By Cindy Clark, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON -- The center balcony in the Opera House of the John F. Kennedy Center on Sunday was a sight to behold: three legendary rockers, a ballerina, a bluesman, an Academy Award-winning actor and a late-night comedian sat hobnobbing with President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
The artists are the recipients of this year's Kennedy Center Honors:
Bluesman Buddy Guy, 76
Actor Dustin Hoffman, 75
Comedian and CBS television host David Letterman, 65
Ballerina Natalia Makarova, 72
Rock band Led Zeppelin. While Led Zeppelin is being honored as a band, keyboardist/bassist John Paul Jones, 66, guitarist Jimmy Page, 68, and singer Robert Plant, 64, each received the Kennedy Center Honors.
The honorees received their medals Saturday night at the State Department, where they also had dinner with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Joining the secretary was former president Bill Clinton and actress Meryl Streep, a 2011 honoree, who introduced members of this year's class.
But the big celebration was Sunday night, when a star-studded lineup - that is kept secret until showtime - meant many celebrities were on hand to salute each medalist. Aretha Franklin, Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber were among the stars who showed up at the big party.
Watts and partner Schreiber were set to pay homage to Hoffman.
"I just love his joie de vivre, He's got such a great sense of humor," said Watts, who wore a Roland Mouret gown as she strolled the red carpet.
Schreiber agreed, and said, "The only thing I would add is there's a rascal quality about him."
Before the show, Letterman expressed gratitude. He said of the Kennedy Center Honors weekend, "Each minute has been better and better. I was full of trepidation." But getting the medal "supersedes everything," he added.
And he was happy to share the occasion with loved ones. "It's all about my family. I think they've enjoyed themselves."
Makarova was just as delighted. She described receiving the medal as "most incredible." She added, "President Obama speaking about you is incredible. I've come a long way, baby."
And Guy's reaction as an honoree? "I'm blessed to be here," said the legendary musician.
Ann and Nancy Wilson, members of the rock band Heart, arrived to pay tribute to Led Zeppelin. Ann said on the red carpet that "Every rock band has been influenced by Led Zeppelin. I'm proud to say that they've influenced us."
To kick off the program, a video of President Obama speaking to the honorees at a White House reception earlier in the evening was shown. He said the medal winners took up their craft "because they couldn't imagine living any other way."
Robert De Niro, a 2009 Kennedy Center Honoree, took to the stage to chat about Hoffman, whom he called a "world-class, spectacular, colossal ... pain in the (butt)."
De Niro further explained, "What Dustin did for all of us was to make it OK to be a character actor and a movie star. He broke the mold of the movie star as the handsome leading man. Frankly, I would have preferred to make it as a handsome leading man. Damn you, Dustin Hoffman!"
After video featuring excerpts of Hoffman's classic films ws presented, including The Graduate, Kramer vs. Kramer and Rain Man, Schreiber, Watts, Billy Connolly and Laura Osnes took part in a player's tribute, recalling encounters with Hoffman.
Another Kennedy Center Honoree, Judith Jamison (1999), introduced fellow dancer Makarova. "Natalia is a rare story of life coming full circle. Twenty years after she made her painful decision to leave her native land, she returned to a changing Leningrad and to her beloved Kirov Theater, where she had studied and had become a star. There, at the Kirov, she gave her final performance, where it had all begun for her."
Jamison recalled, "When I first saw - and we call her Natasha - Natasha, I remember saying, 'Now, that's a ballerina!'"
After a video clip of Makarova's performances, Grace Ann Pierce, Tiler Peck, Alina Cojocaru, Angel Corella, David Hallberg and Julie Kent danced to selections, includingGiselle and Romeo and Juliet.
The honors recipients are selected by the center's Board of Trustees for their contributions to American culture through the performing arts.
The show will be broadcast for the 35th consecutive year on CBS and 13WMAZ as a two-hour prime-time special on Dec. 26 at 9 p.m.