WASHINGTON -- The center balcony in the Opera House of the John F. Kennedy Center on Sunday was a sight to behold: three legendary rockers, a ballerina, a bluesman, an Academy Award-winning actor and a late-night comedian sat hobnobbing with President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
The artists are the recipients of this year's Kennedy Center Honors:
Bluesman Buddy Guy,
Actor Dustin Hoffman,
Comedian and television host David Letterman,
Ballerina Natalia Makarova,
Rock band Led Zeppelin. While Led Zeppelin is being honored as a band, keyboardist/bassist John Paul Jones, 66, guitarist Jimmy Page, 68, and singer Robert Plant, 64, each received the Kennedy Center Honors.
The honorees had dinner Saturday night with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But the big party was Sunday night, when many celebrities were on hand to salute each medalist. Morgan Freeman, Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber were among the stars present.
Before the show, Letterman expressed gratitude. He said of the weekend, "Each minute has been better and better." And he was happy to share the occasion with loved ones. "It's all about my family. I think they've enjoyed themselves."
Makarova was just as delighted. She described the honor as "most incredible." She added, "President Obama speaking about you is incredible. I've come a long way, baby."
And Guy's reaction as an honoree? "I'm blessed to be here," he said.
Ann and Nancy Wilson, members of the rock band Heart, arrived to pay tribute to Led Zeppelin. Ann said on the red carpet, "I'm proud to say that they've influenced us."
After a brief video of the president talking about the honorees at a White House reception earlier in the evening, the show got underway.
Robert De Niro, a 2009 honoree, introduced Hoffman, whom he called a "world-class, spectacular, colossal ... pain in the (butt)."De Niro further explained, "What Dustin did for all of us was to make it OK to be a character actor and a movie star. He broke the mold of the movie star as the handsome leading man. Frankly, I would have preferred to make it as a handsome leading man. Damn you, Dustin Hoffman!"
Schreiber, Watts, Billy Connolly and Laura Osnes paid tribute, recalling encounters with Hoffman.
Another honoree, Judith Jamison (1999), introduced fellow dancer Makarova.
"Twenty years after she made her painful decision to leave her native land, she returned to a changing Leningrad and to her beloved Kirov Theater, where she had studied and had become a star. There, at the Kirov, she gave her final performance, where it had all begun for her."Jamison recalled, "When I first saw -- and we call her Natasha -- Natasha, I remember saying, 'Now, that's a ballerina!'"
2008 honoree Freeman spoke about Guy's contribution to blues. "You used that music as your starting point. You found a new blues that nobody had ever found before."For Guy's tribute, Tracy Chapman sang Hound Dog, Jeff Beck played I'd Rather Go Blind and Bonnie Raitt performed a medley of My Time After A While and Sweet Home Chicago.
When it was time to honor Letterman, Fey had the TV host cracking up from the get-go, recounting how he "began his career as a black opera singer" with the hopes he'd one day be qualified for this award.On a more serious note, she said, "Staying up to watch Dave became an event that was not to be missed."
Everyone still wants to be on his show, said her 30 Rock co-star Baldwin. "There's never been anyone better. Every night, around 11:30, you just want to be around the guy."
The final tribute of the evening was for Led Zeppelin. Actor and musician Jack Black started out with a proclamation, calling the group, "The greatest rock 'n' roll band of all time." He added, "Yeah, I said it. Better than The Beatles. Better than the Stones. Even better than Tenacious D. And that's not just opinion, that's fact."
The tribute performance was rockin': Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl led his band in a medley of Black Dog and Rock and Roll. Kid Rock put his spin on Babe I'm Gonna Leave You and Ramble On. Lenny Kravitz got a standing ovation from the nominees and the first couple as he sang Whole Lotta Love. And for the finale, Heart's Wilson sisters brought down the house with the Zeppelin classic Stairway to Heaven accompanied on the drums by Jason Bonham, son of late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham.
The honors recipients are selected by the center's Board of Trustees for their contributions to American culture through the performing arts.The show will be broadcast on CBS as a two-hour prime-time special on Dec. 26 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.