WASHINGTON – Oprah Winfrey has come a long way since her childhood years in a Mississippi shack and in public housing with a poster of The Beatles on her bedroom wall. Sunday, she was honored with Paul McCartney, one of the Beatles she so loved.
Stars from Hollywood, Nashville and Broadway gathered in the nation’s capital to salute Winfrey, McCartney and three others – country singer Merle Haggard, Broadway composer Jerry Herman and dancer Bill T. Jones – with the Kennedy Center Honors. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama sat with the honorees and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Julia Roberts opened the show with a surprise nod to her friend, Winfrey.
“It’s a universal conversation starter: Did you see what was on ‘Oprah’ today?” Roberts said. “The first time I heard of a better-fitting bra … or a fascinating politician named Barack Obama was on ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show.’ ”
Roberts said she was nervous to address the Washington crowd but nearly tricked them into looking under their seats for a prize – Winfrey style.
John Travolta took the stage to host a mock version of Winfrey’s show with Barbara Walters as his guest. He recounted a phone call he got from Winfrey when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. She told him to fill his plane with medical supplies and meet her in Louisiana.
“So when Oprah calls, you answer,” he said. “Oprah makes it exciting to be responsible.”
Jennifer Hudson sang “I’m Here” from “The Color Purple,” which Winfrey produced on Broadway after starring in the film. Hudson was joined by a choir from Winfrey’s alma mater, Tennessee State University.
Alec Baldwin introduced the tribute for McCartney, 68, lamenting the singer’s “long and winding road” to a solo career, being forced to sing in stadiums and requiring police protection.
“The National Institutes of Health called the epidemic Beatlemania,” Baldwin said. “There was no cure.”
Gwen Stefani and her band, No Doubt, opened the musical set with “Hello, Goodbye.” Dave Grohl and Norah Jones sang “Maybe I’m Amazed.”
Since the 1960s, the new Kennedy Center honorees have helped define television, dance, theater and music.
At the gala performance, Angela Lansbury, Carol Channing and Kelsey Grammer performed some of Herman’s famous tunes from “Hello, Dolly!,” “Mame,” and “La Cage aux Folles.”
For Haggard, Nashville turned out in force.
Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow sang Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again,” and Jamey Johnson and Kid Rock sang “Ramblin Fever.”
Jones, the son of potato pickers, created the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in 1982 with his partner, Arnie Zane, who died of AIDS six years later. Jones has tackled tough issues with his work, such as racism and mortality, sometimes sparking outrage.
On Sunday, he was hailed as a rule-breaker and revolutionary by playwright Edward Albee, Claire Danes and others.