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Kennedy Center Honors Will Air On CBS, With Pandemic Changes

NOEL KING, HOST:

Kennedy Center honorees run the gamut. There's Debbie Allen, Dick Van Dyke, Joan Baez, Garth Brooks, the violinist Midori. This Sunday, CBS will air a special featuring tributes and performances. Here's NPR's Elizabeth Blair.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOE HILL")

JOAN BAEZ: (Singing) I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Singer and activist Joan Baez brought Dr. Anthony Fauci to the Kennedy Center Honors medallion ceremony, which was taped last month. He's not in the CBS special, but Jackson Browne and Sturgill Simpson are. They pay tribute to Baez.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN")

STURGILL SIMPSON: (Singing) There is a house in New Orleans they call the rising sun.

BLAIR: In interviews, the honorees expressed support for public arts funding, with Dick Van Dyke lamenting cuts to arts education. At a press conference, Debbie Allen talked about the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DEBBIE ALLEN: Musicians have been out of work, dancers out of work, actors out of work, directors out of work, stagehands out of work, wardrobe people out of work. I think the best thing the government can do is what is happening now so that we can open our theaters, so we can open our dance schools.

BLAIR: Debbie Allen's multi-hyphenated career as a dancer, choreographer, actor and director also includes founding the Debbie Allen Dance Academy. Fellow honoree violinist Midori founded the Orchestra Residencies Program. Students from both organizations performed together.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLAIR: In a typical year, this performance would have taken place on a conventional stage inside the Kennedy Center. Since the pandemic made that untenable, music and dance numbers were filmed outdoors, sometimes with the Potomac River and Lincoln Memorial in the background. The Kennedy Center is a sprawling campus that includes the REACH, indoor and outdoor spaces designed for groups of all sizes. The multimillion-dollar modern expansion was open for just six months when the pandemic hit. The CBS special became an unexpected opportunity to showcase the new grounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOLLY HOLIDAY")

LAURA OSNES: (Singing) Ain't it a glorious day, bright as a morning in May? I feel like I could fly.

BLAIR: For Dick Van Dyke, there were tributes from Tony-nominated actress and singer Laura Osnes, Steve Martin and, of course, his "Mary Poppins" co-star Julie Andrews.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIE ANDREWS: Every day is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious with you, Dick. Or you could say that backwards. It's dociousaliexpiisticfragicalirupes (ph).

BLAIR: The Kennedy Center Honors is the center's biggest fundraiser. It's a federal institution, but it still needs to raise private money. Major donors spend thousands of dollars per ticket. This year, the Kennedy Center didn't even know when or how the whole thing would take place.

DEBORAH RUTTER: And we didn't know until the last minute.

BLAIR: With smaller performances, they sold fewer tickets, but Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter says corporate donors delivered.

RUTTER: We are really blessed that we were able to raise as much money as $3 1/2 million.

RUTTER: That is half what they typically raise, despite performances by A-listers like Kelly Clarkson and Gladys Knight, who paid tribute to Garth Brooks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL BE FREE")

GLADYS KNIGHT AND KELLY CLARKSON: (Singing) Stand straight. Walk proud. Oh, yes. We shall be free.

BLAIR: Kennedy Center Honors airs on CBS on Sunday. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL BE FREE")

KNIGHT AND CLARKSON: (Singing) When the world is enough... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.