The kudos will be handed out Dec. 8 at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, D.C. The award to “Sesame Street” marks the first time the prestigious laurel has been bestowed on a TV series. The highlights of the ceremony will air Dec. 15 on CBS as it has for the past 42 years.
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“The Kennedy Center Honors celebrates icons who, through their artistry, have left an indelible stamp on our collective cultural consciousness,” stated Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein. “Earth, Wind & Fire’s hooks and grooves are the foundation of a seminal style that continues to shape our musical landscape; Sally Field has brought us unforgettable characters, both joyous and poignant, for more than five decades; Linda Ronstadt is the defining voice of a generation, spanning genres, languages and continents; ‘Sesame Street’ continues to revolutionize how children and adults learn about our world; and Michael Tilson Thomas goes far beyond keeping score – he has shaped American music and musical institutions for the 21st century.”
Here are the Kennedy Center bios of this year’s honorees:
Earth, Wind & Fire (R&B Collective: Philip Bailey, Verdine White, Ralph Johnson)
Earth, Wind & Fire (EWF) are a music institution. Over their five-decade history, they’ve sold out concerts all around the globe, scored eight #1 hits and sold over 100 million albums worldwide, making them one of the best-selling musical groups of all time. The group has won an impressive nine GRAMMY® Awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement (2012). In 2000 Earth, Wind & Fire was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, cementing their lasting impact on popular music. In recognition of their record-breaking success, Earth, Wind & Fire were awarded Lifetime Achievement honors from ASCAP, NAACP and BET, and have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Invited to perform for Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the latter later stated in an interview with Rolling Stone that Earth, Wind & Fire are a “rhythm and blues and pop staple.” With a sound that blends funk, jazz, pop, soul and R&B, Earth, Wind & Fire can’t be confined to a specific label. Their timeless songs have bridged the gap among generations and nationalities. Whether it’s the funky and infectious “Let’s Groove,” the timeless dance classic “September,” or the heartfelt song “Reasons,” Earth, Wind & Fire’s catalog of hits has become the soundtrack to many lives now, then and forever. Their influence has reached musical giants such as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Prince. Additionally, many of today’s chart-topping artists, including Kanye West, Justin Timberlake and Alicia Keys, have hailed the band for their artistry. The music of Earth, Wind & Fire is more alive than ever as they continue to inspire new audiences and thrill those who have been with them from the beginning. Earth, Wind & Fire’s music has withstood ever-changing trends in the world and shows no sign of vanishing, as they continue to create uplifting music that will forever reach a universal audience.
Kennedy Center Honors history: Earth, Wind & Fire were among the guest cast paying tribute for Honoree Al Green (2014).
Sally Field (Actress)
With a career that has spanned more than five decades, Sally Field is a two-time Academy Award and three-time Emmy Award-winning actress who has portrayed dozens of iconic roles on both large and small screens. Highlights from her extensive film credits include “Hello, My Name is Doris,” “Lincoln,” “Forrest Gump,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Murphy’s Romance,” “Places in the Heart,” “Absence of Malice,” “Norma Rae,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Soapdish,” “Not Without My Daughter” and “Punchline.” Born in Pasadena, Calif. and raised in a show business family, Field began her career in 1964 in the television series “Gidget.” She went on to star in “The Flying Nun” in 1967 and eventually starred in three television series by the age of 25. Other television credits include the mini-series “Sybil,” on the Network, “Brothers & Sisters,” “ER” and “Maniac.” In 2002 Field made her Broadway debut in Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” followed by a 2004 appearance as Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie” at the Kennedy Center. In 2017 Field revisited that role on Broadway and received a Tony Award nomination. This year, Field made her West End debut in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” opposite Bill Pullman at the Old Vic. Field was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012 and, in 2015, was honored by President Obama with the National Medal of Arts. Her memoir, In Pieces, was published last September and became a New York Times best-seller.
Kennedy Center Honors history: Field was among the guest cast paying tribute to Honoree Paul Newman (1992).
Recent Kennedy Center history: Field starred as Amanda in Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie” revival at the Kennedy Center in 2004.
Linda Ronstadt (Singer)
Linda Ronstadt is one of the most versatile vocalists of the modern era. Through her four-decade career, she has established herself as one of the most important artists in one of the most creative periods in the history of modern music. Ronstadt broadened the latitudes of the pop singer, expanding the vocalist’s canvas to include country, rock and roll, big band, jazz, opera, Broadway standards and Mexican and Afro-Cuban influences. With worldwide album sales of more than 50 million, 31 gold and platinum records and 10 GRAMMY® Awards, Ronstadt is the consummate American artist. Ronstadt sang her last concert in 2009 and shortly thereafter announced her retirement from singing. Unlike most retirements, however, Ronstadt’s has been quite busy. Her book Simple Dreams, A Musical Memoir, released in 2013, made the New York Times best-seller list and kicked off an extensive book tour. In December 2013, Ronstadt was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In 2014 she was honored by President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony with the National Medal of Arts. From 2014 to 2018, Ronstadt toured occasionally with her highly acclaimed one-woman show, “A Conversation with Linda Ronstadt.” Featuring photos, audio and selected video, Ronstadt recounted episodes from various times in her long career, as well as her thoughts on music and its impact on her life. Ronstadt serves on the advisory board of Los Cenzontles, an academy in California’s East Bay dedicated to the preservation of Mexican Heritage. Founded by Eugene Rodriguez, the organization serves to educate the community about Hispanic art, music and culture. In early 2019, Rhino Entertainment released Linda Ronstadt – Live in Hollywood, her first and only live concert album, originally recorded on April 24, 1980.
