"Maya Angelou makes me cry," the filmmaker Jonathan Demme said of the poet and co-recipient of the Marian Anderson Award, bestowed at a Kimmel Center gala last night.

"And Norman Lear makes me crack up," Demme noted of Angelou's co-honoree, the TV pioneer and social activist.

The event was star-studded and politically connected. Harry Belafonte, the first recipient of the award given in the name of the Philadelphia contralto who used her art in the service of social justice, sat for dinner with Demme and Judge Marjorie O. Rendell of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Demme said the judge's husband, Gov. Rendell, was the father, and he himself the midwife, of the award, which has been given to artist-activists including Elizabeth Taylor, Gregory Peck and Sidney Poitier.

At dinner, the celebrants and intimates - Angelou is godmother to Lear's 14-year-old twins - enjoyed the company of the governor, Mayor Nutter, Comcast Corp. executive vice president David L. Cohen, the dancer Ben Vereen, and the television and film actress CCH Pounder.

Asked how it felt to receive an award named for Anderson, Angelou - who described the singer's voice as "notes of melted silver on lace" - dialed down her lioness' roar to a purr.

"Humbling," she said.

Lear also had a word for how he felt: Gratitude.

Surrounded by his wife, five of his six children, and all four of his grandchildren, Lear beamed like a lighthouse beacon.

The Emmy-award winning creator of All in the Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons has since 1980 added a number of public-interest groups to his repertoire.

They include People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, and DeclareYourself.com, a nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign that registered 2.2 million new voters leading up to the November election.

"The most important thing Grandpa taught me," said his grandson Noah LaPook, 12, is "to be a good listener."

Belafonte praised Lear for "skewering the foundations of prejudice by employing truth and humor." At the dinner before the award ceremony, he praised Angelou as "the great woman of American letters." And before giving her the award, Belafonte said, "Like Marian Anderson, Maya Angelou has given America a great gift by protecting our common humanity."

Belafonte, 82, said, "Her only mistake was not saying yes 60 years ago when I asked her to marry me."

Over their combined 166 years, Angelou, 80, and Lear, 86, have been crusaders for civil rights and social justice.

Judge Rendell, resplendent in a floor-length black sheath and pearls, named All in the Family her favorite among Lear's TV hits.

She could not single out a favorite Angelou poem, but sang the praises of her autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Of the honorees, Judge Rendell said, "Norman Lear believes that citizenship is an act of courage. Maya Angelou believes that civil rights is democracy coming to fruition."

Nutter was one of many at the event who cited Angelou's "On the Pulse of Morning," her invocation at President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration, as his favorite among her poems.

"It's uplifting," Nutter said.

None of the members of the selection committee for the Marian Anderson Award, who include Demme and former Philadelphia Orchestra president Joseph Kluger, were aware of the intimate connection between Angelou and Lear when they made their choice.

"Who knew they were friends?" Kluger asked.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.