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The Big Surprise at This Year's Kennedy Center Honors

The prestigious performing arts event will switch producers after 37 years.

By D. Channing Muller December 11, 2014, 7:15 AM EST

After the performance, the lighting in the foyer changed to an electric blue for dinner and dancing.

Photo: Yassine El Mansouri

37th Annual Kennedy Center Honors
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The Kennedy Center Honors always contain surprises, from secret performers—this year Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga, and Bruno Mars were among them—to speculation over what First Lady Michelle Obama would be wearing. But the surprise at Sunday's event was a behind-the-scenes change: Producer and co-creator of the 37th annual event George Stevens Jr. announced that it would be his, and son Michael’s, last year running the show. Drawing audible gasps, Stevens said chairman David Rubenstein had approached him about the honors “needing new blood.”

Rubenstein did not directly comment on the announcement on stage, but he thanked them for their years of work on the show, which has garnered five Emmy awards in the past six years for Outstanding Television Special as well as a Peabody award and seven awards from the Writers Guild of America. In a statement afterward, the Kennedy Center said that George Stevens Jr.’s contract had in fact expired and the event would begin searching for a new producer.

Following a standing ovation for the producers, the show went on at the Opera House of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The honors, which annually recognize five performers for their lifetime of achievement and dedication to the arts, combine musical performances with tribute speeches and video dedications and consist of multiple events. This year's honorees were singer Al Green, actor and filmmaker Tom Hanks, ballerina Patricia McBride, singer-songwriter Sting, and comedian Lily Tomlin. Stephen Colbert hosted the event.

In addition to the show, events surrounding the honors include a gala dinner following the show, a Saturday luncheon, and a State Department dinner Saturday evening where the honorees receive their medallions. The seated gala dinner and dancing takes place in the Opera House's Grand Foyer. When it comes to seating and serving a crowd of 2,000—plus allowing enough room for an additional 295 waitstaff to maneuver through the space—the 24,000-square-foot room provides a unique set of challenges for the event staff. Tables, bars, the dance floor, and room decor all have a set place—and space limitations. 

“We have it down to a science,” said director of special events Matthew Porter. “It’s a unique space, and since there are so many people, we focus on the tablescapes.” 

DC Rental provided a mix of gold and silver linens with copper highlights for the 171 tables set up throughout the foyer and the two stages on either end. On each table, Urban Petals created 175 centerpieces of varying heights, mixing three types of red roses with fuego alstroemeria and leucadendron in clear and gold vases. 

In the entryways to the foyer, Porter had more room to work with. Here he added 4-, 6-, and 8-foot hexagon flower boxes filled with the same florals found on the tables. The boxes, inspired by the shape of the foyer chandeliers, provided additional decor and a photo opportunity for guests upon arrival without hindering the flow through the dinner area. 

While the show will not air until December 30 on CBS, here’s a look inside the honoree luncheon on Saturday afternoon and Sunday’s post-show dinner.

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