One of TV’s annual gems returns Sunday (Dec. 15) – a little different than in its past.
Yes, “The Kennedy Center Honors” telecast again includes a classical-music figure. It always does; this time, it’s conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.
But now it also has the funky fun of Earth, Wind & Fire … plus Elmo and Oscar and friends … and two eternal ingenues, Sally Field (shown here with Burt Reynolds) and Linda Ronstadt. That’s a big change from the start in 1978.
Over the first three years, the 15 honorees included three choreographers, two operatic sopranos, two composers, a composer-conductor, a classical pianist, a playwright and a theater actress. There were token nods to pop culture (three movie stars and Ella Fitzgerald), but no rock and no funk.
Since then, the awards have acknowledged that genius doesn’t always come in predictable packages.
They’ve included plenty of classical geniuses – Bernstein, Balanchine and Baryshnikov; Mehta, Ma and Menotti; Rostropovich and Rubinstein and more. But now there’s room for the actress who was Gidget, the people who gave us “Boogie Wonderland” and “You’re No Good” and “Rubber Ducky.”
For Field and Ronstadt, some fans may have reacted first to their look. Both are short (5-foot-3), bubble-faced and instantly likable.
Ronstadt? James Keach, producer of a documentary about her that reaches CNN on Jan. 1, remembers his reaction to first seeing her, long ago: “It was, ‘Do you think she would ever go out with me?’”
Field? After his first dinner with her, Reynolds said in his memoir (“My Life,” 1994, Hyperion), he blurted, “I could flat-out fall in love with you.” She became, he wrote, “the love affair of my life.”
But when the exteriors are that cute, it’s easy to ignore the depth inside. Let’s ponder their kin:
Field’s brother Rick is a physicist and a math whiz who has co-authored papers with Richard Feynman and other science giants. “Sally could have very easily been a scientist,” he told one interviewer.
Then there’s Ronstadt’s maternal grandfather. He had more than 700 patents, including a grease gun, the first electric stove, early versions of the toaster and the microwave … and the flexible ice cube tray.
So yes, someone who is super-cute might also inherit a sharp mind and varied talent.
Field, for instance, went from her “Gidget” and “Flying Nun” days to Academy Awards for “Norma Rae” and “Places in the Heart.” Ronstadt showed the same range. “I had no idea of the breadth of her work,” said Courtney Sexton, another producer of the CNN film.
Here was someone who started in rock, then tried more – Spanish-language songs, reflecting her roots … lush ballads, arranged by 1940s/50s bandleader Nelson Riddle … even the “Pirates of Penzance” operetta. “She was someone who followed her passion …. She made it seem effortless,” Sexton said.
That’s the same sort of variety shown by Earth, Wind & Fire. The group has an “encyclopedic sound,” says the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll” (Fireside, 2001). It links “Latin-funk rhythms with gospel harmonies, unerring horns, Philip Bailey’s sweet falsetto and various exotic ingredients.” This is richly varied music … even if people merely expect to hear “Let’s Groove.”
Earth, Wind & Fire continues to work, three years after its leader, Maurice White, died of Parkinson’s disease. Ronstadt also has Parkinson’s and retired in 2011.
(The Kennedy Center honorees don’t perform. They sit in an upper balcony, watching short films and performances – great ones, often – by colleagues.)
Field continues a busy acting career. Tilson Thomas plans to retire as San Francisco Symphony conductor after this season. And “Sesame Street,” of course, is forever.
– “Kennedy Center Honors,” 8:30-10:30 p.m. in most time zones (but 8-10 p.m. PT) Dec. 15, CBS
– “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” 9 p.m. ET and PT Jan. 1, CNN
– “Sesame Street” is 11 a.m. weekdays on most PBS station; also, 10 a.m. and 2 and 10 p.m. weekdays on the separate PBS Kids channel
– Sally Field is one of the stars of “Dispatches From Elsewhere,” debuting in March on AMC