The honorees included Dustin Hoffman, David Letterman, blues guitar icon Buddy Guy, ballerina Natalia Makarova and Led Zeppelin
Music legend Led Zeppelin and Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman were recognized on Sunday alongside entertainers from stage and screen for their contributions to the arts and American culture at the Kennedy Center Honors, lifetime achievement awards for performing artists.
The eclectic tribute in Washington alternated between solemn veneration and lighthearted roasting of honorees Led Zeppelin and Hoffman, wisecracking late-night talk show host David Letterman, blues guitar icon Buddy Guy, ballerina Natalia Makarova and Led Zeppelin.
"I worked with the speechwriters – there is no smooth transition from ballet to Led Zeppelin," President Barack Obama deadpanned while introducing the honorees at a ceremony in the White House East Room.
Friends, contemporaries and a new generation of artists influenced by the honorees took the stage in tribute.
"And he inspired me to be a bit of a pain in the ass too," DeNiro said with a big smile.
At a weekend dinner for the winners at the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that the performing arts often requires a touch of diplomacy as she toasted Makarova, a dance icon in the former Soviet Union when she defected in 1970.
Makarova, the pride of her national ballet program, said she obeyed an impulse for creative freedom when she sought asylum while in London for a performance.
"It's most incredible because it looks like I lived two lives," the artist told reporters before the event. "I've come a long way, baby, no? That's the way someone said it for me."
The lightest moments came in the tribute to variety show host David Letterman. Several performers said his oddball program was a worthy successor to "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," which was the standard bearer for late-night shows from the 1960s through the early 1990s.
Comedian Tina Fey, honored with the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2010, marveled at Letterman's ability to goad and humble his celebrity guests.
"David Letterman is a professor emeritus at the 'Here's Some More Rope Institute,'" she joked.
Letterman, who joked earlier in the weekend that he was going to fund an investigation to determine how he was given the honor, was at a loss for words on the red carpet.
"I was full of trepidation, but now I am full of nothing but gratitude," he said. "I don't believe this, but it's been nice for my family."
Despite the president's misgivings about his own speech, performances at the Kennedy Center easily transitioned from precision dance tributes for Makarova to gritty blues music when the spotlight turned to Guy, a sharecropper's son who made his first instrument with wire scrounged from his family's home in rural Louisiana.
"He's one of the most idiosyncratic and passionate blues greats, and there are not many left of that original generation," said Bonnie Raitt, who as an 18-year-old blues singer was often the warm-up act for Guy.
Raitt led an ensemble tribute that included singer Tracy Chapman and guitarist Jeff Beck.
Guy, 76, was a pioneer in the Chicago blues style that pushed the sound of electrically amped guitar to the forefront of the music.
"You mastered the soul of gut bucket," actor Morgan Freeman told the Kennedy Center audience. "You made a bridge from roots to rock 'n roll."
In a toast on Saturday night, former President Bill Clinton talked of Guy's impoverished upbringing and how he improvised a guitar from the strands of a porch screen, paint can and his mother's hair pins.
"In Buddy's immortal phrase, the blues is 'Something you play because you have it. And when you play it, you lose it.'"
It was a version of the blues that drifted over the Atlantic to Britain and echoed back in the heart-pounding rock sound of Led Zeppelin.
Jimmy Page, 68, was the guitar impresario who anchored the compositions with vocalist Robert Plant, 64, howling and screeching out the soul. Bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones, 66, rounded out the band with drummer John Bonham, who died in 1980.
The incongruity of the famously hard-partying rock stars in black tie under chandeliers at a White House ceremony was not lost on Obama.
"Of course, these guys also redefined the rock and roll lifestyle," the president said, to laughter and sheepish looks from the band members.
"So it's fitting that we're doing this in a room with windows that are about three inches thick – and Secret Service all around," Obama said. "So, guys, just settle down."
On stage Sunday night, Nancy and Ann Wilson of the rock band Heart, belted out Zeppelin's emblematic "Stairway to Heaven" to close out the show.
The gala will be aired on CBS television on December 26.
(Reporting By Patrick Rucker and Mark Felsenthal)