After Dick Van Dyke got the call informing him that he had been selected as a Kennedy Center honoree, he did exactly what he was told not to do: He called his family to tell them the good news.
And why not? He’s a 95-year-old elder statesman of show business whose eponymous television show is considered to have helped shape American sitcoms for decades.
“My wife took the call and the instructions were, ‘Congratulations but do not tell anybody,’” Van Dyke said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “You can’t do that! I called all my relatives right away. I couldn’t hold that in.”
Van Dyke now adds to his résumé one of the country’s highest artistic honors. The other recipients, announced by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday, include the singer-songwriter and activist Joan Baez; the country music star Garth Brooks; the actress, choreographer and producer Debbie Allen; and the violinist Midori.
Last year, the pandemic scrambled the schedule for the Kennedy Center Honors. Typically held in December, the performances and ceremonies associated with the show have been postponed to May, with the broadcast scheduled for June 6 on CBS.
Another major change lies in the shifting political winds: While President Trump did not attend the honors during his term or hold the traditional White House reception for the honorees, President-elect Biden is expected to rekindle the relationship.
In a typical year, the program features an opera house filled with dolled-up celebrities, dignitaries and donors there to celebrate the honorees. This year, the performances will be filmed on the Kennedy Center campus — some, perhaps, with a small live audience — or the film crew will travel to the performers if they cannot make it to Washington.
The center hopes to have its typical reception at the White House and ceremony at the State Department, where the ribbons are given out.
But some traditions are out of the question.
“A dinner with 2,000 people in the lobby will not happen,” said Deborah Rutter, the Kennedy Center’s president. “We’re only going to do this in the most safe and respectful way.”
The honorees — selected based on the recommendation of an advisory committee that includes Kennedy Center officials and past award recipients — represent folk, country and classical music, as well as theater and television.
Baez’s career as a singer-songwriter has long been linked with her political activism, which began with the Civil Rights movement and then the antiwar protests. Baez, 80, says that she now considers painting to be her main artistic outlet. When it comes to her legacy, she would prefer to be remembered for “good trouble,” she said, quoting Representative John Lewis, rather than for awards.
“I don’t want to be too respectable,” she said in an interview, and laughed. “But I certainly accept and assume that ‘good trouble’ I’ve spent my life being in is part of why I’m getting this award.”
Although these honorees have long passed the “struggling artist” stage of their careers, it is not lost on them that they are receiving this award at a time of crisis in their industries, given pandemic shutdowns.
Brooks — who is the No. 1 best-selling solo artist in U.S. history, according to the Recording Industry Association of America — said that he fears for the musicians who are in the position that he was in 30 years ago, playing bars and clubs with the hope that it leads to a record deal.
“The rug has been pulled out from beneath them,” Brooks, 58, said. “How this affects the music industry in the future is a big question.”
Over the last 10 months, all five of these artists have been searching for safe ways to share their art and interact with their audiences. Baez has exhibited her paintings virtually, for example; Allen has taught live dance classes to a virtual audience of more than 35,000; and Van Dyke said that he was delighted to learn from fan mail that some children, home from school, had discovered “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” (“I have a whole new fan club!” he said.)
For Midori, 49, the Japanese-born violinist who gained fame in the United States after she performed with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 11, the pandemic has brought a greater appreciation for performing in front of an audience, in the flesh. She has given virtual workshops and master classes during the pandemic.
“It made me realize how precious the moments of being able to do things live are,” she said.
At a time when the country is something of a wasteland for the performing arts, there is a desire for this spring honors program to usher in a kind of rebirth.
Allen, 70, has long been in the business of promoting the arts as a critical national interest. After establishing herself as a Broadway performer, gaining recognition for her roles in “West Side Story” and “Sweet Charity,” then for her “Fame” choreography, Allen served as a sort of cultural diplomat under President George W. Bush, traveling abroad to teach and talk about dance.
Allen said that at a time of national crisis, she sees the arts as a salve — as well as a space to discuss the pressing issues of the day. (In “Grey’s Anatomy,” which Allen produces, directs and acts in, Covid-19 is the central plotline.)
“As a country, we’re all looking for the light because such a storm is taking over,” Allen said. “And the arts is always an answer.”