Dolly Parton dressed in a dramatic white gown and teased beehive hairdo looked around at the guests at the White House reception, Sunday, “I’m honored to be here with all these people wearing all these fancy clothes.” The occasion was a reception for the honorees before the 29th Annual Kennedy Center Honors performance and late night dinner. And although President Bush and the First Lady, The Cheneys and Secretary of State Condolezza Rice took part, this evening was show biz before politics.
In addition to Parton, tribute was paid to Motown legend William “Smokey” Robinson, who gushed, “I’m so flattered to get this honor because it deals not only with craft but also with the impact you’ve had on humanity.”
His childhood pal and former honoree, Aretha Franklin, said “Smokey, who helped to make the Motown sound world famous, never let success change who he is.” A proud Berry Gordy, the founder of the Motown label, was there as well.
Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, who hosted the gala that will air on CBS on Dec. 26, said that honoree, London born composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, proved that “cats have more than nine lives.”
But Webber, 58, wasn’t taking any chances. He told me that he’s concerned once he gets this Kennedy Center Honor, “then suddenly I’m washed up. I’m gone.” So he’s working enthusiastically on a new show, “The Master and Margarita,” based on a 1930 Russian novel by Mikhail Bulgakov that satires the greed and corruption of Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Director Steven Spielberg missed his friend, Bill Clinton, who was “doing his AIDS thing in southeast Asia.” But actor Tom Hanks read from “the book of Steven” going back to when he had premieres in his own home for his early films without stars.
Indian-born Zubin Mehta hugged Smokey, who hugged everyone. They’re from different worlds yet united by this high entertainment honor. Fran Drescher, “The Nanny,” called it a miracle that she’s “six years well.” She talked about lobbying Congress for money for gynecologic cancer education and awareness, while arm-in-arm with her date, Rep. Patrick Kennedy(D-RI). “We adore each other,” she told me. “Harold Ford, Jr. introduced us in the Congressional Dining Room, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
Kenny Rogers, dressed in black, came to participate in the tribute to Dolly. “All of us are three people: we’re who our audience thinks, who we think, and who we really are,” Rogers said. “The closer those three are, the longer we last. Dolly is all three, and more.”
Reba McEntyre pointed out that Dolly’s foundation provides books for children. And Reese Witherspoon said she wanted to be Dolly. Their friendship began when the two met at a publicity shoot for “Walk the Line” at Johnny Cash’s home; it wasn’t long before she was privy to “Dollyisms.” Reese’s favorite: “You know Sweetie, it takes a lot of money to look this cheap.”
But for young Jessica Simpson the evening didn’t go smoothly. She had such stage fright that she walked off the stage in tears after a “9 to 5″ tribute to Dolly, uttering the words “so nervous.”
There was even a fashion crisis. Three women wore the same $8,400 Oscar de la Renta gown but fortunately, one of them, First Lady Laura Bush, slipped upstairs at The White House after the reception to change before joining the entourage to the Kennedy Center.
And for some of the “children” in the White House who worked on compiling the guest list with identifications, not only did not recognize some of the legendary talent, but they embarrassingly listed sensational octogenarian songstress Barbara Cook’s guest as Mr. Adam LeGrant, (Child). LeGrant is Cook’s adult son and an actor in his own right.
Some Congressmen were eager to have photos taken with Parton. And others wanted a break from political patter for the evening. “I have no job,” Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) quipped when asked a political question. And even Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) wasn’t talking about her hoped for committee chairmanship and her strained relationship with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
President Bush, perhaps jet-lagged and with other matters weighing on his shoulders, looked as though he would have rather been watching “Willy Wonka,” but Secretary of State Rice didn’t want the evening to end. She kept time to the music and was especially animated during the tribute to Smokey.
It was a moving evening for all the honorees. Robinson and Webber wiped away the tears during their tributes. It was dramatic when the curtain rose on Mehta’s colleagues from the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra who had traveled from Tel Aviv to serenade “the Mensch,” and when WWII military heroes and a Holocaust survivor paid tribute to Spielberg.
The crowd in the Kennedy Center foyer was thinning at 1 A.M., Mehta, the last of the honorees to leave, summed the evening up wistfully, “I wish it could happen again.”