The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts today announced its 44th lifetime achievement award winners. They are: Motown founder Berry Gordy, opera star Justino Díaz, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, entertainer Bette Midler and television impresario Lorne Michaels, who created Saturday Night Live.
Modeled after European distinctions such as France's Ordre des Arts et des Lettres or the United Kingdom's Order of the British Empire, the Kennedy Center Honors celebrate artists who changed American culture — "not someone who happens to have a pop record hit at the moment," in the words of Bernie Sofronski, a CBS producer who helped create the awards in 1978.
This year's honorees certainly qualify. Justino Díaz performed at the Kennedy Center's grand opening 50 years ago, appearing as the male lead in Alberto Ginastera's opera Beatrix Cenci. "With his distinguished, deeply resonant voice and storied operatic career, Justino Díaz stood on the stages of the world's great opera houses and today stands as one of the greatest bass-baritones of our time," Kennedy Center chairman David M. Rubenstein said in a statement.
"Visionary music producer and songwriter Berry Gordy brought the quintessential soulfulness of Detroit into every home in America," Rubenstein continued, "elevating the Motown sound to become a national treasure."
Gordy described himself as "thrilled" to join the legacy of Kennedy Center honorees. "Growing up in Detroit, I was not only Black but the 'black sheep' of my family," he wrote in a statement. "I was a failure at everything I did until I was 29 years old... The Arts not only give voice to the voiceless, but connect us, transform us, and soothe our souls. The Kennedy Center Honors epitomizes the recognition and value of both the Arts, and the Artist."
Two of the honorees of this prestigious U.S. arts award were born in Canada. After moving to Los Angeles from Toronto in 1968, Lorne Michaels built a show that's launched countless careers and catchphrases. Saturday Night Live, in the words of David Rubenstein, "is both mirror and muse for life in America."
Joni Mitchell, originally from Alberta and described by the Kennedy Center as "one of the most influential singer-songwriters and cultural figures in 20th-century popular music," responded to the announcement by saying, in part, "It's a long way from Saskatoon."
It was a long way too for Bette Midler, a Tony, Emmy and Grammy-award winning entertainer who got her start performing in gay bathhouses in the 1970s. "I am profoundly touched by this honor, in fact, I am stunned and grateful beyond words," she wrote in a statement. "For many years I have watched this broadcast celebrating the best talent in the performing arts that America has to offer, and I truly never imagined that I would find myself among these swans."
The Kennedy Center Honors are usually announced in the summer, presented in December, then broadcast later on television. This year's awards are scheduled to be presented during a live gala on Dec. 5, which will be recorded for broadcast at a future date.