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This Year’s Kennedy Center Honorees Have A ‘Jolly Romp’ At The White House

June 4, 2021

By Elizabeth Blair for NPR

A key component of the annual Kennedy Center Honors is having the U.S. president welcome the honorees to the White House, a tradition that Donald Trump decided to skip during his time in office.

David Rubenstein, Chita Rivera, Garth Brooks, Debbie Allen, Trisha Yearwood, Dick Van Dyke, Joan Baez, Gloria Estefan, Midori, and Kennedy Center president Deborah F. Rutter pose for a group photo at the 43nd annual Kennedy Center Honors. Credit: Kevin Wolf/AP

On Friday, President Biden tweeted that he and the first lady welcomed this year’s honorees Dick Van Dyke, Joan Baez, Debbie Allen, Midori, and Garth Brooks to the White House while they were in Washington, D.C., to receive their medallions and attend performance tributes and receptions last month. A special broadcast of the honors tributes performances will air on CBS on Sunday evening.

Biden said they greeted the honorees “as ordinary fans of their extraordinary work that touches the soul of our human experience.” He continued: “In this year of profound loss and pain, repair and renewal, the artist’s vision is as important as ever.”

Honoree Joan Baez says President Biden gave them more time than they expected. “He was just free with us to tell stories and he got rolling. And then ‘let’s go see the Rose Garden’ or ‘go see the bathhouse’ or go see whatever it was,” Baez said with a laugh, remembering the experience at a press conference. “We were all in kind of a state of shock as it turned out to be a jolly romp.”

The Kennedy Center is a federal institution but still needs to raise money from private sources, and the annual honors celebration is its biggest fundraiser. Major donors spend thousands of dollars per ticket. This year the performing arts center made numerous adjustments to follow pandemic safety protocols; while such A-listers as Kelly Clarkson, James Taylor and Gladys Knight performed, smaller audiences meant fewer tickets sold. Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter told NPR that “we are really blessed that we were able to raise $3.5 million,” which is half as much as the Kennedy Center Honors typically raises.

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