Dick Van Dyke, Debbie Allen & Garth Brooks Receive ‘Kennedy Center Honors’

Debbie Allen, Joan Baez, Dick Van Dyke, Garth Brooks & Midori were the recipients of the 2021 Kennedy Center Honors. (Photo property of CBS’ Michele Crowe)

For the first time in two years, the Kennedy Center Honors are back!

Since the 1970s, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts honors individuals who have significantly impacted dance, music, film, and television. Julie Andrews, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Carol Burnett, Sir Elton John, the late Lucille Ball, Lionel Richie, Morgan Freeman, Tina Turner, and Oprah Winfrey are among the elite club members.

Tonight, five more performers were inducted into the Kennedy Center Honors. Actors-dancers Debbie Allen and Dick Van Dyke, folk legend Joan Baez, country superstar Garth Brooks, and violinist Midori received tributes tonight.

2017 Kennedy Center Honoree Gloria Estefan assumed the hosting gig. She revealed that various performances were taped all across the campus. She introduced Paula Abdul to pay tribute to Debbie Allen. She announced that Ariana DeBose and Ms. Allen’s daughter, Vivian Nixon, would pay homage to her with two songs from the Broadway musical Sweet Charity. 

Ms. Allen’s tribute continued with her sister, the legendary Phylicia Rashad, who shared more about the dance icon. Next, Tracee Ellis Ross called the dancer – “the embodiment of freedom.” Tony award-winning singer Anika Noni Rose sang “On My Own” from Fame and Grey’s Anatomy creator Shondra Rhimes praised Ms. Allen’s mission to create opportunities for others that would not have the chance to pursue their dreams. Vanessa Hudgens closed out the tribute by singing “Fame,” accompanied by a group of dancers.

The “Get On Your Feet” singer-songwriter introduced Jackson Browne to pay tribute to folk music legend and activist Joan Baez. The tribute also touched on Ms. Baez’s friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and her role in the March on Washington and performing at Live Aid and the infamous Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Phoebe Bridges praised the folk singer’s innate ability to fuse activism into music, and Rhiannon Giddens sang Ms. Baez’s signature song: “Silver Dagger.” Next, Tom Morello praised the activist for being an international “folk hero.” Sturgill Simpson covered “The House of the Rising Sun” backed by an orchestra, and he gave me chills. Music legends Mary Chapin Carpenter and Emmylou Harris concluded Ms. Baez’s Kennedy Center tribute by performing a medley of her songs that ended with “We Shall Overcome.”

Dame (and Oscar winner) Julie Andrews paid homage to her Mary Poppins co-star – Dick Van Dyke. It gave me chills to hear Julie’s tribute to the legendary entertainer. Steve Martin narrated a tribute to the actor-comedian that included his legendary TV sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show and, of course, Mary Poppins. Laura Osnes started the tribute by singing “Jolly Holiday,” which gave me chills. Next, Bryan Cranston revealed that Dick Van Dyke was his idol and acting inspiration and introduced a package containing some of the most memorable moments from his 70-year career in the industry.

Lin-Manuel Miranda spoke about his work with Dick Van Dyke on Mary Poppins Returns and he introduced a performance featuring Derek Hough and Laura Osnes. Entertainment legend Chita Rivera paid homage to her Bye, Bye Birdie co-star and praised his ability to transform the cast into a family. Pentatonix sang “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” with Aaron Tveit, while Derek Hough led a dancing tribute with the legendary Mary Poppins dance routine “Step in Time.” 

Gloria Estefan introduced Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who began the Kennedy Center tribute for violinist Midori. I got chills when I listened to her beautiful violin playing in her tribute. Next, John Lithgow praised her humanitarian work and introduced their mutual friend – Kennedy Center Honoree Yo-Yo Ma. Bette Midler called Midori a “powerhouse” and revealed that she worked with Midori on a project called Midori and Friends. After the Divine Miss M appeared, both Ms. Allen and Midori’s students came together for a piece that honored both music and dance. 

For the final Kennedy Center segment, we turned to Garth Brooks! Actor Bradley Cooper kicked off the tribute by calling the singer-songwriter for being a “power hitter.” Next, Mr. Brooks’ friend Wayne Gretzky paid homage to the Oklahoma native with a package celebrating his biggest hits. Jason Aldean revealed that he had Garth Brooks’ poster on his wall. Many media outlets such as Billboard mentioned that Kelly Clarkson’s beautiful cover of “The Dance” would be one of the show’s highlights, and they were right. I got chills from the Emmy-winning talk show host’s interpretation. 

John Travolta continued the Garth Brooks tribute, who called Garth a part of his family. Kennedy Center Honoree James Taylor performed “The River” with the National Symphony Orchestra, and the performance left the country icon in tears. Jimmie Allen continued the tribute with “The Thunder Rolls” and Garth’s signature song: “Friends in Low Places.” The Empress of Soul herself, Gladys Knight, closed out the Kennedy Center tribute with her rendition of “We Shall Be Free.”

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Copyright 2020 Jacob Elyachar