White House presents Kennedy Center Honors



WASHINGTON (AP)—President Clinton welcomed television’s Johnny Carson and four other winners of the Kennedy Center Honors to the White House on Sunday, saying each had ‘‘in his or her own way brought joy and a genuine new dimension to our culture.’‘

The other honorees were gospel singer Marion Williams, conductor Sir Georg Solti, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim and dancer Arthur Mitchell, who founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Clinton paid tribute to each honoree in a ceremony in the East Room, which was decorated with six large Christmas trees, each decked out in burgundy and gold ribbons, gold balls and chains of gold beads.

Before a standing-room crowd of celebrities, the president called Carson ‘‘the king of late-night television and, for millions, a reassuring figure in often-tumultuous times.’‘

Then he joked of the 68-year-old entertainer, who retired last year after 30 years hosting ‘‘The Tonight Show:’‘ ‘‘If you made Johnny Carson’s monologue, you knew you’d made it. Or in my case and hundreds of others that you were in deep trouble.’‘

‘‘I have a lot of personal reasons to be grateful to him,’‘ Clinton said later. ‘‘He retired before I took office, for one thing.’‘

Clinton said Mitchell ‘‘changed the way the world views classical dance.’‘ He said his daughter, Chelsea, was upset she wasn’t there to see Mitchell, but she was busy rehearsing for a part in Tchaikovsky’s ballet ‘‘The Nutcracker.’‘

Of Solti, Clinton said the 81-year-old Hungarian-born musician ‘‘is recognized by many as the premiere conductor in the entire world.’‘

‘‘His achievements are astounding,’‘ he said.

Of Sondheim, 63, the president said, ‘‘He broke the bounds of conventional Broadway theater and transformed the Great White Way forever.’‘

‘‘A Sondheim musical isn’t just tunes and lyrics. It’s an experience that provokes thought and stretches the imagination, all while capturing the essence of the human condition,’‘ Clinton said.

‘‘Who else could make a musical, after all, entitled ‘‘Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street,’‘ he quipped. ‘‘How would you like to be a speech writer in the White House?’‘

A great fan of gospel music, Clinton said of the 66-year-old Williams, ‘‘For almost a half-century now, no voice in gospel has soared like that of Miss Marion Williams.’‘

Guests at the White House reception included actor Michael York, newscasters Dan Rather and Connie Chung, actresses Kathy Bates, Kathleen Turner, Angela Lansbury and Sissy Spacek, TV talk-show host Maury Povich, guitarist B.B. King, singers Aretha Franklin and Little Richard and dancer Gregory Hines.

A Marine band played in the foyer of the White House for a reception after the president’s remarks. Then the Clintons and the award winners hurried to the Kennedy Center for a gala to celebrate the awards.

The gala was being taped to air on CBS-TV later this month.

The honors were created in 1978 to recognize lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts -dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures and television. Last year’s recipients were actress-dancer Ginger Rogers, musicians Lionel Hampton and Mstislav Rostropovich, choreographer Paul Taylor and actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.