Kennedy Center Honors of 2009: Grace Bumbry, Robert De Niro, Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck, and Bruce Springsteen

Download MP3   (Right-click or option-click the link.)

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. Each year, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington honors performers for their lifetime of work. This year the Kennedy Center will honor Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck, Grace Bumbry, Robert De Niro and Bruce Springsteen.

Opera singer Grace Bumbry earned starring roles as a soprano and mezzo-soprano in some of the world's most famous opera houses. Her warm voice and wide range brought roles including Carmen, Salome, Aida, Tosca, Medea and Bess.

She was born in nineteen thirty-seven in Saint Louis, Missouri. At seventeen, she won her first big competition. The prize was a scholarship to a local music school.

But the school would not let her attend classes with other students because she was African-American. The school offered her private lessons instead. Her parents refused.

Grace Bumbry went on to study music at Boston University and Northwestern University. She also studied at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California.

In nineteen sixty, at the age of twenty-three, she made her international debut at the Paris Opera. She appeared as Amneris in Verdi's "Aida." Her performance is said to have made her an instant star.

In nineteen sixty-one, Grace Bumbry became the first black singer ever to perform at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. Again, some people objected because of her race. In the end, her performance as Venus was a great success.

The seventy-two year old singer is retired now from opera. But she continues to sing in concert and teaches students around the world.


"Some people aren't that lucky. Like the one that Marlon Brando played in, 'On The Waterfront.' An up-and-comer who's now a down- and-outer. Do you remember that scene in the back of the car with his brother Charlie a small time racket guy? And it went something like this…

It wasn't him Charlie, it was you. You remember that night at the Garden. You came down in my dressing room and you said, 'Kid, this ain't your night.' We're going for the price on Wilson?' 'Remember that? 'This ain't your night?' My night. I could've taken Wilson apart that night. So what happens? He gets a title shot outdoors in the ballpark, and what do I get, a one-way ticket to Palookaville. I was never no good after that night, Charley. It was like a peak you reach, and then it's downhill."

Robert De Niro won an Academy Award for best actor for the nineteen eighty movie "Raging Bull." He played boxing champion Jake La Motta. The movie is a good example of how far the actor will go to perfect a role. To prepare for "Raging Bull" he gained twenty-seven kilos and became a boxer.

He also won an Oscar for best supporting actor. He played the young Vito Corleone in the second "Godfather" movie in nineteen seventy-four.

Robert De Niro has appeared in more than seventy films. He has also produced and directed several movies, including "Everybody's Fine," released this year. He was born in New York City in nineteen forty-three.

Mel Brooks is a comedian, actor, writer, producer, director and composer. He has a long list of credits from television, film and stage. In fact, he is one of only a few entertainers ever to have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony award.

Mel Brooks began doing live comedy acts in the early nineteen fifties. He later wrote for TV comedy shows before making his mark on the Hollywood film industry. His awards include a best writing Oscar for the nineteen sixty-eight movie "The Producers."

Other notable early films included "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein," both from nineteen seventy-four.


The American Film Institute has a list of the one hundred funniest movies. "Young Frankenstein," "Blazing Saddles" and "The Producers" are all listed among the top twenty. In recent years a musical play based on "The Producers" became a big hit.

Mel Brooks was born in nineteen twenty-six in Brooklyn, New York. He is known for his sometimes shocking humor that makes fun of people and situations.

The Library of Congress calls jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck a living legend.

The nineteen fifty-nine album "Time Out" by the Dave Brubeck Quartet was the first jazz album to sell more than one million copies. It includes the well known "Take Five," written by Paul Desmond.

Dave Brubeck was born in Concord, California, in nineteen twenty. He began piano lessons at the age of four. By fourteen he was performing in local bands.

During World War Two, Dave Brubeck, who is white, formed one of the first racially mixed bands in the Army. After leaving the Army he studied with the French composer Darius Milhaud.

Dave Brubeck formed his first quartet in nineteen fifty-one. The group's unusual mix of jazz and classical styles earned praise around the world. Since then Dave Brubeck has had many different quartets and produced many different works, including two ballets and a musical.

His best known jazz works include "In Your Own Sweet Way," "The Duke" and "Blue Rondo a La Turk."

Bruce Springsteen has sold more than one hundred twenty million albums. Most of his songs tell stories about American life. Many are about his life growing up in the state of New Jersey, where he was born in nineteen forty-nine.

His first song to enjoy widespread success was "Born to Run." It was the title song from his nineteen seventy-five album.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has a list of the five hundred songs that shaped rock and roll. "Born to Run" is number twenty-one on the list. Also listed are "Thunder Road," which was on the same album, and "Born in the U.S.A."

The nineteen eighty-four album "Born in the U.S.A." has sold more than fifteen million copies in the United States alone. It is considered one of the greatest rock and roll albums of all time.

Bruce Springsteen is also known for his live performances. He and his E Street Band remain one of the top selling acts in the world.

Bruce Springsteen, Dave Brubeck, Mel Brooks, Robert De Niro and Grace Bumbry will be honored at the Kennedy Center on December sixth.

Our program was written by June Simms and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein.

Perhaps you would like to listen to these, too.