President Obama Hosts Kennedy Center Honorees at White House

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Seven entertainment icons were hosted at the White House today for their contributions to the performing arts.

Actor Dustin Hoffman, blues guitarist Buddy Guy, ballerina Natalia Makarova, and comedian David Letterman were given a reception with the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin before the annual Kennedy Center Honors gala this evening. President Obama welcomed the performers before they were presented their awards at the main event.

The president joked that the motley crew's presence continued "a tradition at the White house by honoring some extraordinary people with no business being on the same stage together."

"Here in America, more than any other place on Earth we are free to follow our own passions, explore our own gifts, wherever they may lead us," he said. "And people from all around the world come here to make sure that they too can provide us the incredible gifts that they have."

The individuals had one thing in common: all came from what the president called "humble beginnings."

"Growing up as the son of a share cropper in Louisiana, Buddy Guy made his first guitar out of wires from a window screen," he said, later adding the artist is now one of the "last guardians of the great American blues."

Makarova, on the other hand, defected from the Soviet Union in 1970 only to find her name excised from the record in her homeland.

"But no one can erase what takes hold in the heart," he continued. "In 1989 when the iron curtain opened, the Russian people welcomed her back with open arms. Over 2,000 people packed in the Kirov Theater where she had trained when she was younger. Another 20 people crammed in the orchestra."

While Dustin Hoffman and David Letterman started as a struggling young actor and weatherman respectively, Obama credited the surviving members of Led Zeppelin - Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones - with redefining the rock genre and its lifestyle. In humor, the president said it was "fitting" the room had three-inch thick windows, given the band's history of trashing hotels.

Together, the talent assembled reminded the country of the "unique power that makes the arts so important," he concluded.

"Each of us can remember a moment when the people on this stage touched our lives," he said. "Maybe they didn't lead us to become performers ourselves. But maybe they 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."

Home of the National Symphony Orchestra, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is one of Washington's most recognizable institutions for the field. Their annual awards ceremony is a star-studded affair, bringing the elite of the music, dance, film, theater and TV worlds together with Washington high society.

The Kennedy Center Honors has no categories or competition, selecting recipients solely for lifetime contributions to entertainment culture. It is probably one of the few occasions where one would see awards given to both a Russian ballerina and a man known for airing "stupid pet tricks."

Obama and the first lady were also in attendance at the gala at the performing arts center.

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