Roger L. Stevens (1910-1998)
For almost half of the twentieth century, Roger Lacey Stevens was a dominant force as a theatrical producer, arts administrator, and real estate entrepreneur. A highly successful real estate broker who once owned the Empire State Building, Stevens backed his first Broadway show in 1949. He quickly established himself as a significant power in the theater, both in the United States and in Britain. During the 1950s and 1960s, he become a major theatrical producer, presenting more than 100 plays and musicals, including West Side Story, Bus Stop, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Man for All Seasons and Tea and Sympathy. Stevens's enormous range of accomplishments includes fostering high-quality theatrical productions; organizing the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and serving as its first chairman; establishing the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and becoming its first chairman. “The Stevens Angle,”; he said in a 1957 interview, “is this: whatever I get involved in happens.”
In New York
From his earliest ventures in professional theater, Roger Stevens sought out projects and associates that would bring plays of unusually high quality to the stage. Although he had a strong sense of what was commercially viable, his primary interests were in presenting the great classics of the stage and fostering the best new plays.
The Wright Family
Stevens first became involved with theater production in Michigan, as a supporter of the Dramatic Guild of Detroit and a series of drama festivals in Ann Arbor. His first presentation in New York was a 1949 production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, brought to Broadway from Ann Arbor. However, Stevens had been associated with New York theater even earlier, when he invested a substantial sum in producer Alfred De Liagre, Jr.'s production of The Madwoman of Chaillot, based on a play by Jean Giraudoux, Stevens's favorite dramatist. In his early years as a producer Stevens began working with his counterparts in London to bring outstanding American productions to London and London successes to New York.
When Stevens began producing in New York, Broadway was still the dominant force in the world of the stage. However, off-Broadway theaters, not-for-profit theater organizations, and innovative financing mechanisms were creating a new national theater scene. Stevens was active on all these fronts, using them to bring superior stage productions to wider audiences.
In 1961, Roger Stevens began his long career in Washington, D.C., when President John F. Kennedy appointed him chairman of the National Cultural Center, the performing arts complex planned for Washington and later named for Kennedy. Under President Lyndon Johnson, Stevens assumed responsibility for other arts-related activities, becoming Johnson's advisor on the arts in 1964 and, in 1965, chairman of the new National Council on the Arts, composed of leading figures from the cultural world. In September 1965, Stevens became chairman of the new National Endowment for the Arts.
At the same time, Stevens continued to realize plans for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. On September 8, 1971, the Kennedy Center opened with the world premiere of Mass, specially commissioned from Leonard Bernstein. Presented in the Opera House, Mass was later dedicated to Roger Stevens. Stevens continued as the center's chairman of the board until 1988. During Stevens's tenure, the center both created new productions and hosted an impressive array of world-class artists and performing companies. Not surprisingly, many of the plays were produced in association with Stevens.
As Founding Chairman
In 1988 Stevens retired from day-to-day operations and assumed the title “Founding Chairman” of the Kennedy Center, but he maintained an office in the center until his death in 1998. In his later years, Stevens remained on the alert for the new and exciting in all of the arts. He pursued the dream of creating conservatories for music and drama as part of the Kennedy Center. He organized the Fund for New American Plays, a form of continuation of the earlier Playwrights Experimental Theatre he had fostered while at the NEA. And he remained active as a producer, presenting plays, and winning a Tony for his part in the revival of She Loves Me. The magnitude and richness of Stevens's legacy stand as a monument to a man who worked ceaselessly to bring the finest in the arts to all Americans.