By WALTER ZVONCHENKO
The career and accomplishments of Roger Lacey Stevens (1910-1998) give him a special place in the nation's history as one of the foremost cultural leaders of modern times. He was one of the nation's leading real estate entrepreneurs, theatrical producers and arts administrators and supported the production of plays and musical theater of the highest quality across America. He was the first chairman of the National Council on the Arts and of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and he was the moving spirit behind the development of the monumental John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Stevens was also an active board member or trustee of leading cultural institutions such as the Metropolitan Opera, American Ballet Theatre and the National Book Association. Stevens' determination to enrich the arts in America was matched only by the surpassing depth and breadth of his vision.
In the 1990s, Stevens and his wife, Christine Gesell Stevens, donated Stevens' papers to the Library of Congress. These form the basis for an exhibition documenting his life and career, "Roger L. Stevens Presents: Stage for a Nation," on display in the South Gallery of the Thomas Jefferson Building's Great Hall through Sept. 7. (A preview of the exhibition is available on the Library's Web site at www.loc.gov/exhibits/stevens). The Library is grateful to Mrs. Stevens and their daughter, Mrs. Hugh Gough, for their generosity in funding the exhibition and a catalog commemorating Stevens' life and works. Items in the exhibition include photographs, video footage, playbills, correspondence, music scores, building and theatrical designs, drawings and posters. The primary focus of the display is Stevens' cultural achievements, particularly his work as a theatrical producer, founder of the Kennedy Center and founding chairman of the NEA.
Early Years in Theater
Roger Stevens began producing plays on Broadway when he was already a prominent figure in real estate. He very quickly established himself as a major power in the theater, active both in the United States and in Britain. The role of the producer in American theatrical history is a major factor in bringing plays to the stage, but it is not well understood by most of the theater-going public. The producer is responsible for assembling all the parts of the stage production: getting the best possible theater, ensuring that the director has a cast that he or she can work with, and seeing to it that the necessary set, lighting and costume arrangements are in place. There is always hope for financial gain, of course. But Stevens did not produce plays for the money; he was in the theater business because he loved it.
Stevens first became directly involved with the theater in his home state of Michigan; he supported 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. Even earlier, he had met producer Alfred De Liagre Jr. in the course of a trip to New York and put a substantial sum into De Liagre's production of "The Madwoman of Chaillot," based on a play by Jean Giraudoux, Stevens' favorite dramatist. De Liagre later became one of Stevens' longtime associates in stage presentation, working with Stevens on many theatrical ventures. Their associations included "Deathtrap," a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "On Your Toes," and "The Golden Apple."
New York City Theater
From his earliest undertakings in professional theater, Stevens sought out associates and projects that would bring plays of unusually high quality to the stage. While he had a sense of the commercially viable, his primary interest was in fostering the best in new plays and in the great classics of the stage. Stevens began producing in New York at the dawn of radical changes in the American theater landscape. Around 1950, Broadway was still the dominant force in the world of the stage. But theater in this country was about to undergo vast expansion. While Broadway continued to play an important role, there was a movement toward regional theaters, with more involvement by not-for-profit theater organizations with new financing mechanisms. Stevens was active on all these fronts—at the same time that he continued to be a major figure around the country in real estate investment.
Roger Stevens and Real Estate
Stevens came to national attention as a realtor in 1951 when he engineered the purchase of the Empire State Building, then the world's tallest structure, at a price said to be the highest ever paid for a single building at the time: $51.5 million. Stevens had begun his career in real estate in his native Detroit, becoming one of the two most famous men in the industry (along with William Zeckendorf), while still a relatively young man.
During his years in Detroit, Stevens joined with Alfred R. Glancy Jr. and Ben Tobin to acquire a 50-year-old company called Realty Associates. They merged this into a holding company, Glastest Corporation. From this came Realty Associates Securities Corporation, with properties that included Brooklyn's Paramount Theatre and substantial interests in the real estate firm of City Investing Company of New York, where Stevens was one of the directors. City Investing had a financial stake in a number of theaters in New York City, and these figured in Stevens' theatrical ventures. Stevens moved his offices to New York around 1950, when he became more involved in theatrical production.
Stevens was also a partner in a number of large-scale redevelopment projects intended to remake central areas of urban communities into superior living and/or working environments. Among these were 28 acres in Boston's Copley Square district, a major tract in downtown Seattle, and housing in Southwest Washington, D.C.
Over time, Stevens' passion for the theater was mirrored in his real estate life. He was involved with a variety of projects in theatrical real estate, foreshadowing his role in the development of Washington's John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Around 1957, Stevens was involved with a plan to erect six theaters under a single roof in Manhattan's Lincoln Square neighborhood as part of a redevelopment project. The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was ultimately constructed just south of that site, but its final configuration no longer included Stevens' six-theater project.
