Sally Field, Linda Ronstadt, Earth Wind & Fire, and Sesame Street Celebrated at Kennedy Center

December 9, 2019 Updated: December 10, 2019
FONT BFONT SText size

WASHINGTON—Actress Sally Field, singer Linda Ronstadt, and the disco-funk band Earth Wind and Fire shared the spotlight on Dec. 8 night as part of the latest group of recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement in the arts.

Also in this year’s class were conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the long-running children’s TV show “Sesame Street.”

Sunday’s event featured a genuinely unique event for the Kennedy Center as Big Bird walked the red carpet along with fellow “Sesame Street” characters Bert and Ernie, Abby, and Cookie Monster, accompanied by their respective humans.

The massive yellow avian’s appearance held a particular resonance as Caroll Spinney, Big Bird’s original puppeteer, died last Sunday at age 85.

“I’m heartbroken that this happened on this particular day,” said Sonia Manzano, who played Maria for decades on “Sesame Street.” “But I’m glad we’re all together.”

"Sesame Street" 40th Anniversary Temporary Street Renaming
(L-R) Puppeteer Caroll Spinney, Sesame Street co-founder and TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney, and Sesame Street cast members pose under a “123 Sesame Street” sign at the “Sesame Street” 40th Anniversary temporary street renaming in Dante Park in New York City on Nov. 9, 2009. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)

As she entered the building, Field, who has won two Academy Awards and three Emmys, reflected on the unique nature of the Kennedy Center Honors medallion.

“It’s not about one performance. It’s not about being the flavor of the month,” she said. “it recognizes artists whose body of work has resonated over the years.”

Carrie Underwood, Aaron Neville, Trisha Yearwood and Flor de Toloache, an all-female mariachi band, performed. Singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris described Ronstadt’s voice as “the most stunningly beautiful of our generation.”

Ronstadt, who retired from performing in 2011 due to the effects of Parkinson’s disease, wept openly in the honorees’ box as Harris spoke.

Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, both previous Kennedy Center Honorees, paid tribute to Field. Hanks, who memorably played Field’s son in “Forrest Gump,” drew a laugh when he walked onstage by donning a familiar southern accent and drawling, “Hi Momma.”

Maura Tierney recalled working on the television show “ER,” where Fields’ played her unstable mother.

“Watching how she works had a profound effect on me as a human and as an artist,” Tierney said.

The co-founders of “Sesame Street,” Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, accepted the honor on behalf of the show, but the presentation included familiar cast members. For starters, Big Bird strolled down the aisle and basically sat in Hanks’ lap. Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt had an extended chat with Cookie Monster and the segment ended with a mass rendition of the show’s signature tune, “Sing a Song.”

Tilson Thomas, widely known simply as MTT, was repeatedly praised for pushing musical boundaries while serving as music director of the San Francisco Symphony for the past 24 years.

Lars Ulrich, drummer for the venerable Bay Area metal band Metallica, recalled working on a joint project with Thomas’ orchestra, calling it “one of the most exhilarating and creatively rewarding experiences of my career.”

Actress Debra Winger praised Thomas’ “contagious child-like exuberance” and willingness to forge unusual collaborations.

“Taking his friends to unusual musical places is who Michael is and what he does,” Winger said.

Earth, Wind and Fire’s segment largely consisted of an extended all-star tribute concert.

The night ended with a packed stage performing “September” with the entire audience on their feet and Hanks leaping from his seat, arms waving, to lead his whole section in dancing.

The event will be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 15.

By Ashraf Khalil