The Toasts Are Mimed, but the Kennedy Center Honors Return

“There was never actually much serious conversation about not doing it — for us, literally for the last 14 months, we’ve really been taking it one day at a time,” said Deborah F. Rutter, the center’s president, in an interview. “This is about artists creating something out of limitations.”

But organizers were determined to barrel forward with a small ceremony, however delayed and however limited, to preserve the tradition of honoring a handful of artists for lifetime achievements. Plans repeatedly changed with shifting federal guidance and health guidelines, and top officials, in offering opening remarks, joked about the number of times they conferred with the honorees about how to make the ceremony feasible.

Yet the five artists — some of whom had participated in previous ceremonies as part of tributes — appeared moved by not only the recognition of their life’s work, but a far more intimate celebration that allowed them to spend time with each other and their loved ones, instead of being shuttled separately between events.

“We’ve been hanging out,” Allen said, calling it a “cohesive, lovely part” of being part of the group. Brooks added that “we got to move at our own pace,” something that allowed him to “leave here as a fan of these people more than a fellow honoree.” (At one point, as Brooks helped him down a staircase, Van Dyke cheerfully hummed the “Bridal Chorus.”)

If the pandemic made this a most unusual year for the awards, in at least one area things seemed to return to normal: President Biden held the traditional reception for the honorees at the White House, something former President Donald Trump did not do during his four years in office.

Baez said she sang a verse of the civil-rights anthem “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” in the Oval Office, and she repeated it for reporters, her unmistakable soprano echoing in the empty opera house.

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