The Kennedy Center Honors is returning to tradition this year.
The lifetime achievement awards for artistic excellence will be presented Sunday night in a gala at the Kennedy Center's main opera house after the coronavirus pandemic forced delays and major changes to last year's plans.
Honorees include Motown Records creator Berry Gordy, “Saturday Night Live” mastermind Lorne Michaels, actress-singer Bette Midler, opera singer Justino Diaz and folk music legend Joni Mitchell.
This year's event also represents a return to political normalcy, with President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden attending. The Democrat is the first president to be at the Kennedy Center Honors since 2016.
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President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump skipped the show the first three years he was in office after several of the artists honored in 2017, his first year in office, threatened to boycott a White House reception if the Republican participated.
The Trumps also scrapped a traditional White House ceremony for the honorees, which Biden resumed Sunday afternoon with a lighthearted holiday gathering.
“We welcome everyone back," he told a crowd of about 150 seated in the East Room, decked out with Christmas trees and wreaths. Guests included Vice President Kamala Harris, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Caroline Kennedy, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Chita Rivera, Steve Martin and Herbie Hancock.
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“Our nation is stronger, more dynamic and more vibrant because of you," Biden told the honorees.
Biden praised the work of the artists, their “sixth sense” that helps them create and move so many people, saying: “I don’t think you fully appreciate what you do for so many people.”
He spoke of Diaz's “sound of soul,” Gordy's creation of “one of the most iconic businesses” in American history with Motown Records. With Michaels, he joked: “Finally, it's my turn to say something about him," poking fun at Michaels' SNL show, which routinely mocks presidents, including the current commander in chief.
“You make me laugh at myself a lot,” Biden said, then went on to say Michaels was auditioning actors right now to play him next on SNL. Biden asked Steve Martin to stand as an example of the type of talent Michaels has cultivated over the past decades.
Martin paused and asked the president, “Do you want me to play you?” The crowd erupted in laughter.
Biden then professed his admiration for both Mitchell and Midler, telling Midler that “people will never forget how you make them feel. That’s your gift, it’s incredible.”
And lastly: “Joni. Your words and melodies touch the deepest parts of our soul," Biden said.
Last year, the pandemic forced organizers to bump the annual December ceremony back to May 2021. Performance tributes to the artists were filmed over several nights and at multiple locations on campus.
The event kicked off with a rousing round of applause for the return of the president and vice president, and the national anthem was performed by Yo-Yo Ma, who encouraged everyone to sing the final lines together.
Performers Brandi Carlisle and Brittany Howard sang Joni Mitchell songs, selections of “Carmen” were belted out by opera singers, and SNL stars Amy Poehler, Seth Myers and Kenan Thompson told jokes about Michaels from a “Weekend Update” desk on stage.
This year’s main COVID-related modification was shifting the annual Saturday ceremony, where honorees receive their medallions on rainbow-colored ribbons, to the Library of Congress instead of the State Department.
Sunday’s ceremony, which will be broadcast Dec. 22 by CBS, is the centerpiece of the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary of cultural programming. The center opened in 1971.