On April 25, 1951, Roger Stevens was elected to full membership in the Playwrights' Producing Company Inc. The New York producing firm was established in 1938 by attorney John F. Wharton and five of the nation's leading playwrights: Robert Sherwood, Samuel Behrman, Elmer Rice, Sidney Howard and Maxwell Anderson (see photo, page 79). The original intent was to create an organization that would give member playwrights an opportunity to produce their own works and to share more fully in the profits. Stevens' immediate duties included functioning as executive producer for two productions scheduled for the 1951-1952 season: Maxwell Anderson's "Barefoot in Athens" and Robert E. Sherwood's "Girls with Dogs."
Stevens wasted no time in becoming an active member. Soon after joining Playwrights', he traveled to a summer theater in Falmouth, Mass., to see a production of Jan de Hartog's "The Fourposter," with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. Stevens and Playwrights' colleague Robert Sherwood were enthusiastic about the play, and they brought it to New York. It opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Oct. 24, 1951, and was a smash hit, running for 632 performances.
In the 1950s, Playwrights' had a number of other notable successes, some touching on controversial topics. "Tea and Sympathy," a work by Robert Anderson, who became a member of the company, dealt with the subject of homosexuality. It is difficult to understand in 2002 just how shocking the play's subject and treatment were to audiences in 1953. Homosexuality as a topic, combined with the depiction of the schoolmaster's wife's decision at the drama's end to foster a young man's sexual maturing by giving herself to him, was bound to fire discussion. The play was turned down by a number of producers. Playwrights' asked for an option and went ahead with the production. In the out-of-town tryout period, there was considerable debate whether the final moment and its curtain line, now famous, should stand. Stand it did, and the play became a hit, opening in New York at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Sept. 30, 1953, with Deborah Kerr as the wife of the schoolmaster. Another success was Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which also dealt with homosexuality.
In the course of his career, Stevens was connected with the presentation of a number of high-comedy plays, including works by Somerset Maugham, William Douglas Home, A. R. Gurney and Enid Bagnold. With the death of Philip Barry in 1949, S. N. Behrman and Samuel Taylor were perhaps the best-known American dramatists writing high comedy. During the Stevens years, Playwrights' had two hits written by Taylor: "Sabrina Fair," with a cast that included Margaret Sullavan, Joseph Cotten and Cathleen Nesbitt in 1953; and, in 1958, "The Pleasure of His Company," coproduced with Frederick Brisson, with Cornelia Otis Skinner and Cyril Ritchard in the leading roles.
The Playwrights' Company was also responsible for production of significant European writers. In 1954, Stevens told director Albert Marre that he would ensure the production of a play that Marre chose. The next year Marre brought him a script for "Time Remembered," a version of Jean Anouilh's comedy "Leocadia." Anouilh's work was little-known at the time in the United States, but Stevens kept his word. The play had originally been scheduled for production in 1955, but casting problems set it back considerably. Stevens was tenacious, and "Time Remembered" was a critical success, with a cast that included Helen Hayes, Richard Burton and Susan Strasberg, and lavish sets by Oliver Smith.
"Ondine," a play by Stevens' great favorite Jean Giraudoux, was directed for Playwrights' by Alfred Lunt. This was Stevens' first association with the renowned actor/director. Audrey Hepburn starred as the water sprite who falls in love with a human, a knight played by Mel Ferrer. "Ondine" opened at the 46th Street Theatre in New York on Feb.18, 1954. The production did well so long as Hepburn remained in the starring role, achieving 117 performances before she withdrew.
The Playwrights' Company dissolved in 1960. Its last venture was a play that was a special favorite of Stevens, Gore Vidal's "The Best Man," a political drama that has been revived recently to critical acclaim.
In 1953 Stevens and Robert Whitehead, who was a leading New York producer with some estimable productions to his credit, formed the producing firm of Whitehead-Stevens, which then joined with the business firm City Investing Inc. to form Producers Theatre. Robert Dowling was president of City Investing Inc. City Investing owned three of New York's playhouses outright—the Fulton, Morosco and Coronet—part of another, and held a lease on a fifth. City Playhouses Inc., a subsidiary of City Investing, managed all five, as well as the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA) on which City Investing held a mortgage. Producers Theatre made heavy use of City Investing's theaters.
The Playwrights' Company invested in the new Producers Theatre and gained advantages for its productions through the new firm. Producers Theatre began with $1 million in capital, with Whitehead as executive producer. The group presented work of the highest quality as well as commercial vehicles. Its production of T. S. Eliot's comedy, "The Confidential Clerk," brought the much-loved actress Ina Claire, famed for her brilliance in high comedy, back to Broadway. "Confidential Clerk" opened at New York's Morosco Theatre, one of the City Investing playhouses, in February 1954, but it was not a financial success.
