Kennedy Center Honors: An emotional Garth Brooks, Julie Andrews’ tribute to Dick Van Dyke, more

The Kennedy Center Honors returned Sunday bestowing rainbow-ribbon threaded medallions on entertainment icons during festivities that aired at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.

Emmy, Grammy and Tony award winner Dick Van Dyke; legendary country artist Garth Brooks; multi-hyphenate Debbie Allen; singer/activist Joan Baez and violinist Midori, were honored late last month in a ceremony reconfigured for pandemic times. 

Typically aired in December, the main celebration was filmed over days, sometimes outdoors and in front of smaller audiences across Washington, D.C.’s iconic John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Throughout the two-hour special, hosted by Kennedy Center honoree Gloria Estefan, the year’s guests were revered by stars like Bradley Cooper, John Travolta, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tracee Ellis Ross.

Here are some the evening’s best moments, tributes and performances:

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Kennedy Center Honorees (from left) Debbie Allen, Joan Baez, Dick Van Dyke, Garth Brooks, and Midori. (Photo: Michele Crowe/CBS)

Brooks’ friends lift him to a high place

If tomorrow never comes, the artists paying tribute to Brooks will know exactly how much he loved them. The high-energy performer couldn’t help but let his emotion show in Sunday’s special.

Tears formed in Brooks’ eyes as Kelly Clarkson began “The Dance,” showcasing her powerful voice, initially without the accompaniment of instruments. Her beautiful tone hit Brooks, and he closed his eyes and takes in the performance. When Clarkson wrapped, Brooks leaped from his chair. “Whooo!” he hollered and placed his hand over his mouth in awe of the original “American Idol” winner. 

James Taylor’s take on “The River” made Brooks toss his head back in disbelief. Again, tears welled, which he wiped as Taylor sang “‘Til what we put off until tomorrow, has become yesterday.” And when Jimmie Allen treated the audience to “Friends in Low Places,” Brooks couldn’t help but get up from his seat. He appeared to mouth to his wife, singer Trisha Yearwood, “Oh, I got to” before rising to his feet, causing others to follow suit and clap along.

Garth Brooks places his hands over his heart during the Kennedy Center Honors festivities. (Photo: Michele Crowe/CBS)

Brooks got visibly choked up, once more, when Gladys Knight appeared to close his tribute with “We Shall Be Free.” The two exchanged I love yous, and when Brooks wasn’t watching hand over mouth, he was up and singing along. Knight said “I love that song!” before Brooks blew kisses to her on stage.

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Julie Andrews honors her ‘endlessly kind’ co-star

Paying honor to Van Dyke’s many talents, the star’s tribute packed in singing, dancing and praise from past co-stars.

Van Dyke’s “Bye Bye Birdie” castmate Chita Rivera described him as “Pure joy.” Lin-Manuel Miranda, who acted with Van Dyke in “Mary Poppins Returns” said: “Spend five minutes with Dick Van Dyke and you’re more alive than you were before.”

And the lauding by Van Dyke’s “Mary Poppins” co-star Julie Andrews provided all of the feels. She described the talent as “endlessly kind, wildly imaginative, insanely talented and hilariously funny.”

Julie Andrews pays tribute to her "Mary Poppins" co-star, Kennedy Center Honoree Dick Van Dyke. (Photo: Best Possible Screen Grab, CBS)

She reflected on their friendship that began more than 50 years ago, comparing her pal to Mary Poppins: “Although in truth, I think that Dick is as magical as she is.”

The “Sound of Music” star added that like his “Mary Poppins” role Bert, Van Dyke is “an artist, a one-man band, a profound philosopher, a high-stepping showman, and spreader of charm.” Bringing it home she said, “Every day is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious with you, Dick.”

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Sturgill Simpson’s ‘House of the Rising Sun’

Joan Baez, a folk singer known for her protest anthems, enjoyed performances from Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell, along with Emmylou Harris and Mary Chapin Carpenter, who sang a medley of her hits.

Another standout is Sturgill Simpson’s performance of “House of the Rising Sun,” covered on Baez’s debut album.

Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello introduced Simpson and praised Baez as “a tireless and uncompromising advocate for human rights and social justice.” Simpson showed off his deep-to-the-point-of-hauntingly beautiful voice in the cover and Baez swayed back and forth while listening to his rendition.

Vivian Nixon, center, and Phylicia Rashad, far right, were on-hand to celebrate their loved one, Debbie Allen. (Photo: Michele Crowe/CBS)

It’s a family affair for Debbie Allen

Allen’s sister, “Cosby Show” star Phylicia Rashad and Allen’s daughter, dancer Vivian Nixon, joined the fête that included the flattering words of singer/choreographer Paula Abdul, “Black-ish” star Tracee Ellis Ross and TV producer Shonda Rhimes, as well as musical numbers from “Dreamgirls” actress Anika Noni Rose and “High School Musical” star Vanessa Hudgens. 

“I’ve known Debbie Allen all her life,” Rashad, the older sister, began in her tribute, “She is as she has always been: Full of love and joy. She’s a dreamer who makes her dreams come true through determination and great work. No mountain is too high to climb, no pebble too small to pay attention to.”

Nixon joined a group of dancers, who performed to numbers from the musical “Sweet Charity,” for which Allen received a Tony Award nod for actress in a musical in 1986.

Bette Midler raves over ‘powerhouse’ Midori

Midler appeared to show support for her friend, whom Midler worked with on the charitable organization Midori & Friends. 

“Although the lovely Midori appears dainty and small, make no mistake. She is a giant and a powerhouse,” said Midler.

“In the pantheon of musical legends, she stands shoulder-to-shoulder, chin rest to chin rest with the greatest violinists of all time,” the “Beaches” star continued, before referencing her time in the play “Fiddler on the Roof.” “I’m someone who knows a thing or two about fiddlers on roofs and off,” she cracked.

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