: Count Basie, Cary Grant, Helen Hayes, Jerome Robbins, Rudolf Serkin
1982: George Abbott, Lillian Gish, Benny Goodman, Gene Kelly, Eugene Ormandy
1983: Katherine Dunham, Elia Kazan, Frank Sinatra, James Stewart, Virgil Thomson
1984: Lena Horne, Danny Kaye, Gian Carlo Menotti, Arthur Miller, Isaac Stern
1985: Merce Cunningham, Irene Dunne, Bob Hope, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Beverly Sills
1987: Perry Como, Bette Davis, Sammy Davis, Jr., Nathan Milstein, Alwin Nikolais
1988: Alvin Ailey, George Burns, Myrna Loy, Alexander Schneider, Roger L. Stevens
1989: Harry Belafonte, Claudette Colbert, Alexandra Danilova, Mary Martin, William Schuman
1990: Dizzy Gillespie, Katharine Hepburn, Risë Stevens, Jule Styne, Billy Wilder
1991: Roy Acuff, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Fayard and Harold Nicholas, Gregory Peck, Robert Shaw
1993: Johnny Carson, Arthur Mitchell, Georg Solti, Stephen Sondheim, Marion Williams
1994: Kirk Douglas, Aretha Franklin, Morton Gould, Harold Prince, Pete Seeger
1995: Jacques d'Amboise, Marilyn Horne, B.B. King, Sidney Poitier, Neil Simon
1996: Edward Albee, Benny Carter, Johnny Cash, Jack Lemmon, Maria Tallchief
1998: Bill Cosby, Fred Ebb and John Kander, Willie Nelson, André Previn, Shirley Temple Black
1999: Victor Borge, Sean Connery, Judith Jamison, Jason Robards, Stevie Wonder
2000: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Chuck Berry, Plácido Domingo, Clint Eastwood, Angela Lansbury
2001: Julie Andrews, Van Cliburn, Quincy Jones, Jack Nicholson, Luciano Pavarotti
2003: James Brown, Carol Burnett, Loretta Lynn, Mike Nichols, Itzhak Perlman
2006: Zubin Mehta, Dolly Parton, Smokey Robinson, Steven Spielberg, Andrew Lloyd Webber
2007: Leon Fleisher, Steve Martin, Diana Ross, Martin Scorsese, Brian Wilson
2008: Morgan Freeman, George Jones, Barbra Streisand, Twyla Tharp, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey
2010: Merle Haggard, Jerry Herman, Bill T. Jones, Paul McCartney, Oprah Winfrey
2011: Barbara Cook, Neil Diamond, Yo-Yo Ma, Sonny Rollins, Meryl Streep
Photo: Kennedy Center Honors. George Stevens Jr. quote via the New York Times.