2019 Kennedy Cente Honorees Earth, Wind & Fire, Linda Ronstadt, Michael Tilson Thomas, Sally Field, and Sesame Street creators Lloyd-Morrisett and Joan Ganz-Cooney. Photograph by Scott Suchman , courtesy of the Kennedy Center.
The 2019 Kennedy Center Honors this year highlighted the lifetime achievements of five artists: Linda Ronstadt, Sally Field, Michael Tilson Thomas, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Sesame Street, which was the first TV show to receive the award. Politicians, celebs, and Washington socialites all gathered to celebrate.
The star-packed evening began on the red carpet, where Sesame Street puppeteers walked in character, holding aloft the celebrities we really wanted to talk to. Elmo talked about learning the art of the clip-on bowtie and Abby Cadabby joked about having rented her gown. Much of the Sesame Street team was wearing yellow feather pins to commemorate the original puppeteer behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, Caroll Spinney, who died earlier that same day.
When Field walked down the carpet, one reporter asked about the President’s noted absence (he has skipped all of the Kennedy Center’s high-profile events since taking office). Field responded that if he were in attendance, she wouldn’t be. One of her guests for the evening was Tom Hanks, who spent a lot of time talking about space exploration and the 50th anniversary of moon landing. He said he could talk about it all night, and after a couple minutes, I really believed him. (But who could get bored with Hanks explaining Apollo missions? I’d listen to that podcast.)
The show started with the Eagles’ Don Henley speaking about Ronstadt. “One of our first shows was here in the DC area,” he said. “Glenn [Frey] and I shared a room at the Georgetown Inn and we played at a little club that existed then called the Cellar Door down on M Street, capacity 163. That was almost 49 years ago.” (Ronstadt herself made a little news the night before, at the State Department’s intimate dinner for the honorees, when she reportedly said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was “enabling Donald Trump.”)
While Trump was not mentioned specifically at the Honors, the audience made its feelings known. At one point, Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein gave a shout out to the many lawmakers and other political figures in the room, including Trump-administration figures Pompeo, Betsy DeVos, and Wilbur Ross, to polite applause (I didn’t hear any boos). But when Rubenstein mentioned attendee Nancy Pelosi, the Opera House erupted in shouts and cheers—a standing ovation for the House Speaker who last week announced that she would move forward with impeachment.
The most awkward part of the night was host (and former honoree) LL Cool J, who seemed to have something to say but was a bit too afraid to say it. “There’s so many people here that make important decisions, there’s so many people that deal with so many things that so many don’t understand, but ultimately we are one,” he said. He went on to ramble about unity, but acknowledged the country’s “dirty laundry” history “that we’re not so proud of.” When he tried to sum it up, he said, “So I would encourage us to not be arrogant, but to actually embrace the world and make sure that we provide leadership for the world that is so desperately needed.” The audience slowly clapped, confused but relieved it was over. Next time, get the man an index card!
The music, of course, did not disappoint. To honor Ronstadt, Carrie Underwood performed “Blue Bayou” while the all-female mariachi group Flor de Toloache beautifully highlighted the singer’s Mexican roots with harmonies that could make you (cough, me) cry. Sesame Street puppets along with country artist Thomas Rhett performed the classic “Sing,” and Michael Tilson Thomas was honored with some killer Stravinsky, as well as Audra McDonald singing Leonard Bernstein‘s “Somewhere.”
The biggest boogie came in the final tribute to Philip Bailey, Verdine White, and Ralph Johnson, the remaining original members of Earth, Wind & Fire, with performances by John Legend, Harriet actor Cynthia Erivo, Ne-Yo, and the Jonas Brothers. As all of the vocalists came together for “September,” everyone in the crowd was up on their feet dancing.