WASHINGTON – Weather aside, it will be a sunny day in December at the Kennedy Center Honors, when Big Bird, Elmo and the rest of “Sesame Street” make history as the first television program to receive the nation’s performing arts award.
Actress Sally Field, singer Linda Ronstadt and R&B band Earth Wind & Fire will also be recognized for their lifetime achievements, bringing a baby-boomer nostalgia to the occasion. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is the fifth honoree, a nod to the fine arts. The Dec. 8 production in the Opera House will be broadcast Dec. 15 on CBS.
The unusual selection of “Sesame Street” comes during its 50th anniversary year, a great moment to celebrate the groundbreaking show, said Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter.
“They’re so universally loved,” Rutter said. “When we raised the possibility of it, there was such an overwhelming enthusiasm. It has touched so many people in so many ways.”
The winner of 189 Emmys and 11 Grammys, “Sesame Street”revolutionized the role of television in early-childhood education. The long-running series has attracted big-name guest artists ever since Carol Burnett appeared in the first episode in 1969. Dozens of Kennedy Center honorees – including Yo-Yo Ma, Lena Horne and Robert De Niro – have appeared as special guests or worked as collaborators on the show, a testament to its long-standing commitment to the arts.
The award comes a year after the Kennedy Center gave a special honor to “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster musical about the Founding Fathers, the first time a work of art had been honored. This is similar, but different, Rutter said.
“We are celebrating the output of the group of people, not the people (themselves),” she said. “In the case of ‘Hamilton,’ it was early in its lifetime. This is a lifetime achievement moment at 50.”
Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, co-founders of the Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind the series, will accept the award.
Since 1978, the Kennedy Center has produced the Honors, an annual performance and fundraising gala featuring A-list artists paying tribute to a slate of honorees, who watch from the box tier of the Opera House. Past presidents and first ladies hosted almost all of the first 39 events, but President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump have not attended in their first two years in the White House.
Rutter said that the couple have been invited again this year, but that it is too early to know whether they will attend.
“It is really important to me and to our country that the highest office of the country recognizes the contribution of the arts and of artists,” she said. “On the other hand, it is important that … the Kennedy Center Honors remains true to honoring the artists. It’s not a political activity. It’s about celebrating the arts.”
Ronstadt said she hopes the president stays away. “I don’t want to be in the same room with him,” the famously liberal singer said. “I don’t think he would dare show his face. He doesn’t know anything about art. He knows about money.”
Ronstadt, 73, has Parkinson’s disease and retired from performing in 2009. She expressed surprise at being honored and delight at being included in this particular group.
“I am a huge fan of Michael Tilson Thomas,” the San Francisco resident said. “And of course, I’m a huge fan of ‘Sesame Street.’ “
A versatile vocalist who has recorded pop, country and rock ‘n’ roll hits, Ronstadt is enjoying something of a career resurgence. There’s a new documentary, “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” and earlier this year her first live concert album – from a performance in 1980 – was released.
She pushed back on the notion that she is receiving long-overdue respect, saying the attention is the result of her age. “When you get to be 73, there’s all this stuff that comes crawling out,” she said.
The influential R&B band Earth Wind & Fire, which has won nine Grammys, including a 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award, has recorded a wide range of music, including the funky “Let’s Groove” and the dance classic “September.” The group has sold more than 100 million albums and performed at the White House for presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
The Kennedy Center award eclipses all of those honors, said band member Ralph Johnson.
“For me, it’s the pinnacle, the top, unless you want to give me a Nobel Peace Prize,” Johnson said. “It’s an award that comes from the nation, from the U.S., celebrating your contributions from an artistic standpoint. We are so incredibly excited about it and we are exceedingly humbled.”
Earth Wind & Fire participated in the 2014 Honors tribute to singer Al Green, a performance Johnson said led the band to consider their chances. Now that they’ll be in the spotlight, the conversation has shifted to who might perform for them. “Maybe Bruno Mars might show up? Maybe a John Legend? It’s going to be very interesting to see, and we’re looking forward to it,” Johnson said.
Field, 72, began her acting career in the 1960s with the TV series “Gidget” and “The Flying Nun.” Over five decades, she appeared in dozens of movies and television shows, including “Forrest Gump,” “Norma Rae,” “ER” and “Lincoln,” earning two Oscars and three Emmys. She made her Broadway debut in 2002 in Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” and her Kennedy Center debut in 2004 in Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie.” She published a memoir, “In Pieces,” last year.
“More than ever in my lifetime we need the artistic community to tell their stories, to sing their songs, to illuminate the human experience, and their sense of truth. Truth is being challenged,” Field said in a statement. “I’ve spent my life exploring something I could never see, trying to grab hold of what it is to be alive, expressing myself using other people’s words. And now, to learn that I will be given one of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors, seems hard to fathom. I am grateful, humbled, and profoundly proud.”
As a young musician, Thomas, 74, worked with such musical giants as Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland before becoming an assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra while still in his 20s. He is the co-founder of the New World Symphony, a Florida-based orchestral academy that has nurtured the careers of thousands of musicians. Thomas became music director of the San Francisco Symphony in 1995 and will step down next year.
“I have to look at this as a lifetime achievement and wonder, ‘Is there life beyond the lifetime achievement award?’ ” Thomas asked.
He is taking a philosophical approach to the award, which commemorates his success as a composer, conductor, teacher and mentor.
“Since I started so young, the people I worked with are legendary names,” Thomas said, adding that he is aware of the shoulders on which he stands. “I really feel I am standing with all kinds of wonderful people of new generations and trying to connect the past and the present to get to an exciting future.”
Traditionally broadcast during Christmas week, this year’s Honors telecast is scheduled for Dec. 15 at 8 p.m., only a week after the performance. The speedy turnaround will not affect the live event, Rutter said.
“The goal I have always had is that it’s a live show we are taping for broadcast, not that we are attending the taping of a (television) show,” Rutter said. “We are going to make sure the live show doesn’t suffer.”