Tributes flow to Kennedy Center honorees. Farewell to the Reagans, Bob Hope and his `Thanks' draw smiles - and tears

THE glittering bouquet for the performing arts known as the Kennedy Center Honors airs tomorrow for its llth year over CBS. This year it's poised somewhere between quotes - Bob Hope's ``Thanks for the Memory'' and novelist Katherine Anne Porter's tart comment on why societies down through history bother with the arts:`` The arts are what we find again when the ruins are all cleared away.'' There are whiffs of nostalgia throughout this year's two-hour gala tribute, ``The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts.''

We see the honorees through the soft-focus lens of the past:

There's actress Myrna Loy dishing up snappy repartee and looking utterly glamorous in the 1930s detective hit ``The Thin Man.''

And comedian George Burns cutting up in a l929 jazz-age film short, ``Lamb Chops,'' with his delightfully dithery wife and partner, Gracie Allen.

Choreographer Alvin Ailey is saluted with a performance of his early masterpiece, the l960 ``Revelations.''

Violinist Alexander Schneider appears in a film clip of a few ecstatic moments playing Bach with his friend Pablo Casals.

We see Kennedy Center founder/chairman Roger Stevens huddling with Leonard Bernstein to save the new l957 musical its backers wanted to scuttle, ``West Side Story.''

In the tradition of the Honors, these are people who ``throughout their lifetimes have contributed significantly to American culture through the performing arts.''

The taping took place earlier this month in the vast scarlet Opera House at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It was a black-tie affair, with an invited audience that included stars of stage, screen, and bipartisan politics. Secret Service agents and metal detectors were thick as confetti because not only the President and Mrs. Reagan were there in the presidential box with the five honorees, but President-elect George Bush made a surprise appearance on stage with an ``Auld Lang Syne'' tribute to the president, taking his last bow at Kennedy Center.

President Reagan, caught unawares and unmiked, projected his voice in a booming one-liner heard throughout the hall: ``Beats getting an Oscar!'' Nancy Reagan, in a white lace and black sequin outfit, wiped tears from her eyes.

So it was `` Thanks for the Memory,'' that familiar Bob Hope theme song which he walked on stage with, on many levels. But it was also a witty, literate, and entertaining look at some of the performing artists whose work may be left when, as host Walter Cronkite quoted Miss Porter, ``the ruins are cleared away.''

Kathleen Turner pranced out on stage in a black sequin pants suit and praised the red-headed actress: ``Myrna Loy is the first actress brave enough to put sass on screen.'' Jimmy Stewart was quoted as having once said ``There's got to be a law against any man who doesn't want to marry Myrna Loy.'' After the verbal applause for the art of her acting, they rolled out Bobby Short and his piano for a serenade to the '30s ambiance of Loy's films that included Cole Porter's ``Isn't It Romantic.'' Then came the title song from Porter's '30s musical ``Anything Goes,'' done by the road company of the Lincoln Center revival. It included some terrific tap dancing done by a razzle-dazzle cast starring Leslie Uggams, who tried gallantly to fill the original Ethel Merman role but lacked her brassy talent for stopping the show.

In show-biz terms, the most arresting part of the TV show was the dancing: that tap number, the vintage soft shoe tribute that hoofers Tommy Tune and Anne Reinking did as homage to ex-vaudeville star George Burns, and the ecstatic dances from ``Revelations'' done by Ailey's American Dance Theater. The women dancers whirled on stage in Panama straw hats and long, banana colored dresses, the men in black pants with banana and black vests, to perform numbers like ``Rocking My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,'' afire with a joyous gospel exuberance. Framing them on stage, a choir from Howard University. The less tele-visual nature of the careers of some of this year's honorees may have been more of a challenge than in some previous years for long-time producers George Stevens Jr. and Nick Vanoff, who have won two Emmy Awards for Honors telecasts in the past.

Even the less flamboyant TV moments, though, under Dwight Hemion's deft direction, had their special charm. There were the touching moments when violinist and teacher Alexander (Sasha) Schneider, was introduced with warmth and a little schmaltz by friend Isaac Stern before a group of Schneider's students from orchestras around the nation played Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, with Stern as first violinist. When was the last time you heard any of the Brandenburgs on network TV?

And then there was the loving tribute to Roger Stevens, the ``modern-day Medici,'' as Hal Holbrook called the founder, and recently retired chairman of Kennedy Center. ``He's so unassuming, he was once called the faceless lamb among the celebrity lions.''

In a scene reminiscent of ``Our Town,'' the stars and creators of the arts Stevens has brought to Kennedy Center gathered on stage, along with members of the Center ``family'', from red-jacketed ushers, who marched down the aisles, to stagehands who rolled in on a tall ladder.

Actors like Faye Dunaway, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Gene Hackman; dancers like Maria Tallchief, Edward Villella, Jacques D'Amboise; playwrights like Edward Albee, Garson Kanin, Arthur Kopit; writers like Adolf Green and Betty Comden, opera stars like William Warfield, Frederica von Stade, Dorothy Kirsten, applauded Stevens as he took his final curtain call.

He also heard one of his favorite songs, the upbeat ``Tomorrow'' from another hit musical he rescued, ``Annie,'' sung by Rachael Graham in the title role and the dog Sandy who contributed a few woofs.

At this writing, a finished tape of the show is not available for review, so segments mentioned here may be edited. The one scene you're not going to see happened afterward, when a woman dressed in a black sequined gown and a woman dressed in a white sequinned gown became entangled at the shoulders in what can only be described as sequin gridlock.

After vain attempts to separate them, it was suggested that they dine together at the gala dinner following the taping: winter salad, veal cassoulet, and chocolate meringues served on tables covered with red and green tartan tablecloths and Christmas decorations.

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