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Arts, politics mingle at annual Kennedy Center Honors

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 5:27 AM EST, Mon December 5, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: "We're just over the moon about this," one honoree says
  • Obama joins those in Washington toasting this year's Kennedy Center honorees
  • They are Barbara Cook, Neil Diamond, Sonny Rollins, Meryl Streep and Yo-Yo Ma
  • The president says each has "an extraordinary gift" they've shared with the world

Washington (CNN) -- The worlds of politics and arts mingled Sunday at the annual Kennedy Center Honors, with President Barack Obama among those toasting five stars of stage, screen and music.

"Each of them has been blessed with an extraordinary gift," the president said of the night's honorees. "Tonight, we thank them for sharing that gift with us."

The festivities in Washington began with a White House reception, where Obama made his remarks flanked by the honorees. People moved from there across town to The Kennedy Center overlooking the Potomac River for a gala performance.

The performing arts space, named in honor of the late President John F. Kennedy, is marking its 40th anniversary this year, and this is the 34th time that it has honored individuals in a "celebration of the arts." Past honorees run an entertainment gamut -- from the likes of Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery in the movie world, to Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan in music, to Ginger Rogers and Mikhail Baryshnikov in dance, among dozens of others.

This year's slate of honorees are similarly eclectic, though with a distinctly musical bent.

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Singer-songwriter Neil Diamond has sold more than 125 million records and scored 39 top-10 singles -- including "Cracklin' Rosie," "Sweet Caroline" and "America" -- according to a biography posted on the Kennedy Center's website.

Legendary saxophonist and composer Sonny Rollins has long stood out on the jazz scene even while playing alongside luminaries such as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.

Atlanta-bred musical theater star Barbara Cook made her mark on Broadway. She's also toured the world and produced several studio albums.

Yo-Yo Ma -- described in his biography as the nation's "cellist-in-chief" -- has won 16 Grammy awards over his illustrious career and last year was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Sunday night's only non-musical winner is actress Meryl Streep. She burst on the movie scene in 1978 in "The Deer Hunter" and "Kramer vs. Kramer," later winning plaudits for her roles in films such as "Sophie's Choice," "Out of Africa" and more recently "Julie & Julia."

"We're just over the moon about this," Cook said of her conversations with the four others about being celebrated Sunday. "It's once in a lifetime -- there's nothing else like this."

Others attending Sunday's events included actors Stanley Tucci, Robert DeNiro, Sarah Jessica Parker and Emily Blunt, and musician Smokey Robinson. They were joined by political players including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Several of them -- including DeNiro, Tucci and Robinson -- took the Kennedy Center on Sunday night to celebrate the honorees. Others who spoke included Bill Cosby on behalf of Rollins, Jennifer Nettles and Lionel Ritchie for Diamond, and Stephen Colbert toasting Yo-Yo Ma.

A two-hour recap of the gala will air the night of December 27 on CBS.

Obama ended his lighthearted remarks Sunday evening with a call for people to support the arts, ideally helping a future Kennedy Center honoree and many others have the tools and opportunities they need to excel.

"Let's make sure that our young people can dream big dreams and follow them as long as they can go," the president said.

That sentiment was seconded on the red carpet by, among others, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

"The arts are a very good investment because they're about the spirit of America (and) they encourage children to learn, to gain confidence through exercising their creativity," the California Democrat said. "Imagination is what keeps us number one."

CNN's Laurie Ure contributed to this report.

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