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The History Of The Kennedy Center Honors

Distinguished US-based artists don't typically win government medals for service given. Nor do these atypical luminaries earn a knighthood like their cohorts do in the UK. In addition, none of us Americans can be honored by the French Legion for our prize talents, either. Still, on this side of the Atlantic, we do have our own form of recognition through the esteemed Kennedy Center Honors.

Each year since 1978, this prize has been given to a select handful of outstanding contributors to the performing arts during a televised special that takes place annually between Christmas and New Year's.

PHOTOS: 2013 Kennedy Center Honors

In fact, as America's biggest talents who have left vast artistic legacies in their collective chosen fields are selected and then feted by the President of the United States, no less, the small screen program is often feted as well. That is because the Kennedy Center Honors is regularly bestowed a primetime Emmy the year following the telecast.

The idea of the annual Honors came from George Stevens, Jr., who still serves as the show's co-producer today. Walter Cronkite served as host of the show until 2003, when due to illness Caroline Kennedy filled in. The following year Cronkite officially introduced Kennedy as the shows host.

That said, some 35 years ago when the initial group of artists were chosen for this particular honor, Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers and Arthur Rubinstein were the first to join this rarified roster.

Later, such legendary names as Ella Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Arthur Miller and Merce Cunningham joined their artistic colleagues. So did Yehudi Menuhin, Ray Charles, Perry Como, Bette Davis, Alvin Ailey, Mary Martin, Johnny Carson, Stephen Sondheim, Kirk Douglas, Pete Seeger, Edward Albee and Johnny Cash. All of those luminaries and so many others took center stage for the Kennedy Center Honors before this millennium.

Then, starting in 2000, icons like Chuck Berry, Clint Eastwood, Julie Andrews, Elizabeth Taylor, Loretta Lynn, Itzhak Perlman, Elton John, Tina Turner, Martin Scorsese, Dolly Parton, Steven Spielberg and Mel Brooks also became part of the list.

Now, in 2013, Martina Arroyo, Herbie Hancock, Billy Joel, Shirley MacLaine, and Carlos Santana are joining their esteemed comrades to be part of something stellar. And this something stellar shows off this country's most prestigious talents in all facets of the arts, be that in dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures, or television. In fact, some who have been singled out to date shine in more than one aspect of the performing arts.

And so, as new household names join choice others for this year's Kennedy Center Honors, each fresh member takes his or her place in American pop culture in a largely esteemed way to own first-rate bragging rights for their collective works in life.

Can you hear the resounding applause? Can you see the standing ovations? These stars of the stage and screen deserve that and so much more for leading our country into the record books with extraordinary contributions not found anywhere else in the whole wide world.

"The 36th Annual Kennedy Center Honors" will air on Sunday, December 29th at 9 PM PT on CBS.
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Los Angeles freelance travel writer Jane Lasky, contributes to publications such as Travel + Leisure, Vogue and Esquire. Her weekly sojourning column ran in 40 newspapers for 20 years. Jane is anything but an accidental tourist. Check out her articles on


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