WASHINGTON — David Letterman’s “stupid human tricks” and Top 10 lists vaulted into the ranks of cultural acclaim Sunday night as the late-night comedian received this year’s Kennedy Center Honors with rock band Led Zeppelin, an actor, a ballerina and a bluesman.
Stars from New York, Hollywood and the music world joined President Barack Obama at the White House on Sunday night to salute the honorees, whose ranks also include actor Dustin Hoffman, Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy and ballerina Natalia Makarova.
The honors are the nation’s highest award for those who influenced American culture through the arts. The recipients were later saluted by fellow performers at the Kennedy Center Opera House in a show to be broadcast Dec. 26 on CBS.
Obama drew laughs from his guests when he described the honorees as “some extraordinary people who have no business being on the same stage together.”
Noting that Guy made his first guitar strings using the wire from a window screen, he quipped, “That worked until his parents started wondering how all the mosquitoes were getting in.”
The president thanked the members of Led Zeppelin for behaving themselves at the White House given their history of “hotel rooms trashed and mayhem all around.”
Obama noted Letterman’s humble beginnings as an Indianapolis weatherman who once reported the city was being pelted by hail `the size of canned hams.”’
“It’s one of the highlights of his career,” he said.
All kidding aside, Obama described all of the honorees as artists who “inspired us to see things in a new way, to hear things differently, to discover something within us or to appreciate how much beauty there is in the world.”
“It’s that unique power that makes the arts so important,” he added.
Later on the red carpet, Letterman said he was thrilled by the recognition and to visit Obama at the White House.
For Buddy Guy, singers Bonnie Raitt, Tracy Chapman and others got most of the crowd on its feet singing Guy’s signature “Sweet Home Chicago.”
Morgan Freeman hailed Guy as a pioneer who helped bridge soul and rock and roll.
“When you hear the blues, you really don’t think of it as black or white or yellow or purple or blue,” Freeman said. “Buddy Guy, your blue brought us together.”
Robert De Niro saluted Hoffman, saying he had changed acting, never took any shortcuts and was brave enough to be a perfectionist.
“Before Dustin burst on the scene, it was pretty much OK for movie stars to show up, read their lines and, if the director insisted, act a little,” De Niro said. “But then Dustin came along – and he just had to get everything right.”
By the end of the night, the Foo Fighters, Kid Rock and Lenny Kravitz got the crowd moving to some of Zeppelin’s hits at the Kennedy Center.
Jack Black declared Zeppelin the “greatest rock and roll band of all time.”
“That’s right. Better than the Beatles. Better than the Stones. Even better than Tenacious D,” he said. “And that’s not opinion – that’s fact.”
For the finale, Heart’s Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson sang “Stairway to Heaven,” accompanied by a full choir and Jason Bonham, son of the late Zeppelin drummer John Bonham.
Zeppelin front man Robert Plant and his bandmates John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page seemed moved by the show.
Meryl Streep first introduced the honorees Saturday as they received the award medallions during a formal dinner at the U.S. State Department hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Clinton said ballerina Makarova “risked everything to have the freedom to dance the way she wanted to dance” when she defected from the Soviet Union in 1970.
Makarova made her debut with the American Ballet Theatre and later was the first exiled artist to return to the Soviet Union before its fall to dance with the Kirov Ballet.
Clinton also took special note of Letterman, saying he must be wondering what he’s doing in a crowd of talented artists and musicians.
“Dave and I have a history,” she said. “I have been a guest on his show several times, and if you include references to my pant suits, I’m on at least once a week.”