Elmo came to the Kennedy Center Honors wearing a single yellow feather on his tuxedo lapel. So did Ernie, and so did Bert, and so did Cookie Monster and Abby Cadabby, who had one affixed to her shiny blue dress. The Sesame Street puppeteers who attended Sunday’s ceremony in Washington, D.C., all wore a single yellow feather, too, as a tribute to Caroll Spinney, the Sesame Street pioneer who originated the characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, and who died on Sunday morning, coincidentally the same day that Sesame Street became the first television show ever to receive a Kennedy Center Honor.
“I am just stunned that this happened, and on this particular day,” said Sonia Manzano, who played Maria on Sesame Street for 44 years until retiring in 2015. “I think that a sweeter man was never born.”
“We were all inspired by him,” said David Rudman, a puppeteer who stood beside Manzano on the red carpet with a blue, fuzzy, cross-eyed Cookie Monster affixed to his right arm. “I grew up watching the show and I grew up inspired by Caroll and I was able to work with him and learn from him as a mentor.”
Though Spinney’s death didn’t cast a pall over the ceremony. Big Bird himself even showed up — he’s now portrayed by Matt Vogel — but he did not talk to reporters; a Kennedy Center press representative told a gaggle of journalists that Big Bird doesn’t do red-carpet interviews. The feathered behemoth did, however, engage in a funny bit with Tom Hanks during the show in which he claimed the star of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a.k.a. Mister Rogers, had stolen his seat.
There was still plenty of joy in the 42nd annual Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, but there was a more palpable sense of the bittersweet than usual during the proceedings, where, in addition to Sesame Street, Sally Field, Linda Ronstadt, Earth, Wind & Fire, and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas were awarded the country’s highest performing-arts prize.
Ronstadt, whose expressive and rich voice was flexible enough to handle just about any genre, had to retire from singing in 2011 after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and the fact that she can no longer croon her well-known work made the tribute to her more poignant. From her seat in the honorees’ box, it was clear she was moved by the salutes to her from Don Henley, Carrie Underwood — who sang “Blue Bayou” and “When Will I Be Loved?” — the all-female mariachi band Flor de Toloache, Aaron Neville, and Trisha Yearwood. When longtime friend and collaborator Emmylou Harris spoke about Ronstadt, whom she called “my sister, my dear companion,” Ronstadt broke down in tears.
The celebration of Earth, Wind & Fire — highlighted by performances from John Legend, Cynthia Erivo, Ne-Yo, and, no, this is not a misprint, the Jonas Brothers doing “Boogie Wonderland” — noted that the band’s founder, Maurice White, died in 2016 from the effects of the same disease that afflicts Ronstadt: Parkinson’s. These moments, along with the knowledge of Spinney’s passing, served as a reminder of what always hangs in the air at events like the Kennedy Center Honors even though no one wants to say it out loud: that these artists are being recognized for their great work because a day will come when they won’t be around to be recognized.
The year 1969 kept coming up in the narratives about the honorees. It was the year Sesame Street began, and when Earth, Wind & Fire formed. It was also when Tilson Thomas became the assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which would eventually lead to him founding the New World Symphony and conducting the San Francisco Symphony. It was also around the time when Linda Ronstadt started touring professionally, and when Sally Field was starring in a TV show called The Flying Nun, a gig that led to her joining the Actors Studio and, as Hanks said in his tribute to the Oscar winner, eventually proving that she was “an artist of the highest expertise, onstage, onscreen and in life.” Hanks — who said, “Hi, Mama” to Field, who played his mother in Forrest Gump, as he walked onto the stage — was joined during the Field salute by her longtime friend Steven Spielberg, who directed Field in Lincoln; Maura Tierney, who starred on ER as Field’s daughter; and Pierce Brosnan, who appeared with her in Mrs. Doubtfire.
While Linda Ronstadt reportedly made a political statement during the State Department dinner held the night before the ceremony (after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a joke about wondering when he might be loved, a reference to one of her hits, Ronstadt said that would happen “when you stop enabling Donald Trump”), the Honors ceremony was largely free of political commentary, despite the impeachment inquiry dominating the conversation in Washington right now. One moment was an exception, though.
When Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein acknowledged that Pompeo and other members of Trump’s Cabinet, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, were sitting in the presidential box, they received polite applause. But when he mentioned immediately afterward that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was also in attendance, virtually everyone in the Kennedy Center Opera House sprang to their feet to give Pelosi a standing ovation. The contrast between those two receptions and the message it sent could only be missed if you had left the Kennedy Center Opera House at that moment to use the restroom. (Also unmissable: the fact that for the third year in a row, President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump skipped the Kennedy Center Honors, which, prior to this administration, had been regularly attended by every previous modern president. That was probably a good thing; on the red carpet, Field said that if Trump had been there, she would not have come.)
Rubenstein also made sure to mention the loss of Spinney, which wasn’t addressed during the section of the program about Sesame Street that will be televised. “We are all saddened by this loss and the tribute to Sesame Street tonight is in his honor,” he said.
You can see much of that tribute, as well as all the others, when the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony airs on CBS on Sunday, December 15.