Obama Praises Kennedy Center Artists

By Gorman Gorman

Dec 7, 2009 7:53am

ABC News' Vija Udenans reports:

President Obama praised five American performers and artists Sunday evening at the White House before they were honored at  the Kennedy Center. Some of the President's personal recollections were the basis of his tributes, as he had grown up with these particular Kennedy Center Honorees as his cultural heroes. He intertwined his memories of concerts and movies with the impact the artists had on a generation.

"You can't understand America without understanding  jazz.  And you can't understand jazz without understanding Dave Brubeck." Obama introduced the first honoree, who is celebrating his 89th birthday  today.

Obama recounted that his own father had taken him to see  Dave Brubeck in concert during the few weeks in 1971 that he had spent with him in Honolulu as a young boy.  It left a lasting impression. "I've been a jazz fan ever since. The world he opened up for a ten-year-old boy was spectacular."

Mel Brooks ever the comedian, interjected with a self deprecating comment when Obama introduced him with birth name, Melvin Kaminsky. The president quickly replied, "I'm trying to say something nice about you now. Please don't upstage me." 

The president had plenty of material to retell about the producer and director's success, but he lamented, "many of the punch lines that have defined Mel Brooks' success cannot be repeated here."

Again the President told of a personal encounter.  "I went to see Blazing Saddles when I was 10.  And he [Mel] pointed out that I think, according to the ratings, I should not have been allowed in the theater.  That's true.  I think I had a fake ID.  But the statute of limitations has passed."

In a more somber note Obama said, "In times of war and sacrifice, the arts and these artists remind us to sing and to laugh and to live. In times of plenty they challenge our conscience and implore us to remember the least among us."

Grace Bumbry, the legendary opera performer, is being honored 32 years after she performed at the first Kennedy Center Honors for her mentor, Marian Anderson.  According to Obama,  when she performed at the White House, it was said, "that she moved Jacqueline Kennedy to lean over and gently sing along the words to the President."

Although she gave her final operatic performance in 1997, Obama declared , "She remains the definition of a diva in the classical sense: a divine voice worthy of the heavens."

Robert De Niro  needed no introduction, but Obama regaled the audience with the story that De Niro at age 10, in his school play , made a "rather unlikely debut in The Wizard of Oz as the Cowardly Lion." Since then the actor has performed in more than 60 films over 40 years.

The president remarked that "it is perhaps the great irony of his lifeā€¦ one of America's greatest cinematic actors is a man famously of few words off the screen."

Obama introduced Bruce Springsteen, as "the quiet kid from New Jersey who grew up to become a rock 'n' roll laureate of a generation." Obama continued, "in the life of our country only a handful of people have tapped the full power of music to tell the real American story … with honesty, from the heart and one of those people is Bruce Springsteen."

 Springsteen had been supportive of the Obama campaign and the President recalled watching him on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial "when he rocked the National Mall before my inauguration." He seemed to reflect and continued, "On a day like that, I remember I'm the President, but he's The Boss!"

The seated crowd of 300 guests in the East Room of the White house included former  Kennedy Center honorees, Kennedy family members and Administration members.

The Kennedy Center show will air on December 29 on CBS.

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