She was in tears when she and the other singers in the tribute came back out.
Movie director Steven Spielberg, singers Parton and Smokey Robinson, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and conductor Zubin Mehta all received recognition at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for a lifetime of achievement in the performing arts.
The stars were recognized as members of the 29th annual class of Kennedy Center honorees.
At the gala at the Kennedy Center, fellow entertainers and artists celebrated the careers of the five honorees.
During the ceremony, singer Aretha Franklin spoke about Robinson's contributions to music.
"This beautiful, kind, kind man wrote and sang poetically and unselfconsciously about love ... redefining popular music in the '60s, using the connective power of song to break down the barriers of black and white," she said.
Mehta was described by violinist Itzhak Perlman as "what we call in Yiddish a mensch" — someone who is worthy and full of good deeds. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performed, accompanied by violinist Pinchas Zuckerman.
Composer Webber heard a tribute from Sarah Brightman, a singer who was married to Webber for several years, remains a friend and has performed in several of Webber's productions, among her many stage performances.
"At this very moment somewhere in the world, the curtain is going up on an Andrew Lloyd Webber show," she said.
Earlier in the evening, the performers dropped by the White House for a private reception with President Bush and first lady Laura Bush.
"This is absolutely fantastic," said Robinson, a Motown recording legend, as he arrived at the White House. "I'm so honored and so flattered to get this because it not only deals with your craft; they attach what impact you have on humanity to this."
Others who strolled the East Wing colonnade for the reception included singers Vince Gill and Kenny Rogers and movie producer George Lucas. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the Rhode Island Democrat, walked in with actress Fran Drescher.
Country singer Reba McEntire told the audience Parton changed Nashville.
"Once upon a time, a woman in Nashville was told what song to sing, in what clothes," she said. "Because of Dolly we've been writing, producing and singing our own music for some time now."
Spielberg got a tribute from actor Tom Hanks, who starred in the World War II movie "Saving Private Ryan." Hanks brought five veterans of the war and one Holocaust survivor on stage to honor Spielberg for his film remembrances of those events.
Parton, 60, a country singer who has performed for more than four decades, is a Grammy-winner who also has appeared in movies such as "Nine to Five," "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and "Steel Magnolias." And there is her Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
Spielberg, 58, has won two Academy Awards for best director, for "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan." Among his other film are "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and the Indiana Jones series.
Robinson, 66, is best known for classics such as "The Tracks Of My Tears," "Tears Of A Clown" and "I Second That Emotion." He is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
London-born Webber, 58, is responsible for the music for "Cats," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita." He has won seven Tony Awards and three Grammy Awards.
Indian-born Mehta, 70, was music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1978 to 1991 and has led the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
CBS will broadcast the show Dec. 26 at 9 p.m. EST.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.Click Here for the Jessica Simpson Celebrity Center