It is our nation's highest honor for artistic excellence: the National Medal of Arts.
Today in a ceremony at the White House, President George W. Bush will be presenting medals to ten individuals who -- to quote Dana Gioia, the Chairmain of the National Endowment for the Arts -- " ... have all made significant and enduring contributions to the artistic life of our nation.
Among the artists that the President will be honored today are Academy Award winner Robert Duval, Grammy Award winner Dolly Parton, jazz great Wynton Marsalis as well as Disney Legend Ollie Johnston.
Now what's truly significant about Ollie receiving this honor is that -- in the 20+ years that National Medal of Arts have been handed out -- that this is the first time ever that this medal has ever been awarded to an animator.
But more importantly the real reason that this Disney Legend is being recognized in this manner is because another Disney Legend -- voice performer Mary Costa -- went out of her way to try & secure a nomination for Ollie. And here's how that all went down.
Now most Disneyana fans know Ms. Costa as the voice of Princess Aurora in Disney's "Sleeping Beauty." But what they may not realize is that -- in the 40+ years since she helped make that motion picture -- Mary had a rather extraordinary career. Traveling the world singing opera, performing in radio, television and film, even singing at the White House. Though Ms. Costa officially retired back in 1984, she still remains quite active in the artistic community. With perhaps her most prominent position being that of a member of the National Council on the Arts.
Now the National Council of the Arts is the group that advises the Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts on various policies and programs. But members of the council can also nominate various individuals for possible consideration for a National Medal of Arts.
Now in her many years on the council, Mary had seen many great actors (Among them Robert Redford, Kirk Douglas and Jason Robards), several legendary performers (Bob Hope, Gene Kelly and Barbra Streisand) as well as noted directors (Robert Wise, Billy Wilder and Frank Capra). But never any animators. And -- as the National Medal of Arts entered its second decade -- Ms. Costa felt that it was finally time to change all that.
So -- working with fellow committee member, Maribeth McGinley -- Mary got Ollie's name placed in nomination. Then these two actively campaigned to see that this member of Disney's "Nine Old Men" officially got recognized for his work in " ... pioneering film animation." Which -- again quoting from Mr. Gioia -- " ... transformed the ways we experience and appreciate the world."
So when you read about Ollie receiving this honor at the White House today, don't think that it was the Walt Disney Company -- with all its corporate might -- that actually strong-armed President Bush into awarding this medal to Mr. Johnston. The folks who really need to be recognized for their effort here are Ms. Costa and Ms. McGinley.
Here's hoping that -- in the years ahead -- even more animators will be singled out as being "... deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States."
But -- for now -- let's thank Mary Costa for making sure that Ollie Johnston actually received this amazing honor: A National Medal of Arts. Which now allows Ollie to join such luminaries as author Ray Bradbury and the late caricaturist Al Hirschfeld as being among the very best in their field.