Kennedy Center Honors history: Linda Ronstadt narrated the tribute for Kennedy Center Honorees the Eagles – the late Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Timothy B. Schmit and Joe Walsh (2016).
“Sesame Street” (Children’s Television Program)
In 1969, “Sesame Street” debuted to answer a single bold question: could television be used to educate kids? Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind the iconic program, brought together a barrier-breaking multicultural cast, deep early childhood education expertise and the unforgettable Muppets of Sesame Street, and proved that it could. The Sesame team has been asking the big questions, and reaching inspiring milestones, ever since. Today, Sesame Workshop is an innovative force for change, with a mission to help kids everywhere grow smarter, stronger and kinder. It serves vulnerable children worldwide through a wide range of media, formal education, and philanthropically funded social impact programs addressing vital subjects as diverse as autism, gender equity, and critical early learning for young refugees. “Sesame Street” is the first preschool program to integrate education and entertainment and has brought joyful learning to generations. Currently airing new episodes initially on HBO, it has been broadcast continuously since 1969 on PBS and also reaches millions of children in more than 150 countries internationally. Indigenous co-productions reflecting local languages, customs and educational needs have been produced for audiences in many countries around the world. Joan Ganz Cooney and Dr. Lloyd Morrisett co-founded the Children’s Television Workshop (renamed Sesame Workshop in June 2000) in 1968, and “Sesame Street” launched the following year. Cooney, a producer and media executive, served as Sesame Workshop’s president and chief executive officer until 1990, and currently serves as chairman of the executive committee of Sesame Workshop’s board. In November 2007, she introduced the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, dedicated to advancing children’s learning in a digital age. Dr. Morrisett is an experimental psychologist by training. After 30 years as chairman of the Workshop’s board of trustees, he is now a trustee and chairman emeritus.
Kennedy Center Honors history: “Sesame Street” was featured in the video montage honoring previous Kennedy Center Honoree Yo-Yo Ma (2011). Then, Elmo introduced a live musical tribute, singing with the children’s choir.
Previous Honorees who have participated in “Sesame Street,” either as a special guest or as a creative collaborator: Harry Belafonte (1989), Tony Bennett (2005), Victor Borge (1999), Carol Burnett (2003), Johnny Cash (1996), Ray Charles (1986), Ruby Dee (2004), Carmen de Lavallade (2017), Robert De Niro (2009), Gloria Estefan (2017), Suzanne Farrell (2005), Sally Field (2019), Dizzy Gillespie (1990), Philip Glass (2018), Hamilton creators Alex Lacamoire and Lin-Manuel Miranda (2018), Herbie Hancock (2013), Lena Horne (1984), Marilyn Horne (1995), Billy Joel (2013), James Earl Jones (2002), B.B. King (1995), LL COOL J (2017), Loretta Lynn (2003), Rita Moreno (2015), Itzhak Perlman (2003), Linda Ronstadt (2019), Paul Simon (2002), James Taylor (2016), Lily Tomlin (2014) and Stevie Wonder (1999).
Michael Tilson Thomas (Conductor and Musical Visionary)
Michael Tilson Thomas is music director of the San Francisco Symphony, co-founder and artistic director of the New World Symphony, and conductor laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra. An 11-time GRAMMY® Award-winner, Tilson Thomas has, over the course of his career, conducted the major orchestras of Europe and the United States. Born in Los Angeles, Tilson Thomas studied piano, conducting and composition at the University of Southern California. As a young musician, he worked with such artists as Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland. In his mid-20s, he became assistant conductor – and later principal guest conductor – of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which he conducted in his New York debut. Subsequently, he served as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. In 1988, he co-founded the New World Symphony, an orchestral academy in Miami Beach that prepares gifted music graduates for leadership roles in classical music. Over the years, he has guided the artistic and professional development of more than 1,100 young musicians, many of whom have gone onto careers with major orchestras and institutions. Tilson Thomas became music director of the San Francisco Symphony in 1995, and his tenure has been a period of significant growth and heightened international recognition for the orchestra. He has led SFS in championing contemporary and American composers alongside classical masters, while also innovating new ways of engaging 21st-century audiences with classical music. In 2020 he will conclude his 25-year directorship and becomes music director laureate. Throughout his career, he has been an active composer, with major works including From the Diary of Anne Frank, commissioned by UNICEF and premiered in 1991 with narrator Audrey Hepburn, and Shówa/Shoáh, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. He is a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France, a member of the American Academies of Arts and Sciences and Arts and Letters, and has been profiled on 60 MINUTES, on the Network, and “Nightline.” He was awarded the National Medal of Arts and has been inducted into the California Hall of Fame.
Recent Kennedy Center history: Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony at the Kennedy Center in 2010, and again in 2019, presented by Washington Performing Arts.