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'Kennedy Center Honors' Celebrates a Variety of Lifetime Achievements
December 15, 2019  | By Mike Hughes

One of TV's annual gems returns Sunday – feeling a little different than in its past.
Yes, the Kennedy Center Honors telecast (Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on CBS) again includes a classical-music figure. It always does; this time, it's conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.
But now it also has the funky fun of Earth, Wind & Fire, plus Elmo and Oscar and friends, and two eternal ingenues, Sally Field and Linda Ronstadt. That's a big change from the start in 1978.
Over the first three years, the fifteen honorees included three choreographers, two operatic sopranos, two composers, a composer-conductor, a classical pianist, a playwright, and a theater actress. There were token nods to pop culture (three movie stars and Ella Fitzgerald), but no rock and no funk.
Since then, the awards have acknowledged that genius doesn't always come in predictable packages.
They've included plenty of classical geniuses – Bernstein, Balanchine, and Baryshnikov; Mehta, Ma, and Menotti; Rostropovich, and Rubinstein, and more. But now there's room for the actress who was Gidget, the people who gave us Boogie Wonderland and You're No Good and Rubber Ducky.
For Field and Ronstadt, many fans reacted first to their look and instant likability.
Ronstadt? James Keach, the producer of a documentary about her that reaches CNN on Jan. 1, remembers his reaction to first seeing her, long ago: "It was, 'Do you think she would ever go out with me?'"
Field? After his first dinner with her, Burt Reynolds said in his memoir, My Life, that he blurted, "I could flat-out fall in love with you." She became, he wrote, "the love affair of my life."
But both women are, of course, far more than that. And come from impressive families, as well. 
Field's brother, Rick, is a physicist and a math whiz who has co-authored papers with Richard Feynman and other science giants. "Sally could have very easily been a scientist," he told one interviewer.
Then there's Ronstadt's maternal grandfather. He had more than 700 patents, including a grease gun, the first electric stove, early versions of the toaster and the microwave, and the flexible ice cube tray.
So yes, their descendants have also inherited sharp minds and many talents.
Field, for instance, went from her Gidget and Flying Nun days to Academy Awards for Norma Rae and Places in the Heart.
Ronstadt showed the same range. "I had no idea of the breadth of her work," said Courtney Sexton, another producer of the CNN film. Here was someone who started in rock, then tried more – Spanish-language songs, reflecting her roots, lush ballads, arranged by 1940s/50s bandleader Nelson Riddle, even the Pirates of Penzance operetta. "She was someone who followed her passion… She made it seem effortless," Sexton said.
That's the same sort of variety shown by Earth, Wind & Fire. The group has an "encyclopedic sound," says The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll. It links "Latin-funk rhythms with gospel harmonies, unerring horns, Philip Bailey's sweet falsetto and various exotic ingredients." This is richly varied music even if people merely expect to hear Let's Groove.
Earth, Wind & Fire continues to work, three years after its leader, Maurice White, died of Parkinson's disease. Ronstadt, who retired in 2011, also was diagnosed with Parkinson's, which was later discovered to be incorrect. She has Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a rare brain disorder that is often misdiagnosed as Parkinson's.
Field continues a busy acting career. Tilson Thomas plans to retire as San Francisco Symphony conductor after this season. And Sesame Street, of course, is forever.

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