- Obama welcomes honorees at White House reception
- David Letterman has been a late-night comedy host longer than anyone
- Led Zeppelin sold more than 100 million albums in the United States
- Other honorees include Dustin Hoffman, guitarist Buddy Guy, ballerina Natalia Makarova
An array of talents was on display Sunday at the Kennedy Center Honors gala where President Barack Obama toasted the lifetime achievements of an iconic ballerina, a famed comedian, a timeless actor and two chart-topping musical acts.
In the 35th installment of the honorary event, late-night show host David Letterman, ballerina Natalia Makarova, actor Dustin Hoffman, blues musician Buddy Guy and the rock group Led Zeppelin joined the ranks of the top musicians, dancers and actors of their time.
The festivities kicked off at a White House reception where Obama honored the award recipients and recounted highlights of their careers.
"Each of us can remember a moment when the people on this stage touched our lives. ... Maybe they inspired us to see things in a new way, to hear things differently." Obama said. "It is that unique power that makes the arts so important."
The Kennedy Center Honors has long been a tradition that bridges Hollywood and Washington, and this year was no exception. Aside from the honorees, other notable attendees included actors Alec Baldwin, Jack Black and Morgan Freeman; rockers Lenny Kravitz and Jeff Beck; and such politicians as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Thad Cochran of South Dakota and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.
After the White House reception, the cadre of luminaries and guests moved to The Kennedy Center, a performing arts space overlooking the Potomac River, for an event dedicated to their respective talents.
This is the fourth time Obama has honored Kennedy Center award recipients. Last year's group included singer Neil Diamond, composer Sonny Rollins, theater actor Barbara Cook, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and actress Meryl Streep.
While the 2011 pool of honorees had a noticeable music bent, the backgrounds in this year's group are more diverse but equally talented.
Letterman, host of "The Late Show" on CBS, was recognized for his 30 years in late-night television and joined a small group of past comedians who have won the award. In a press release, Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein described Letterman, 65, as "one of the most influential personalities in the history of television."
With more than 5,000 broadcasts, Letterman, holds the title as the comedian with the longest late-night career in the United States, recently surpassing the industry's previous standard-bearer, the late Johnny Carson.
In his witty style, Letterman joked about learning he was an award recipient.
"When I stopped laughing, I was very excited. This was great for my family; they think I'm working at a Jiffy Lube in Mexico," he said on his program.
Obama, someone who has been on Letterman's show a number of times, remarked at the White House reception that Letterman was "a true gentleman" who "has always offered us an authentic piece of himself."
The president did joke, however, that not being in front of the microphone was a difficult position for the usually opinionated comedian.
"You are looking a little stressed, aren't you," Obama said to Letterman.
Speaking to reporters on the red carpet before the event, Letterman expressed more surprise about the honor.
"I don't know what to tell you," he said. "It just keeps getting better and better and better and I am not supposed to be here."
Asked if there's anything he was particularly looking forward to at the event, he pointed to his special ride home.
"Well, afterwards, we get joy rides in Marine One. That is going to be something."
Hoffman, meanwhile, has become a household name with a resume that includes 50 movies, not to mention two Academy Awards for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Rain Man (1988).
While the 75-year-old actor has said he grew up thinking movie stars had to look like Rock Hudson, it didn't take long for the Los Angeles native to get into acting and start a career that spans five decades and covers just about every genre of film.
Many of his titles were featured in his tribute at the Kennedy Center, which is not far from the famous Watergate hotel -- a site he knows well after playing the ambitious reporter, Carl Bernstein, in "All The President's Men" (1976).
Asked on the red carpet how he was feeling, the actor had a line all ready to deliver.
"My wife keeps reminding me that when I say, 'Pretty good -- I am a nominee,' she says 'No, you are an honoree.' So it is spectacular," he said.
Russian-born Makarova is perhaps best known for leaving her mark on the production of La Bayadère, a ballet that dates to 1877. She transformed the scene "Kingdom of the Shades," and went on to stage the full production in theaters around the world.
Makarova, 72, is no stranger to the Kennedy Center. She won a Tony Award for best actress in a musical for the center's 1984 production of "On Your Toes."
Makarova said before the gala that she considers American ballet "fantastic," adding, "I think it will grow and grow. The interest will never stop."
The audience Sunday night will also feel the rhythm in performances honoring blues legend Buddy Guy. Born into a Louisiana sharecropper family, Guy eventually made Chicago his home at the peak of the blues era in the Windy City. And with his distinct guitar sound, the six-time Grammy Award winner helped pioneer the electric blues with other legends including Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.
"From picking cotton in the field to picking a guitar in the White House, that is a long ways man," Guy told reporters at the Kennedy Center.
The president called Guy "one of the last guardians of the great American blues."
And the stage will continue to rock in a tribute to John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant -- the three surviving members of the band Led Zeppelin. Famed drummer John Bonham passed away in 1980.
Having sold more than 100 million albums in the United States alone, the British band has churned out a number of classics, including "Whole Lotta Love," "Thank You," and the enduring song: "Stairway to Heaven."
Though thanking the group for "making us all feel young," Obama took the liberty of joking about the trio during his remarks in the East Room, noting how the group redefined "the rock and roll lifestyle."
"There were some hotel rooms trashed, mayhem all around," the president said. "So it is fitting that we are doing this in a room with windows three inches thick."
"So guys, settle down, these paintings are valuable," Obama joked.
Asked on the red carpet if part of him wanted to get on stage and join the tribute, Plant said, "Absolutely."
"I've always got a little bit of agitation in me," he continued. "That's what keeps me going. But I'm not going to show anybody how to do it."
The trio is scheduled to join fellow honoree Letterman on the "The Late Show" on Monday.
The Kennedy Center Honors will air December 26 on CBS.