Thursday, September 16, 2010

September 16: Kennedy Center: Honor Or Trophy?

By Sylvia Gurinsky

Eyebrows were raised last week when the list of those receiving Kennedy Center Honors for 2010 included Oprah Winfrey.

There is no question of Winfrey's success as a talk show host and entrepreneur.
But the first sentence that describes the Kennedy Center Honors on Google says "The Kennedy Center Honors are awarded annually for exemplary lifetime achievement in the performing arts."

Winfrey has acted occasionally and received a 1986 Academy Award nomination for her role in "The Color Purple." She has also produced various successful films and television dramatic specials.

But to say she's had "lifetime achievement in the performing arts" is stretching things, to put it mildly. If the Kennedy Center wanted to expand the honors to include television producers, it might have done well to honor the recently deceased David Wolper, producer of "Roots" - or it might still honor Dick Clark, who helped revolutionize the influence of rock n' roll with the creation of "American Bandstand."

On the other hand, if those who select the honorees want to stick to the criteria that went into selecting the first recipients - Fred Astaire, Marian Anderson, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers and Arthur Rubenstein - in 1978, there are almost 100 actors, actresses, dancers, singers, musicians, directors and songwriters they could tap.

Here are some of the so-far excluded: Sid Caesar, Burt Bacharach, Mickey Rooney, Carol Channing, Mary Tyler Moore, Hal Holbrook, Cynthia Gregory, Lorin Maazel, Roberta Peters and Charlie Pride.

The presence of Caesar, Rooney and Channing on that list brings up another problem: The declining age of Kennedy Center honorees. Starting in the 1990s, quite a few of the honorees started getting younger. Winfrey is also in her mid-50s, so the Kennedy Center Honors have gradually been evolving into a mid-career reward, rather than a lifetime achievement. Already, baritone Robert Merrill is one example of someone who was denied the honor before he died. Sadly, more will follow.

Part of the reason seems to be the wish by CBS, which televises two hours of the celebration during the last week of the year, to reach younger viewers in one shot.

If the honors are still around in two or three decades, those who decide them will have to think back on this era, where superficial reality show stars with no talent for anything other than causing trouble dominate the media and genuine talents in music, acting and dance are relegated to the background.

It seems the Kennedy Center has to decide: Will its honors become just another trophy for television ratings, or are they truly meant to celebrate American diversity in the performing arts?

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