WASHINGTON — President Obama has not missed a Kennedy Center Honors since he took office, but by the time guests started arriving on the red carpet on Sunday, it was anyone’s guess if he would attend. The White House first announced that he would cancel his yearly appearance in lieu of a televised address to the nation on terrorism and gun control, but in a show of resilience against those wishing to dampen the nation’s spirits, Mr. Obama arrived to a standing ovation just after intermission.
“He had a very important message to give tonight about the terrorist and the gun situation,” said Carole King, reflecting on meeting Mr. Obama at a reception earlier at the White House. “It must have been weighing on his mind, and yet he took the time to come and meet us all and introduce us all, and that meant a lot to me.”
Ms. King was one of six honorees this year who were being feted for a lifetime of achievement in the performing arts. The singer-songwriter, who wrote or co-wrote scores of pop hits, including “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” was joined by the actress and singer Rita Moreno, filmmaker George Lucas, conductor Seiji Ozawa and actress Cicely Tyson. Members of the rock band the Eagles had also been chosen to receive honors at this year’s ceremony, but deferred acceptance until 2016 after one of them, the guitarist Glenn Frey, had to undergo surgery in November.
Despite the band’s absence, this was the first year six recipients were honored instead of usual five, and the first year that a contest was held on social media called #SendMeToHonors. Both were part of recent efforts to address criticism about a lack of transparency in the process to select honorees.
The honors had also been criticized for a lack of diversity among recipients — the importance of which was exemplified by some of the celebrities who came to honor their idols. Gina Rodriguez, star of the CW series “Jane the Virgin,” almost immediately burst into tears when she came onstage to present the tribute to Ms. Moreno, the “West Side Story” star who is one of a handful of entertainers to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Ms. Rodriguez said Ms. Moreno showed her that Puerto Rican girls can be on TV too.
“A 15-year-old girl from Chicago who hadn’t seen a Puerto Rican represented on screen once asked her mother, ‘Mom, when did Puerto Ricans come about?’”
She continued: “‘I never see us on my favorite TV shows or movies — we must not have existed back then, right?’ And then, she introduced me to you.”
The weekend’s celebration started with a black-tie dinner at the State Department on Saturday, which offered the Capital a rare brush with a different kind of celebrity. Sipping cocktails in the gilded reception rooms before dinner, members of Congress, the cabinet and at least one Supreme Court justice mingled with actors, musicians and philanthropists from New York and Los Angeles, many making sure to record the occasion with a snapshot or two.
At Sunday night’s program, Stephen Colbert served as host of the event, which will be broadcast by CBS on Dec. 29 and which was held in the Kennedy Center. opera house. There were montages from the honorees’ careers and tribute performances, which included several stormtroopers for Mr. Lucas; a duet with a Muppet in a nod to Ms. Moreno’s turn on “Sesame Street”; and a performance by Aretha Franklin for Ms. King.
Each of the honorees has shelves filled with accolades and golden statues, but none of them, they all said, quite compare to this.
“I was speechless,” Ms. Tyson said. “I was absolutely speechless. I consider this tantamount to being honored by the queen.”
Correction: December 11, 2015
An earlier version of this post referred incorrectly to Rita Moreno’s guest appearance on “Sesame Street.” While she has won two Emmy Awards, neither was for that appearance.