|The President & Mrs. Obama arrive in the East Room|
The White House - A strong winter storm that dumped snow on the the nation's capital didn't prevent President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama from hosting a star-studded reception on Sunday afternoon for this year's recipients of the 36th Annual Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement in the performing arts: Actress Shirley MacLaine, musicians Billy Joel, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, and opera singer Martina Arroyo.
Before traveling to the Kennedy Center for a gala tribute that will be broadcast on Dec. 29 on CBS, the tuxedo-clad President saluted the honorees, lacing his remarks with quips about MacLaine and Area 51, Santana and his drug use, and Hancock's tireless tour schedule, which includes many "free" concerts for the Obamas.
The First Lady wore a green strapless floor-length Marchesa gown with a ruched bodice that had a small train in the back as the she arrived in the East room with the President shortly after 5:00 PM. Mrs. Obama's hair was in loose curls, and she adorned the ensemble with a diamond necklace and earrings.
|The President during his remarks|
In a holiday mood, the President swayed between serious and joking.
"Each of our brilliant honorees has given us something unique and enriched us beyond measure, as individuals and as a nation," President Obama said.
"Together they bring us closer to President Kennedy’s vision of the arts as a great humanizing and truth telling experience. Their triumphs have lifted our spirits and lifted our nation, and left us a better, richer place."
|From L: Santana, MacLaine, Joel, Hancock, and Arroyo|
Arroyo, 76, is a soprano who had humble beginnings in Harlem that redefined "what magnificent artists look like and where they come from," President Obama said. But her father tried to dissuade her from becoming an opera singer, he said.
"Her father--perhaps not fully appreciating the versatility required of an opera singer--said he didn’t want his daughter to be like a can-can girl," President Obama said to laughter, adding that nothing could "shake" Arroyo from her dream.
"She’s played the world’s stages, from Cincinnati to Paris to Israel. She’s broken through barriers, broadening our notion of what magnificent artists look like and where they come from."
Jazz artist Hancock, 73, a native of Chicago, has won 14 Grammys and an Academy Award, but he's also performed on world tours as a UNESCO ambassador, President Obama said.
"He played so many benefit concerts, Joni Mitchell once gave him a watch that said 'you play real good for free,'" the President deadpanned. "And we know this, because he’s played here for free a lot. We work Herbie."
Among his many Obama concerts, Hancock played at the President's private fiftieth birthday party at the White House.
"Michelle and I love this man, not just because he’s from Chicago," President Obama said. "Not just because he and I had the same hairdo in the 1970s. Not just because he’s got that spooky Dorian Gray doesn’t-get-older thing going on."
He has a “spooky Dorian Gray doesn’t get older thing,” President Obama joked.
|The President and Santana|
"I am a little disappointed that Carlos Santana wore one of his more conservative shirts this evening," the President said to laughter. "Back in the day, you could see those things from space."
Santana is a Mexican immigrant who learned English from watching American television, and is one of only a few Latinos who have received the honor so far. He gave voice to a rising Latino community, the President said--and joked some more.
“Before Carlos Santana took the stage at Woodstock few people outside his hometown of San Francisco knew who he was, and the feeling was mutual: Carlos was in such a, shall we say, ‘altered state of mind,’ that he remembers almost nothing about the performance," President Obama quipped.
|Santana and Joel applaud as the President recognizes MacLaine|
But MacLaine has also had a decades-long side career as a spiritual explorer, authoring books about her many experiences, and claiming to have seen UFOs.
"Now, when you first become President, one of the questions that people ask you is, what’s really going on in Area 51?" President Obama said. "When I wanted to know, I’d call Shirley MacLaine."
As he got more laughs, the President added: "I think I just became the first President to ever publicly mention Area 51. How’s that, Shirley?"
The presence of the decades-old, ultra-secret installation in the Nevada desert was just officially confirmed with documents released last August.
The 64-year-old Joel was born in the Bronx, and has been playing the piano since he was a boy, growing up on New York's Long Island, the President said, the son of a Jewish father who left Germany for America to escape the Nazis. He's become one of the most successful American singers in history, selling more than 150 albums, the President said.
"In a world full of brilliant musicians, there’s only one Piano Man," the President said. "Above all, Billy Joel sings about America: About the workers living in Allentown after the factories closed down. About soldiers home from the war, forever changed, bidding “Goodnight Saigon."
"The diverse group of extraordinary individuals we honor today haven't just proven themselves to be the best of the best," President Obama said. "Despite all their success, all their fame, they've remained true to themselves--and inspired the rest of us to do the same."
|The President and Mrs. Obama at the gala|
Jazz great Arturo Sandoval played the National Anthem by trumpet; he was recently awarded the Medal of Freedom from the President, and also performed on Friday night as the First Couple attended the ceremony and concert to light the National Christmas Tree.
“The Kennedy Center celebrates five extraordinary individuals, who have spent their lives elevating the cultural vibrancy of our nation and world,” said David Rubenstein, chairman of the Kennedy Center as he opened the program.
The President and Mrs. Obama returned to the White House at 10:44 PM as rain poured down. They were scheduled to host a post-gala supper dance in the White House's holiday-bedecked Grand Foyer, closed to press, according to the Kennedy Center.
The President and Mrs. Obama will depart the White House at 7:45 AM on Monday morning, flying aboard Air Force One to Johannesburg, South Africa, for the memorial service for former president Nelson Mandela, who passed away last Thursday.
|Secretary & Mrs. Kerry with the honorees at the dinner|
On Saturday night, the Kennedy honorees were presented with their medallions at a black-tie dinner hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry and his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry at the State Department.
"They are loved by so many, imitated by some, but never ever can they be replaced," Kerry said as he toasted the honorees. "We are reminded that the role of arts can also never be replaced."
According to the Kennedy Center, Secretary Kerry's dinner guest list included:
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. From the White House: Press Secretary Jay Carney; Deputy Chief of Staff Alyssa Mastromonaco, and Senior Advisor Pete Rouse.
Members of both the House and Senate also attended:
Sen. Roy Blunt, Sen. Barbara Boxer, Sen. Ben Cardin, Rep. James Clyburn, Sen. Thad Cochran, Sen. Susan Collins, Rep. John Conyers, Sen. Bob Corker, Rep. John Dingell, Sen. Chris Dodd, Sen. Dick Durbin, Sen. Jeff Flake, Sen. Tom Harkin, Rep. Steny Hoyer, Rep. Steve Israel, WH advisor Valerie Jarrett, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Rep. John Larson, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Sen. Ed Markey,Rep. Doris Matsui, Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe, WH CoS Denis McDonough, Sen. Claire McCaskill, Sen. Robert Menendez, Rep. Jim Moran, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Richard Shelby, Rep. Bill Shuster, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Sen. Mark Warner, Rep. Henry Waxman, and Sen. Roger Wicker.
*The transcript of the President's remarks.
*Kerry photo by State Department; other photos by pool; White House video