Washington’s smart set turned out in diamonds and tuxedos on Sunday for the annual Kennedy Center Honors, one of the biggest nights on the event calendars of even the most social socialites. The black-tie evening gathers venerable honorees along with a cast of celebrities to pay tribute to them, with the whole performance done before an audience of Washington’s bold-faced arts patrons, including President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. A gala supper caps off the night.
This year’s honorees—pianist Leon Fleisher, funnyman Steve Martin, supreme songstress Diana Ross, filmmaker Martin Scorsese, and Beach Boy Brian Wilson—garnered a slew of tributes from celebrity admirers, even though, as both Yeas and Nays and Reliable Source reported, most of the honorees had never met their tribute performers. (Lyle Lovett was a stranger to Wilson, Steve Carell to Martin, and Jordin Sparks to Ross.)
Like an Academy Awards ceremony, but without the suspense, the production was plenty theatrical, with elaborate sets and dozens of musicians, dancers, and singers on hand. The stage was styled in a glamorous yet low-key Art Deco theme, and most of the sets were white, lending an understated but elegant feel to the evening. The vibe, too, was distinctly highbrow, with dignified and polished performances (a silver-catsuited Ciara belting out a medley of Diana Ross tunes was as MTV as the evening got), the gentlest of ribbing of the honorees, and an audience whose most raucous moment was clapping along with a gospel choir. The event will air December 26 on CBS.
One fun production element came during the closing tribute to Brian Wilson, when balloons resembling beach balls drifted down on the crowd, providing a striking visual and entertainment for the evening-dress-clad attendees, who happily batted the balls around. But the props created a little more drama later: On the way into the gala dinner, a little boy who had scored one of the balls accidentally punctured it, creating a loud popping noise that sent a swarm of Secret Service types running and the boy scurrying to hide behind his mother’s skirts.
if the ceremony itself was dignified and the scenery understated, gala chair Buffy Cafritz and event producer Carolyn Peachy made up for it at the dramatic, over-the-top gala dinner that followed the performances. Hundreds of tables covered the length of the Kennedy Center’s aptly named grand foyer, nearly obscuring the hall’s signature bright-red carpets. Silver tablecloths were studded with sparkly sequins, and dramatic floral arrangements rose from the centers of the tables, all white orchids and lilies, with droplets of twinkling crystals woven among the blossoms.
Restaurant Associates provided the traditional but luxe menu: watercress and endive salad, followed by a main course of roasted beef tenderloin, potato gratin in a purse of flaky pastry, and haricots verts.
The main attraction during dinner was ogling dresses and stars. With full-on black-tie events getting rarer and rarer (and with more relaxed cocktail attire acceptable at most of the remaining black-tie functions), the Kennedy Center Honors are still an occasion for the Serious Gown, and men in suits, instead of tuxes, were nearly impossible to find. Usual Washington suspects like Colin Powell, Senator Edward Kennedy, and Newt Gingrich were small-potatoes sightings. Out-of-town super-celebs like Aretha Franklin (lime-green gown with a train), Vanessa Williams (also in green), Cameron Diaz (in a floor-length white gown), and Robert De Niro (tux, natch) were the real attraction.
At close to midnight, the wine was flowing and diners were finishing their entrées—but even hardworking Washingtonians with legislation to write and cases to argue the next morning were still going strong.