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The biggest Kennedy Center Honors surprises

Fox News commentator and author Bill O'Reilly is

Fox News commentator and author Bill O'Reilly is a Chaminade High School graduate. (Oct. 13, 2012) Credit: AP

Billy Joel wasn’t the only Long Islander front-and-center at the Kennedy Center Honors Sunday night.

Sure, Joel was the only one receiving the nation’s highest award for performers, but there were others there to pay tribute to this year’s class of honorees – Joel, guitarist Carlos Santana, jazz great Herbie Hancock, opera singer Martina Arroyo, and actress Shirley MacLaine.

Montauk’s Rufus Wainwright closed the tribute to Joel with a gorgeous, heartfelt version of “New York State of Mind” and lead a sing along of “Piano Man” with a choir.

“I’ve never heard ‘Piano Man’ done as a chorale before,” Joel said after the gala. “It was great.”

The more unexpected appearance, though, was Levittown native Bill O’Reilly, who honored Hancock.

“I know,” the host of Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” said, reacting to the audible gasps at the Kennedy Center when his name was announced as a speaker. “I was surprised too.”

However, O’Reilly’s tribute was genuine, joking that Hancock made him feel “serene and polite.” “He’s the only one not nervous about what I’m going to say,” he said.

Like the tribute to Joel, which ranged from Panic! At the Disco’s Brendon Urie doing “Big Shot” to Garth Brooks doing a medley of “Only the Good Die Young,” “Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon,” Hancock’s tribute was also remarkably eclectic, including both O’Reilly and Snoop Dogg, as well as a stunning collection of jazz greats that included Wayne Shorter and Terence Blanchard.

The Kennedy Center Honors gala was filled with unexpected choices, including Sonia Sotomayor paying tribute to opera singer Arroyo, who the Supreme Court justice called “my kind of diva,” and the great Harry Belafonte jokingly using Santana as an example of how Mexican immigrants were taking away American jobs.

He said that if it wasn’t for Santana, calypso could have made a big comeback. “We should’ve built a bigger fence,” Belafonte joked, though his tribute quickly turned serious as he told Santana, “Your music teaches us to be happy.”

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