Kennedy Center pays tribute to legends of stage, screen, song

— A mix of politicians, Hollywood celebrities and performing arts legends joined President Bush and the first lady in honoring Academy Award-winning actress Elizabeth Taylor, Grammy-honored singer Paul Simon and actor James Earl Jones Sunday.

At a gala held at the Kennedy Center, they were celebrated along with actress-singer-dancer Chita Rivera and Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine for their achievements in the performing arts.

Among the toasters: R&B; singer Alicia Keyes, who performed a jazz arrangement of Simon's hit "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani joined opera singers Placido Domingo and Frederica von Stade in singing a salute to Levine.

Earlier in the evening President Bush toasted the honorees for their contributions to the arts.

"This year we've brought together in one room a legend of Broadway, the conductor of the Met, the composer of 'Mrs. Robinson,' the face of Cleopatra and the voice of Darth Vader," said Bush, addressing the honorees at a White House reception.

"Each one of you is known to the American people in a way that runs deeper than fame."

Following the reception, Bush and the first lady attended the 25th annual program where the careers of this year's honorees were celebrated.

The honorees are:

  • Taylor, 72, who became a child star with "National Velvet" in 1944 and later won Oscars for "Butterfield 8" in 1960 and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" in 1966.

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AP Photo

James Earl Jones, Chita Rivera and James Levine, left to right back row, with Paul Simon and Elizabeth Taylor, front row, are this year's Kennedy Center Honorees for their lifetime contributions to the performing arts.

The Kennedy Center's chairman, James A. Johnson, called Taylor "a luminous film actress who for nearly 60 years has been a Hollywood icon treasured by millions throughout the world." More recently, she has helped raise millions of dollars to fight AIDS.

  • Simon, 51, was added to the lineup in August when, a few weeks after the official announcement, former Beatle Paul McCartney withdrew because of a personal obligation.

The Kennedy Center said McCartney would be on the 2003 list and that Simon would have been honored in the future.

Simon first became known as part of a duo with Art Garfunkel. "Sound of Silence" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" were among their most popular numbers.

"More recently, his work has encompassed an awareness of and concern for international art and artists," Johnson said.

  • Levine, 49, longtime musical director of the Metropolitan Opera and now leader of the Boston Symphony Orchestra " the first American to assume the position in 120 years. He was credited with bringing "one of the world's foremost opera companies to unsurpassed artistic excellence."
  • Rivera, 69, "a musical theater star of the highest magnitude." She is a two-time Tony Award winner and created the role of Anita in the original production of Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story."
  • Jones, 71, "an actor whose extraordinary range and power have made him an American institution." The voice of the evil Darth Vader in "Star Wars," his long and varied career has produced two Tonys and four Emmys.

The program airs Dec. 27 on CBS.

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