High Praise: Kennedy Center Honors


According to Wikipedia, there was a precedent event to the Kennedy Center Honors as we know it today. For 10 years prior to 1977, the White House hosted a reception for the American Film Institute ( AFI ) before the founding chairman of the Kennedy Center, Roger L Stevens, and the founding director of the AFI, George Stevens, Jr. … along with Isaac Stern … pitched the idea of a television program including inaugural honorees to CBS.
Bernie Sofronski, CBS vice president of specials at the time said: “George came to us with this. What turned us on is that this is the only show of its kind. In Europe in most countries, they have ways of honoring their actors and their athletes. England has its command performances for the Queen. We see ours as a national honoring of people who have contributed to society, not someone who happens to have a pop record hit at the moment. Our intention is not to do just another award show. We’re going to make an effort in terms of a real special.”

Nostalgia and stature reign when we read the names of early honorees:
1978: Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers, Arthur Rubinstein
1979: Aaron Copland, Ella Fitzgerald, Henry Fonda, Martha Graham, Tennessee Williams
I did not realize that honoree recommendations are accepted from the general public. The Kennedy Center selections are determined by several committees as well as past honorees and distinguished artist.

The Kennedy Center Honors Gala for the Kennedy Center honorees: Conductor Zubin Mehta, Country singer Dolly Parton, Musical theater composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Director Steven Spielberg, Singer and songwriter Willam “Smokey” Robinson

The annual event begins with a Saturday luncheon at the Center, an evening reception and dinner at the State Department, hosted by the Secretary of State. The honorees are introduced and the Honors medallions are presented by the Center chairman of the board. On Sunday there is an early evening White House reception hosted by the President and First Lady, followed by the Honors performance at the Kennedy Center followed by dinner. What we see on CBS, usually after the Christmas holiday, is taped and edited for television.
Here is the ribboned-medallion presented on Saturday evening at the State Department. kennedy center2The wide rainbow-colored ribbon scene worn by the honorees during the gala performance symbolizes “a spectrum of many skills within the performing arts” according to the artistic creator Ivan Chermayeff. The ribbon carries a triplicate set of medals. On one metal is engraved the honorees name, a second carries the date in the third, Kennedy Center Honor.
For me, this program epitomizes two essential elements of a fitting physical memento to honor achievement. I believe that for a tribute to honor those people who contribute … either for business achievement, fundraising for noble cause, or for lifetime achievements … consider commissioning a design tailored to the craft honored along with the story of the creative inspiration that led to the artistic creation and presentation choreography.


  • Great post Tom. The award is fantastic and the back-story as well.

    Interesting, Ivan Chermayeff was involved with us on Citicorp Center in NYC where his firm were the graphic designers responsible for signage and wayfinding. Closer to home, his son Peter is an architect, and his office was located in Cambridge about 200′ from mine. We competed occasionally. Peter’s real specialty was the design of fantastic aquaria (Boston, Baltimore, Chattannooga, etc.) but he resigned from his firm, Cambridge Seven Associates, several years ago to start a new venture .


    • Tom Ferguson says:

      It’s so cool that these posts connect with your design journey! Hope all is well! Love your comments!
      PS – what’s the highest AIA honor(s)?

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