The Kennedy Center Nominees Looked Like a Strange Bunch This Year

Tony Ballz

I was eager to tune in. To tell the truth, I barely turn the damn thing on anymore. Well, for anything besides basketball, South Park, The Daily Show, Rio Bravo on AMC (again), reruns of NewsRadio, Cheers and Gilmore Girls or the hilarious cleaned-up Sopranos on A&E. And wouldn’t you know it, an overly sanitized Pump up the Volume is on WGN right before tonight’s broadcast. YES! Happy Harry Hardon! They should have burned the place down at the end, like in Rock & Roll High School.

Oh, the Kennedy Center thing. 2009’s honorees were: opera singer Grace Bumbry, Dave “Take Five” Brubeck, Mel “It’s good to be da king” Brooks, Robert “Are you talkin’ to ME?” DeNiro, and Bruce “Broooce” Springsteen, who’s already Emperor of New Jersey AND The Boss.

For those who don’t know, the Kennedy Center gala is pretty much the only time the U.S. Government officially acknowledges the existence of something called “culture” in our society. The idea’s seed came from Mamie Eisenhower, Kennedy tried to make it happen, and it finally broke ground under Johnson, who named it after freshly-dead JFK. The Center opened in 1971 and has hosted thousands of performances and concerts, mostly jazz, classical and Broadway. Starting in 1978, the Kennedy Center has named five honorees a year for outstanding something-or-other.

Looking over the list of past winners made me wish I had seen 2004’s show, in which George W. Bush’s America paid tribute to Mr. Bob “you can call me Zimmy” Dylan, that old pinko.

 The whole shebang is a big deal. The fun starts on Saturday at the White House, where the president awards each recipient a ceremonial ribbon, which they are required to wear all weekend. Then dinner and cocktails and a sleepover at the president’s pad. The big glitzy Golden Globey public ballyhoo is on Sunday afternoon and the highlights are edited into a two hour special, airing Sunday night.

The honorees sit WAY the heck up in the fifth balcony (along with Mr. and Mrs. Prez), their spouses/dates behind them, and the adoring crowd below is constantly turning and applauding up towards heaven at them. The strangest thing is that during the proceedings, the five say not a word (neither does the president) while the accolades flutter up from the floor. They just sit there silently, like royalty.

The selection this year was pretty solid, not a bum among. But jeez, look at this bunch of geezers: Springsteen (token rocker/boy-next-door) was the youngest at 60 (he definitely dyes his hair), followed by DeNiro (token tough guy) at 67, Bumbry (token Negro) at 72, Brooks (token Jew) at 77, and Brubeck (token egghead), celebrating his 89th the day of the show.

The highlights were an interesting mix of high- and low-brow:

Harvey “this guy called me a mook” Keitel’s speech on DeNiro was mock-interrupted by Ben “Gay Focker” Stiller, who interrupted his own DeNiro spiel with “Holy crap, there’s Bruce Springsteen! BROOOCE! And that Nobel Prize guy …”, which our president laughed heartily at and then The President Of The United States BUMPED KNUCKLES with The Boss. That in itself should have been bizarre, but they seemed at ease with each other: the King Of Rock & Roll and Soul Brother #1.

Dave Brubeck, who introduced the rhythms and time signatures of Morocco, Turkey, India and other exotic locales to the world of Western music, smiled ecstatically as a combo made up of his four sons played a medley of his tunes.

Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin introduced Grace Bumbry, the first black opera singer to play Venus, which caused quite a stir in the early 1960s. Her highlight reel was illuminating and astounding. Grace was a real babe in her day, and easily looked 20 years younger than her 72.

The weirdness started with Mel Brooks’ tribute. Old pal Carl Reiner kicked things off, followed by Harry Connick Jr. singing “High Anxiety”, Jack Black belting out “Men in Tights”, and a small production of “The Inquisition” sketch from History of the World, Part I. Sure wish Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle were around to sing “Puttin’ on the Ritz”.

Then someone from the Broadway cast of The Producers dedicated the next song to Barack Obama, and it was called “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst”. I kept waiting for the TV cameras to show a reaction shot from our president during the number, but none was forthcoming.

It got even stranger with a full-blown production of The Producers‘ “Springtime for Hitler” with the dancing girls wearing the big sausages on their heads and all, followed by the cast’s führer doing his mincing little dance bit. This caused the night’s best reaction shot: Mel Brooks grinning fiendishly while his date looked on in open-mouthed horror and disbelief. It could possibly have been the most tastelessly hysterical extravaganza ever staged for a U.S. president (no Obama shots during this part, either).

The high point of the evening arrived when they said “Ladies and gentlemen, Mel Brooks!” and the whole room applauded while Brooks stood up, took out his pocket comb, made a Hitler moustache out of it and seig-heiled all present. While Travis Bickle laughed and clapped next to him. Surreal. They saved Bruce for last. It started out classy enough, with Ron Kovic, the wheelchair-bound author of Born on the Fourth of July relating his first meeting with Springsteen, followed by fellow Jerseyite Jon “Death To Smoochy” Stewart delivering his own funny and surprisingly heartfelt tribute.

It went straight down the crapper from there. Dig it: John Mellencamp sang “Born in the U.S.A.” (blah); Melissa Etheridge growled her way through an overblown “Born to Run” (BLAH!); Eddie Vedder softly grunted “My City of Ruin” (sorta OK); and the grand finale? STING (Sting?) led a gospel choir through “The Rising” (BLEARGGGHHH!), during which the audience was on their feet and clapping bouncily on the one, just like when Fleetwood Mac played “Don’t Stop” at Clinton’s inaugural all those years ago, proving once again the great majority of rich white folks have no boogie in their butts.

When Hollywood or Broadway or any other large showbiz institution tries to pay tribute to rock & roll, they always get it wrong, and tonight was no exception. “Let’s have a bunch of singers with gruff voices doing songs about America” was really about as far as The Kennedy Center’s understanding of Bruce Springsteen and his music went. They didn’t even mention the E Street Band, which probably would have been the first words out of Bruce’s mouth, had he been allowed to speak.

But that’s OK, rock & roll has its own hall of fame, which Iggy Pop isn’t a member of yet. Go figure that one out.

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