Honors (Kennedy Center) – The New Yorker (1982)

A movable feast of parties, testimonials, and live entertainment which celebrates the careers of five distinguished Americans in the  performing  arts ­ this year they were George Abbott, Lillian Gish, Eugene Ormandy, Benny Goodman, and Gene  Kelly

Lillian Gish (left) Mr. Ronald Reagan and Mrs. Nancy Reagan 1982 - Kennedy Center
Lillian Gish (left) Mr. Ronald Reagan and Mrs. Nancy Reagan 1982 – Kennedy Center

CARY GRANT gets stagefright, Benny Goodman is absent minded. George Abbott’s favorite song, now that he has directed ninety ­ nine plays and musicals, is “Falling in Love with Love,” from “The Boys from Syracuse.” Secretary of State George Shultz sports a red satin Marine dress cummerbund with his dinner jacket, because he used to be a Marine. Eddie Albert was trained in classical music at the Cincinnati Conservatory and is a Wagnerian – opera buff. Lillian Gish is an old friend of Nancy Reagan’s mother, and invited our First Lady to dinner frequently when Mrs. Reagan was a struggling young actress in New York. Gene Kelly sang “The Wearing of the Green” with President Kennedy on the night of his Inauguration, and both men forgot the second verse. Eugene Ormandy began his American musical career as a last-chair violinist in the pit orchestra of the old Capitol Theatre  in New York. William Agee, of Bendix, is a Goodman fan, and Yves Montand is fascinated by Peggy Lee.

Peggy Lee - Kennedy Center 1982
Peggy Lee – Kennedy Center 1982

Van Johnson lives in an  apartment near Sutton Place with four cats he’s picked up during appearances in din­ ner theatres around the country. Hal Linden was Tom Bosley’s understudy in  George  Abbott’s  “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N,” a hard ­ luck  musical  that  opened   on   the day Martin Luther King was assassinated. Schuyler and  Betty  Chapin know practically everybody in the performing arts. Isaac and Vera Stern know everybody in  the  performing arts. Senator Charles Percy is trying to persuade Congress to cancel the accumulated interest on the Kennedy Center’s forty-five-million-dollar  debt  to the United States government. Budget Director David Stockman is  shorter and grayer than he looks on television, and Interior Secretary James Wall is taller and balder.  These are some of the nuggets of information we picked up during a weekend trip to Washington  for  the  Kennedy  Center  Honors, a movable feast of parties, testimonials, and live entertainment which celebrates the careers of five distinguished Americans in the  performing  arts ­ this year they were George Abbott, Lillian Gish, Eugene Ormandy, Benny  Goodman,  and  Gene  Kelly – and adds about half a million dollars to the Center’s bank account.

Benny Goodman - 1982 Kennedy Center
Benny Goodman – 1982 Kennedy Center

There were four main functions: a private State Department dinner, where the Honors-multicolored ribbon necklaces clasped by three gold-plated bars – were handed out; a  White House reception, during which President Reagan introduced each honoree to the assembled guests; a variety show at the Kennedy Center Opera House, which consisted of filmed biographies of the honorees and tributes from their fellow-artists; and, after the show, a dinner dance for fifteen hundred people in the great hall of the Center.

Lillian Gish is greeted by Mrs. Nancy Reagan and President Ronald Reagan - 1982
Lillian Gish is greeted by Mrs. Nancy Reagan and President Ronald Reagan – 1982

In case you’re wondering why President Reagan didn’t hand out the ribbons himself, we should explain that, despite all kinds of support from the government, the Honors are essentially a private affair. Recipients are suggested by the Center’s eighty-one­member Artists Committee, but the final choice is made by a ten-man executive committee chaired by Roger Stevens, the Kennedy Center chairman. Although there is on occasion some discussion about the candidates, it is generally acknowledged that Mr. Stevens is the dominant influence in the choice of honorees- especially when it comes to the theatre.

Benny Goodman honored - 1982 Kennedy Center
Benny Goodman honored – 1982 Kennedy Center

Things got under way at seven­ thirty on a balmy Saturday evening with cocktails and dinner in the State Department’s official reception rooms, which are furnished with American antiques and Oriental carpets  and are named for Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams. We wandered out onto a broad terrace overlooking the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument and admired some more recent national treasures: Claudette Colbert, in gold-and-navy sequins; Leona Mitchell, in black sequins; Martha Scott, in purple silk; Eva Marie Saint, in black silk; and Peggy Lee, in ruffled and spangled black lace. We fell into conversation with Jean Stapleton, who said that George Abbott had provided her with her first real break in the theatre. (“He hired me, a greenhorn, as Sister in ‘Damn Yankees.’ There were two other relative greenhorns in that show-Hal Prince and Richard Adler.”) Peggy Lee told us that she was writing her musical autobiography for the Broadway stage.

