The children’s favourite Sesame Street on Sunday became the first TV programme to receive Kennedy Center Honors – and its magic conjured some much needed bipartisan accord in Washington.
Performers and producers of the series and their puppets wore single yellow feathers in memory of Caroll Spinney, who brought the popular characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to life. Spinney died on Sunday aged 85.
That Sesame Street deserved recognition at America’s most prestigious performing arts awards was one thing that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of both parties could be seen applauding.
“I love Sesame Street,” Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, told the Guardian. “I was a bit too old for it when it started but my children have spent many hours watching it.” Elaine Chao, the transportation secretary, described it as “a wonderful concept”.
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Singer Linda Ronstadt, actor Sally Field, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and music group Earth, Wind & Fire were this year’s other honorees. There were tributes from stars including John Legend, Steven Spielberg and Cynthia Erivo. Breaking from past presidents, Trump did not attend for the third consecutive year.
But the red carpet spotlight was grabbed by Sesame Street’s Big Bird, Bert and Ernie and Abby and Cookie Monster, accompanied by their respective humans. Big Bird later turned up in the stalls and accused actor Tom Hanks of nicking his seat.
Sesame Street celebrated its 50th anniversary last month and has chalked up around 4,500 episodes. The idea of honouring it on Sunday night with an accolade no other TV show has achieved originated with Caroline Kennedy, daughter of former president John F Kennedy.
Sesame Street’s creators were guided by a mission to give under-served preschoolers an academic equal footing, and the involvement of puppeteer Jim Henson ensured it would be an instant hit. The Kennedy Center audience was told: “Fuelled by an unlikely marriage of academic research and creative genius, it seemed as if they alone were teaching kindness, inclusion and how to face the things that hurt.”
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Along with teaching letters and numbers, the series has dealt with subjects including autism, death and divorce. In 2002 the character Elmo became the first non-human to testify before Congress, appearing before an education appropriations subcommittee to defend funding of music programmes in public schools.
Peter Linz, 52, who plays Ernie and Herry Monster and has been on the show for 28 years, told the Guardian: “It’s very exciting. It’s a tremendous honour. Ever since I was a small child I wanted to work on Sesame Street and it’s kind of mind blowing to be here now. This is the only thing I’m qualified to do and I’m very, very fortunate that I get to do this.”
Eric Jacobson, 48, plays Bert and Grover and took on the role of Oscar the Grouch after Spinney retired last year. Clearly emotional, Jacobson said: “He loved to tell stories. I could just listen to him for hours and I wound up doing that many times.”
During the ceremony, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt gave Cookie Monster his favourite food and told how his childhood love of Sesame Street is shared by his own kids. “Healthy habits, social emotional skills that foster mutual respect and kindness and acceptance of others – something we could all probably use a little more of, especially these days.”
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It was one of several comments during the evening that subtly touched on Washington’s political rancour, though Trump was never mentioned by name.
When David Rubenstein, chairman of the Kennedy Center, recognised the presence of cabinet members Chao, DeVos, Alex Azar, Steven Mnuchin and Wilbur Ross, there was polite applause. When he then named Pelosi, currently masterminding an impeachment inquiry against Trump, there was a roar of enthusiasm and a prolonged standing ovation, during which Pompeo remained riveted to his seat. John Roberts, the chief justice, leaned over and said something to the secretary of state, who wore a fixed smile.
Pompeo may also have been smarting from a ceremony at the state department the previous night when he reportedly invoked one of Ronstadt’s songs, quipping, “As I travel the world, I wonder when will I be loved,” only for the singer to respond, “It’s when he stops enabling Donald Trump”.
This was the 42nd annual Kennedy Center Honors – there have been 222 honorees – and only three times prior to Trump has the president been absent from Washington’s big night out.
Rita Wilson, an actor and singer/ songwriter married to Hanks, told red carpet reporters: “I think they’d have to be prepared for people saying things that they may not want to hear. I mean, artists tell the truth. So if you’ve got a differing opinion, you might say something that may not be the most flattering thing.”
Hanks, attending to honour Field, his co-star in Forrest Gump, added: “We’ve been here under Republican presidents and Democratic presidents and… there was no issue. We were celebrating literally the arts in America. I think it’s unfortunate that the circumstances are that somehow people don’t want to do that on a night like this in our nation’s capital.”
Deborah Rutter, the president of the Kennedy Center, said: “Of course it’s important for us to have that kind of recognition and I’m very proud that the Kennedy Centre has a really good relationship with the White House. We would love to have the president of the United States here, but I understand for him to make the decision.”