Remarks by the President to the 2015 Kennedy Center Honorees
5:15 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you so much. Please, everybody, have a seat, have a seat. Have a seat and welcome to the White House. This is a good-looking group. (Laughter.) President Kennedy once said, “There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts.”
I believe he was right. Our achievements as a country and as a culture go hand-in-hand. The oldest of the 2015 Kennedy Center Honorees was born over 90 years ago -- you won’t be able to tell. (Laughter.) But when we look back on the last century, for all the challenges we faced, what we see is a time of extraordinary progress. We won one World War, and then another. We endured one depression, and prevented another. And through it all, we created new medicines and technologies that changed the world for the better. We welcomed new generations of striving immigrants that made our country stronger. We worked together, and marched together, to open up new doors of opportunity for women, African Americans, Latinos, LGBT Americans, Americans with disabilities -– achievements that made all of us more free.
Tonight, we honor five artists who helped tell the story of the first American century through music, theater, and film -– and by doing so, helped to shape it, helped to inspire it, helped to fortify our best instincts about ourselves.
(Baby makes noises.)
THE PRESIDENT: Yes. (Laughter.) It includes your grandpa. (Laughter.)
About 80 years ago, the ship carrying a young girl named Rosa Dolores Alverio -- (applause) -- from Puerto Rico -- (applause) -- came into New York City, steamed by the Statue of Liberty. “Oh my goodness,” she thought, “a lady runs this country!” (Laughter and applause.) She wasn’t yet known by the stage name of Rita Moreno, but even then, she knew she wanted to be a star. At age nine, she debuted as a dancer. At 13, she set foot in a Broadway theatre for the first time in her life -– as a member of the cast. At 30, she became the first Latina to win an Academy Award for her unforgettable performance as “Anita” in “West Side Story.”
(Baby makes noises.)
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, it was good, wasn’t it? (Laughter.)
After more than seven decades on stage and screen, Rita’s one of just a handful of artists to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. She’s got an “EGOT.” (Applause.) But being a pioneer is never easy. For years, she was pigeonholed as what she called, “the house ethnic.” She says she played all her parts with the same accent, because nobody “seemed to care.” And when she pushed back against Hollywood typecasting, the roles dried up. But Rita refused to sell herself short. This is a woman who won the Tony for best supporting actress, then concluded her acceptance speech by reminding everyone, “I am a leading lady -- I am not a supporting actress.” (Laughter and applause.)
And she was right. She was the leading lady of that show. And she is still a leading lady of her era, a trailblazer with the courage to break through barriers and forge new paths. Eight decades after Rita Moreno first laid eyes on the Statue of Liberty, she continues to personify its promise: that here, in America, no matter what you look like or where you come from or what your last name is, you can make it if you try. (Applause.)
As a teenager in Tokyo, an aspiring classical pianist named Seiji Ozawa defied his mother’s orders and joined a rugby match. Now, I have to say, looking at you Seiji, I’m not sure that was a good idea. (Laughter.) I mean, I don’t know much about rugby. (Laughter.) He broke two fingers, and that put an end to his piano-playing career –- but fortunately for the rest of us, it opened up the door to a career as a conductor.
Here, Michelle and my mother-in-law would like me to point out that defying one’s mother does not usually work out well. (Laughter.)
But there are exceptions, and for Seiji, it did. In 1960, when he was 25 years old, he landed at Logan Airport with only a few words of English and a sign that read, “Lennox, Mass.” But his work as a conductor spoke volumes. Just a few weeks later, the New York Times pronounced him “a name to remember.” He went on to become Leonard Bernstein’s assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic, and then led the Toronto and San Francisco Symphonies, all by the time he was 35. It makes you feel kind of underachieving. (Laughter.) His conducting was somehow sensitive and intense, drawing the “lyric essence” of every note. And with his mop haircut, and his turtlenecks, and his love beads, he almost looked like a Beatle. (Laughter.)
And in 1973, Seiji found his musical home with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which he led for 29 years. When he wasn’t cheering on his beloved Red Sox and Patriots, he was transfixing audiences with passionate, precise performances conducted entirely from memory, using his whole body -– elbows, fingers, knees, hair -– (laughter) -- as a baton. Seiji has dedicated his life to bridging East and West with classical music. In his words, “Music is easier to understand than language -- it can be understood right away. Just like the sunset, which is beautiful wherever you watch it.” (Applause.)
As a child in Harlem, Cicely Tyson sold shopping bags on the street corner to make -- to help her family make ends meet. After high school, she found work as a secretary -- until one day she stood up and announced to everyone in the room, “[I am] sure that God did not put me on the face of this Earth to bang on a typewriter for the rest of my life!” (Laughter and applause.)
