Laurels and holly: honors for some great performers

``Some of you remember when Kennedy Center was first built it was called the marble box the Watergate came in,'' said Walter Cronkite, the host at the glittering 10th anniversary gala of the Kennedy Center Honors. ``Now it's regarded as the Parthenon for performing arts'' in America. These Kennedy Center Honors for ``lifetime achievement in the performing arts'' will be telecast Dec. 30 on CBS. Five more niches are carved within the walls of that Parthenon this year for actress Bette Davis, violinist Nathan Milstein, singer Perry Como, entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., and modern dance choreographer Alwin Nikolais. They were also honored at a White House reception.

Mr. Milstein, who was born in czarist Russia, has a reputation for shunning publicity, which he once said ``is for Rice Krispies, not for art.'' He sat quietly in the shadows at a State Department reception for the honorees last weekend before the gala. ``One who plays very often is blind to his performance. We're always involved with what's happening in the music,'' said Milstein.

``It's terrific, absolutely terrific,'' said his friend and fellow violinist Pinchas Zukerman of the award. At the honors he introduced Milstein as ``a violinist's violinist.'' Quoting Milstein's words: ``Music is one of the proofs of God's existence,'' Mr. Zukerman added, ``and every time we listen to him we have to believe there are angels here on earth.''

The only woman among those honored, the legendary Bette Davis, looked small as a hummingbird in a gray silk gown with jet trim at a State Department dinner for the five. Afterward previous honoree Jimmy Stewart towered over her table, kissed her on both cheeks, and congratulated her. She looked up, batted her huge eyes, and said, ``Find a script.'' Miss D., now starring in ``The Whales of August,'' wants to make another film with Mr. Stewart.

Sammy Davis Jr., wearing black tie, scarlet silk handkerchief, and a diamond bracelet, said of the honors: ``I hope my best work is yet to come.'' He will be touring in concert with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin next spring. His friend Lucille Ball, toasting him on TV, called him ``the little giant of entertainment,'' and said of the racial prejudice he'd encountered in an earlier America, ``He never forgot that talent can dance down the barriers of hate.''

Alwin Nikolais, asked what one work of his most deserves honoring, answered, ``I think probably the work I did in Japan, `Elusive Visions,' a multimedia piece.'' New York Public Theater impresario Joseph Papp praised him at the gala as ``a theater revolutionary who was in multimedia long before the term was coined.''

The mellow Perry Como, silver-haired and smiling, was saluted by his friend Don Ameche, who said Mr. Como ``raised relaxation to a high art'' and ``landed on a note as softly as a bird on a branch.''

Retiring Kennedy Center chairman Roger Stevens said, ``When you have so many distinguished people in the arts in one room, it's always a great thrill.'' The scarlet and gold Opera House was paved with celebrities, like a Who's Who in the Arts.

After the honors gala, guests marched into a supper dance in the center's great hall, scented with live spruce trees and decorated for Christmas with red tablecloths, red roses, and holly.

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