Mrs. Reagan greets Gene Kelly - 1982
Mrs. Reagan greets Gene Kelly – 1982

Yves Montand explained that he was narrating Gene Kelly’s biographical film, because he’d admired Kelly’s films for many years. Lionel Hampton remembered the exact date of his first encounter with Benny Goodman. (“I was playing at the Paradise night club in L.A. on August 20, 1936, when suddenly I heard this clarinet come in on the bandstand next to me.”) Eugene lstomin told us that he had made his concert debut at seventeen with Maestro Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. (“I played the Chopin Second with one rehearsal, and I still remember the wonderful support he gave me.”) Then we talked to Van Johnson, who told us that Mr. Abbott’s casting of him as Victor in “Pal Joey” had sent him to California and a movie career (“I ended up with ten lines and a reprise of ‘Happy Hunting Horn,’ and a lot of people noticed me”); and to Eddie Albert, who was recovering from the shock of singing the aged Emperor in a San Francisco Opera production of Puccini’s “Turandot.” “Luciano Pavarotti swindled me into doing it,” he said. “The score only has about eight notes, but when I opened my mouth to sing the first night I found I’d forgotten all of them. For­ tunately, the prompter saved me.”

Ronald Reagan and Lillian Gish
Ronald Reagan and Lillian Gish – 1982

The White House reception, on the following day, was a larger and more formal affair. Guests were ceremoniously announced at the door, music was subdued and classical, and a decorous receiving line snaked in and out of the Blue  Room.  Toward  the  end of   the  afternoon,   President   Reagan mounted a platform in the East Room and introduced each of the honorees ­ Lillian Gish, fragile and lovely in a high-waisted pale-peach silk ball gown; George Abbott, forceful and sharpeyed at ninety-five; Eugene Ormandy, twinkly-eyed and benign at eighty ­ three; Benny Goodman, with his curiously remote smile; and Gene Kelly, with   his  infectious  Irish  grin-to what might be called the Washington establishment.

Lillian Gish in 1982 NY Apartment
Lillian Gish in 1982 NY Apartment

Of  Miss  Gish,  the President said, “Her performances set a standard of enigmatic allure that has never been equalled.” Of Mr. Abbott, he  said, “Mr. Abbott-I’m  not  sure enough yet to call him George, as I’m temporarily  between  engagements ­ has surely earned the reputation as the dean of American showmen.” Of Mr. Ormandy, he said, “You once said, ‘I had tasted the intoxicating wine of being a wunderkind, and my whole ambition was to be a wunder-man as well.’ Your fellow-Americans want you to know that in their eyes you’ve made it.” Of Mr. Goodman, he said, “He ushered in the era of swing and the music took America by storm.” Of Mr. Kelly, he said, “Bob Hope used to say that every time Kelly dances Fred Astaire starts counting his money. To have seen him dance makes most of us start counting our blessings.” The show that followed at the Kennedy Center demonstrated, as Walter Cronkite, the host, remarked, “not only an abundance of excellence . . . but a diversity of talent.” Leona Mitchell sang “Mi chiamano Mimi” for Miss Gish, who had once played Mimi in a silent film of Puccini’s “La Boheme.” Isaac Stern, accompanied by the Kennedy Center Orchestra under Julius Rudel, played the sublime slow movement of Mozart’s Concerto in G Major for Eugene Ormandy. Peggy Lee said, “Benny, you may remember this,” and sang ‘”Where or When” in her familiar, smoky voice. Lionel Hampton and his quartet bopped through “Air Mail Special” for Benny Goodman,  and  then  Mr. Hampton took over the drums and led the entire orchestra in “Sing, Sing, Sing.”

George Abbott - 1982 Kennedy Center
George Abbott – 1982 Kennedy Center

Betty Buckley sang “Memory” for all five honorees, and Gregory Hines tapped his way through “I Got Rhythm” for Gene Kelly. But the high points of the evening were two old-fashioned vaudeville acts, with casts that had been assembled from all over the country. The first was a quintet of Abbott protégés – Van Johnson, Tom Bosley, Hal Linden, Eddie Albert, and Jean Stapleton – who soft-shoed through “You’ve Gotta Have Heart,” with some special lyrics, ending, “We’ve got George, We’ve got George, We’ve got George.” The second was a quartet of Kelly cronies – a bearded Donald O’Connor, a slinky, long-stemmed Cyd Charisse, a bouncy Betty Com­ den, and an impish Adolph Green ­ singing, “A star with a brain, Who’s dancin’ And acting And directing And choreographing And making love And SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN.” After the show, we sat down to dinner next to William Eells, a Ford Motor Company executive from Columbus, Ohio, who told us that he’d attended every one of the five Honors celebrations. “This year, I had a nice talk with Eugene Ormandy about the late George Szell,” he said and I found that Cary Grant and Claudette Colbert knew my father’s cousin Franchot Tone when he was in the movies. These affairs make those of us who are involved with fund raising for the arts feel really appreciated.”

kennedy-center-honorees george-abbott-lillian-gish-benny-goodman-gene kelly 01 12 1982
kennedy-center-honorees george-abbott-lillian-gish-benny-goodman-gene kelly 01 12 1982
1982 DC Ronald Reagan - Lillian Gish (Kennedy Center)
1982 DC Ronald Reagan – Lillian Gish (Kennedy Center)

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