Cicely was already displaying what you could call a flair for the dramatic. (Laughter.) And like all great actors, she never just plays a character -– she becomes one. “I’m looking inside myself,” she once explained. “Inside of me is where this character is coming from.”
It certainly took character to get where she is today. As a black woman, Cicely wasn’t offered many roles with the pay and stature her tremendous talent should have commanded. But that only steeled her resolve. She once said, “When I became aware of the kind of ignorance that existed, I made a very conscious decision that I could not afford the luxury of just being an actress -- I had some very important things to say, and I would say them through my work.”
Cicely has been saying important things for nearly 60 years, from “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” to “Sounder,” to “The Trip to the Bountiful.” And even now, eight shows a week, she walks onto a Broadway stage to beat James Earl Jones in hand after hand of rummy in “The Gin Game.” (Laughter and applause.) At 90 years old, she’s still delivering remarkable, heartfelt performances night after night after night -– just like God intended, and she sure does look good doing it every night. (Applause.) Cicely Tyson. (Applause.)
At age 15, a young woman named Carol Klein formed a doo-wop group with her friends called “The Co-Sines” -- Co-Sines -- that’s a little math. (Laughter.) They did great with the hard-to-reach trigonometry demographic. (Laughter and applause.) Around the same time, Carol talked to a DJ, and asked him the best way to get in touch with record companies. He told her a secret –- look them up in a phone book. (Laughter.) So Carol made some calls, landed a contract, and took on the stage name of Carole King.
It turned out to be a perfect choice -– because today, in the world of American music, Carole is royalty. By the time she was 30, she’d teamed up with Gerry Goffin to write hits like “Up on the Roof” for The Drifters. “One Fine Day” for The Chiffons. “The Loco-Motion” for Little Eva. And of course, “You Make Me Feel (Like A Natural Woman)” – I think I just became the first President ever to say that. (Laughter and applause.) It sounded better when Aretha said it. (Laughter and applause.)
And then finally, in the 1970s, Carole found the perfect voice for her songs, which was her own. At one point, her solo album “Tapestry” -- which, by the way, was one of the first albums I ever bought -- was the highest-selling album of any genre in history. It stayed on the charts for six years, full of songs you could not get out of your head -– songs about home, and friendship, and vulnerability; songs about just being human. And that’s what makes Carole so special. Whether it’s winter, spring, summer or fall -- (laughter) -- whether she’s fighting with passion for our environment or campaigning for the causes that she believes in; Carole is always that honest, unvarnished voice –- the friend who tells you again and again that you are beautiful -- as beautiful as you feel. (Applause.)
George Lucas recently shared one of his regrets. He told a reporter, “I never got the experience that everyone else got to have. I never got to see ‘Star Wars.’” (Laughter.)
Well, George, let me tell you -– you missed out. It was really good. (Laughter.) That movie was awesome. (Laughter.)
As one wise Jedi Master might put it, “Changed nearly everything, George Lucas has.” (Laughter.) George was at the vanguard of the New Hollywood, blending genres and combining timeless themes with cutting-edge technology. Without him, movies would not look as good or sound as good as they do today. Spaceships might still fly around the screen with little strings attached to them. (Laughter.) The effects were only part, though, of what makes George special. He created a mythology so compelling that in a 2001 census, the fourth-largest religion in the United Kingdom was “Jedi.” (Laughter and applause.)
Think about how many children have been raised, at least in part, by George Lucas. (Laughter.) Think about how many young people searching for their place in the universe have thought to themselves, “If a kid from Tatooine moisture farm can go from bulls-eyeing womp rats in his T-16 to saving the galaxy, then maybe I can be something special too?” (Laughter.) How many engineers got their start arguing about the structural flaws in the Death Star? How many philosophers got their start arguing about whether Han shot first? (Laughter.) How many bookish teenagers have taken solace in the fact that the most charismatic guy on the planet is an archeologist named Indiana Jones? (Laughter.)
George, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but they might even make a brand new “Star Wars” movie soon. (Laughter.) It’s very low-key, it’s not getting a lot of promotion. (Laughter.) But it’s also pretty remarkable that nearly 40 years after the first star destroyer crawled across the screen, we are still obsessed with George’s vision of a galaxy far, far away. And we’ll be raising our children on his stories for a long, long time to come. (Applause.)
Rita Moreno. Seiji Ozawa. Cicely Tyson. Carole King. George Lucas. Each of these artists was born with something special to offer their country and the world. Each of them found a way to enrich our lives with their lives’ work. For all the joy and the pleasure, all the insight and the understanding that they have brought to us over the years, we want to thank them -– and we sure are proud to celebrate them as our 2015 Kennedy Center Honorees. Please give them a big round of applause. (Applause.)
5:32 P.M. EST