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Washington defies ice storm for Kennedy Center honors

US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama stand alongside the Kennedy Center Honorees for the national anthem as they attend the 2013 Kennedy Center Honors award ceremony in Washington, DC, on December 8, 2013
US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama stand alongside the Kennedy Center Honorees for the national anthem as they attend the 2013 Kennedy Center Honors award ceremony in Washington, DC, on December 8, 2013

Washington's elite defied a winter ice storm to give standing ovations to the latest recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, the nation's highest laurel for a living performing artist.

Latino rock pioneer Carlos Santana, opera star Martina Arroyo, jazz icon Herbie Hancock, actress Shirley MacLaine and pop legend Billy Joel were honored with song and dance performances at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, on Sunday.

"The diverse group of extraordinary individuals we honor today haven't just proven themselves to be the best of the best," President Barack Obama told a White House reception prior to the event in the Kennedy Center's 2,000-seat opera house.

Playing catch-up after a year in which the Kennedy Center was criticized for failing to recognize more Latino performers, the evening opened with a salute to Santana, who carved a unique niche in rock 'n' roll history with such hits as “Black Magic Woman.”

"The Latino thing has arrived. It has become the new black," said calypso legend and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, as he introduced a musical tribute that featured Steve Winwood, Tom Morello and blues legend Buddy Guy, a 2012 honoree.

Actress Kathy Bates arrives for the reception for Kennedy Center honorees hosted by US President Barack Obama, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, on December 8, 2013
Actress Kathy Bates arrives for the reception for Kennedy Center honorees hosted by US President Barack Obama, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, on December 8, 2013

Santana was deeply moved even before the curtain went up.

"The last time I felt like this was the first time I cross the border," the Mexican-born guitarist, sporting his trademark hat and silk shirt, told reporters.

For Harlem native Arroyo, born to a Puerto Rican father and African-American mother, the Kennedy Center called upon the first US Supreme Court justice of Hispanic heritage, Sonia Sotomayor, to deliver the tribute.

"Her life has been like the plot of an opera," the New York-born jurist said, and in memory of the biggest night of her career a group of Arroyo's proteges came out to perform arias from "Aida," the Verdi opera that made her an overnight sensation with the Metropolitan Opera in 1965.

Arguably the strongest performance of the night came in tribute to Chicago native Herbie Hancock, introduced – to the momentary shock and surprise of a predominantly pro-Obama crowd – by conservative author and TV host Bill O'Reilly.

Actress Laura Osnes and her husband Nathan Johnson arrive for a reception for Kennedy Center honorees hosted by US President Barack Obama, in the East Room of the White House in Washington DC, on December 8, 2013
Actress Laura Osnes and her husband Nathan Johnson arrive for a reception for Kennedy Center honorees hosted by US President Barack Obama, in the East Room of the White House in Washington DC, on December 8, 2013

"What does Herbie's music do to me? I'm told it calms me down," O'Reilly joked, but there was nothing laid back about the way Hancock's rich and varied career was summarized in song by the likes of Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter.

Then out came rapper Snoop Dogg, putting his own spin on "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)," a 1993 hit for Us3 forged out of Hancock's 1960s Blue Note standard "Cantaloupe Island," before Mix Master Mike of the Beastie Boys covered his 1983 hit "Rockit."

Over a career stretching back to the 1950s, actress Shirley MacLaine starred in such films Alfred Hitchcock's "The Trouble with Harry," "The Apartment," "Terms of Endearment" and, most recently, television's "Downton Abbey," but Sunday paid tribute to her Broadway musical roots.

In a nod to the star's trademark red hair, out came troupers Sutton Foster, Patina Miller, Karen Olivo and Anna Kendrick in stunning red outfits in a lively song-and-dance medley aptly concluding with the song MacLaine made her own in the 1969 film "Sweet Charity" – "If My Friends Could See Me Now."

Russian dancer and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov arrives for the reception for Kennedy Center honorees hosted by US President Barack Obama, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 8, 2013
Russian dancer and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov arrives for the reception for Kennedy Center honorees hosted by US President Barack Obama, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 8, 2013

"Acting is as necessary to you as breathing," her longtime friend Kathy Bates said from the stage, although earlier on the red carpet the "Misery" star summed her up more spontaneously: "She's a firecracker."

Arriving from the White House reception, where "it was very cool hearing the president talking about my career," Joel – whose songwriting roots are firmly set in New York – saw his hits performed by country crooner Garth Brooks, along with Rufus Wainwright and Panic! At The Disco's Brendon Urie.

On the red carpet, he confided that he learned in September that he was among this year's honorees when he got a call from a friend of his. "I was at home," he said. "I was kind of stunned."

Billed as the highlight of Washington's cultural year, the Kennedy Center Honors gala is one of the most exclusive events in the capital, with tickets going for $500 and up – if you can get any.

First dibs go to those who contribute at least $10,000 to the imposing marble venue by the Potomac River which next year breaks ground on a $100 million expansion.

In a first, this year's honorees were selected by an advisory committee made up of artists, past honorees and Kennedy Center board members, guided by recommendations made online by the general public.

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