After Dick Van Dyke got the call informing him that he had been chosen as the Kennedy Center Fellow, he did exactly what he was told not to do: he called his family to tell them about the good news.
And why not? He is a 95-year-old show business statesman whose eponymous television show is believed to have helped shape American sitcoms for decades.
“My wife took the call and the instructions were, ‘Congratulations, but don’t tell anyone,’” Van Dyke said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “You can not do this! I called all my relatives right away. I couldn’t hold it back.
Van Dyke is now adding one of the country’s highest artistic accolades to his curriculum vitae. Other recipients, announced Wednesday by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, include singer-songwriter and activist Joan Baez; country music star Garth Brooks; actress, choreographer and producer Debbie Allen; and violinist Midori.
Last year, the pandemic blurred the Kennedy Center Honors’ schedule. Typically held in December, the performances and ceremonies associated with the show have been postponed to May, with airing scheduled for June 6 on TBEN.
Another major change is the shifting political winds: While President Trump did not attend the honors during his tenure or host the traditional White House reception for the laureates, President-elect Biden is expected to reignite the relationship.
In a typical year, the program features an opera house filled with celebrities, dignitaries and plush donors to celebrate the winners. This year, the performances will be filmed on the Kennedy Center campus – some, perhaps, with a small live audience – or the film crew will visit the artists if they can’t make it to Washington.
The center hopes to have its typical reception at the White House and a ceremony at the State Department, where the ribbons are distributed.
But some traditions are out of the question.
“A dinner with 2,000 people in the lobby will not take place,” said Deborah Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center. “We are only going to do this in the safest and most respectful way.”
The winners – selected on the recommendation of an advisory committee made up of representatives from the Kennedy Center and past winners – represent folk, country and classical music, as well as theater and television.
Baez’s career as a singer-songwriter has long been linked to her political activism, which began with the civil rights movement and then the anti-war protests. Baez, 80, says she now sees painting as her main artistic outlet. As for her legacy, she would rather be remembered for “good matters,” she said, citing Rep. John Lewis, rather than for awards.
“I don’t want to be too respectable,” she said in an interview and laughed. “But I accept and I certainly assume that the ‘good stuff’ I’ve spent my life in is part of why I’m getting this award.”
While these laureates have long passed the “struggling artists” stage of their careers, they are not forgotten that they are receiving this award at a time of crisis in their industries, due to closures due to a pandemic.
Brooks – who is the No. 1 best-selling solo artist in US history, according to the Recording Industry Association of America – said he feared for musicians who occupy the position he held there is 30 years old, playing in bars and clubs. with the hope that this leads to a recording contract.
“The carpet was pulled out from under them,” said Brooks, 58. “How this will affect the music industry in the future is a big question.”
Over the past 10 months, these five artists have been looking for safe ways to share their art and interact with their audiences. Baez has exhibited his paintings virtually, for example; Allen gave live dance lessons to a virtual audience of over 35,000 people; and Van Dyke said he was delighted to hear from his fan mail that some kids, back from school, found out about “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” . (“I have a whole new fan club!” He said.)
For Midori, 49, a Japanese-born violinist who rose to prominence in the United States after performing with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 11, the pandemic has brought greater appreciation for playing. in front of an audience, in flesh and blood. She gave virtual workshops and master classes during the pandemic.
“It made me realize how precious the moments of being able to do things live are,” she says.
At a time when the country is somewhat of a wasteland for the performing arts, there is a desire for this spring honors program to usher in a kind of renaissance.
Allen, 70, has a long history of promoting the arts as a core national interest. After establishing herself as a Broadway performer, being recognized for her roles in “West Side Story” and “Sweet Charity,” then for her choreography “Fame”, Allen was a sort of cultural diplomat under President George W. Bush, traveling abroad to teach and talk about dance.
Allen said that in times of national crisis, she sees the arts as a balm – as well as a space to discuss the pressing issues of the day. (In “Grey’s Anatomy,” in which Allen produces, directs, and stars, Covid-19 is the central plot.)
“As a country, we are all looking for the light because such a storm takes over,” Allen said. “And the arts are always an answer.”