An array of talents will be on display Sunday at the Kennedy Center Honors gala where President Barack Obama will toast the lifetime achievements of an iconic ballerina, a famed comedian, a timeless actor and two chart-topping musical acts.
In the 35th installment of the honorary event, late-night show host David Letterman, ballerina Natalia Makarova, actor Dustin Hoffman, blues musician Buddy Guy and the rock group Led Zeppelin will join the ranks of the top musicians, dancers and actors of their time.
The festivities kicked off at a White House reception where Obama honored the award recipients and recounted highlights of their careers.
"Each of us can remember a moment when the people on this stage touched our lives. ... Maybe they inspired us to see things in a new way, to hear things differently." Obama said. "It is that unique power that makes the arts so important."
The president's speech was full of laugh lines, like when Obama noted that this was one event in which he was "nowhere close to being the main attraction."
The Kennedy Center Honors has long been a tradition that bridges Hollywood and Washington, and this year was no exception. Aside from the honorees, other notable attendees included actors Alec Baldwin, Jack Black and Morgan Freeman; rockers Lenny Kravitz and Jeff Beck; and such politicians as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Thad Cochran of South Dakota and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.
Past honorees run the entertainment gamut -- from the likes of Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery in the movie world, to Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan in music, to Ginger Rogers and Mikhail Baryshnikov in dance, among dozens of others.
After the White House reception, the cadre of luminaries and guests will move to The Kennedy Center, a performing arts space overlooking the Potomac River, for an event dedicated to their respective talents.
This is the fourth time Obama has honored Kennedy Center award recipients. Last year's group included singer Neil Diamond, composer Sonny Rollins, theater actor Barbara Cook, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and actress Meryl Streep.
While the 2011 pool of honorees had a noticeable music bent, the backgrounds in this year's group are more diverse but equally talented.
Letterman, host of "The Late Show" on CBS, is being recognized for his 30 years in late-night television and will join a small group of past comedians who have won the award. In a press release, Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein described Letterman, 65, as "one of the most influential personalities in the history of television."
With more than 5,000 broadcasts, Letterman, holds the title as the comedian with the longest late-night career in the United States, recently surpassing the industry's previous standard-bearer, the late Johnny Carson.
In his witty style, Letterman joked about learning he was an award recipient.
"When I stopped laughing, I was very excited. This was great for my family; they think I'm working at a Jiffy Lube in Mexico," he said on his program.
Obama, someone who has been on Letterman's show a number of times, remarked at the White House reception that Letterman was "a true gentleman" who "has always offered us an authentic piece of himself."
The president did joke, however, that not being in front of the microphone was a difficult position for the usually opinionated comedian.
"You are looking a little stressed, aren't you," Obama said to Letterman.
Hoffman, meanwhile, has become a household name with a resume that includes 50 movies, not to mention two Academy Awards for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Rain Man (1988).
While the 75-year-old actor has said he grew up thinking movie stars had to look like Rock Hudson, it didn't take long for the Los Angeles native to get into acting and start a career that spans five decades and covers just about every genre of film.
Many of his titles will likely be featured in his tribute at the Kennedy Center, which is not far from the famous Watergate hotel -- a site he knows well after playing the ambitious reporter, Carl Bernstein, in "All The President's Men" (1976).
Russian-born Makarova is perhaps best known for leaving her mark on the production of La Bayadère, a ballet that dates to 1877. She transformed the scene "Kingdom of the Shades," and went on to stage the full production in theaters around the world.
Makarova, 72, is no stranger to the Kennedy Center. She won a Tony Award for best actress in a musical for the center's 1984 production of "On Your Toes."
The audience Sunday night will also feel the rhythm in performances honoring blues legend Buddy Guy. Born into a Louisiana sharecropper family, Guy eventually made Chicago his home at the peak of the blues era in the Windy City.
And with his distinct guitar sound, the six-time Grammy Award winner helped pioneer the electric blues with other legends including Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.
Count Obama as one of Guy's biggest fans. The president sang "Sweet Home Chicago" with Guy, 76, at a White House event earlier this year, marking the second time Obama has sung publicly as president. In his remarks, Obama noted that he and Guy shared their song in the very room they now were honoring the guitarist.
The president called Guy "one of the last guardians of the great American blues."
And the stage will continue to rock in a tribute to John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant -- the three surviving members of the band Led Zeppelin. Famed drummer John Bonham passed away in 1980.
Having sold more than 100 million albums in the United States alone, the British band has churned out a number of classics, including "Whole Lotta Love," "Thank You," and the enduring song: "Stairway to Heaven."
Though thanking the group for "making us all feel young," Obama took the liberty of joking about the trio during his remarks in the East Room, noting how the group redefined "the rock and roll lifestyle."
"There were some hotel rooms trashed, mayhem all around," the president said. "So it is fitting that we are doing this in a room with windows three inches thick."
"So guys, settle down, these paintings are valuable," Obama joked.
The trio is scheduled to join fellow honoree Letterman on the "The Late Show" on Monday.
The Kennedy Center Honors will air December 26 on CBS.