Producers Theatre also presented the New York premiere of Eugene O'Neill's "A Touch of the Poet," with Helen Hayes, Kim Stanley and Eric Portman. It opened at the newly renamed Helen Hayes (formerly Fulton) Theatre in 1958. Stevens had earlier contributed financial support to an O'Neill production at Circle in the Square, one of the early off-Broadway groups noted for superior work, and he played a role in presenting O'Neill vehicles in years to come.
A number of other plays from noted writers came to New York via Producers Theatre. These included Anouilh's "The Waltz of the Toreadors"; Terrence Rattigan's "Separate Tables" and "The Sleeping Prince;" and Friedrich Duerrenmatt's "The Visit," which opened at New York's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in May 1958 with the legendary acting couple, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
"The Visit" was one of the most astonishing and powerful plays of modern time. The story of an old woman's relentless search for revenge for wrongs done to her as a young girl, it was directed in New York and London by Peter Brook. After Lunt and Fontanne refused to do it in New York under the auspices of the Theatre Guild, Stevens acquired the rights and tried to interest them again, but the couple refused. Eventually, however, Lunt and Fontanne did "The Visit" in England for the powerful West End producer Hugh Beaumont and Stevens was able to bring the play to New York, where it became a great critical success. After a run in New York, it toured, then came back to New York for a brief run at New York's City Center. Its final curtain brought the active presenting life of Producers Theatre to a close.
During the 1950s, the movement of American theater beyond Broadway became ever more evident. Roger Stevens was an early participant in the broadening of the theater beyond Times Square. Together with Norris Houghton and T. Edward Hambleton, Stevens was a backer of the Phoenix Theatre, one of the first successful ventures in the history of what became known as off-Broadway. Begun in 1953 with $125,000, Phoenix was to present an entire season of several plays. Stevens offered to help finance the venture.
John Latouche had written the libretto for a musical based on Homer, set in the state of Washington at the end of the 19th century. "The Golden Apple" opened at the Phoenix on lower Second Avenue on March 11, 1954, to mostly enthusiastic notices. Done entirely in song composed by Jerome Moross, the musical received the Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical of the 1953-54 season and subsequently transferred uptown to the Alvin Theatre.
The Phoenix was home to many notable productions. The first season began with a revival of Maxwell Anderson's comedy "Madam, Will You Walk," with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. Then came Shakespeare's "Coriolanus," staged by John Houseman. After "The Golden Apple" came Chekhov's "Seagull," with Montgomery Clift as Konstantin.
In 1957, after the Phoenix had lost considerably more money than its original capitalization, its financial administration was assumed by Theatre Inc., a non-profit producing organization that had been inactive for some years. Roger Stevens became the president of a new board, with Hambleton and Houghton continuing as board members and managing directors. The reorganized company's first presentation in October 1957 starred Eva Le Gallienne and Irene Worth in Schiller's "Mary Stuart," under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie.
The career of the young playwright Arthur Kopit was given a considerable boost by presentations of his plays at the Phoenix. Stevens had encouraged Kopit and was connected with his career in the years to follow. Kopit's play, "Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad," was first presented in New York at the Phoenix Theatre (in another space which was on East 74th Street) by arrangement with Stevens in February 1962; it was directed by Jerome Robbins. It subsequently had a run on Broadway at the Morosco Theatre.
Stevens also helped support productions of the Circle in the Square, which became one of the most important theaters in off-Broadway history. He became head of the Actors' Studio Theatre, another mainstay of the New York theater scene, and was a founding member of the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn.
National Endowment for the Arts
Roger Stevens had long been active in the Democratic Party. He supported Adlai Stevenson in his bids for the presidential nomination and became the party's finance chairman in 1958. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked Stevens to become chairman of the National Cultural Center, the performing arts complex being planned for Washington D.C. Stevens headed the efforts to raise funds for the project.
After the assassination of President Kennedy, President Johnson signed legislation naming the National Cultural Center in honor of the late president. And on April 16, 1964, President Johnson announced the appointment of Stevens as his advisor on the arts. In February 1965, Johnson made appointments to the new National Council on the Arts and named Roger Stevens chairman. Members included composer Leonard Bernstein, actor Gregory Peck, violinist Isaac Stern, scenic designer and producer Oliver Smith, and Anthony Bliss, president of the Metropolitan Opera. In September 1965, Stevens became director of the new National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
The NEA first received funding in 1965. One of the original departments created within the endowment was the Theatre Program, which quickly began to support new playwrights through its Playwrights Experimental Theatre project. One of the plays that emerged from that project was Howard Sackler's "The Great White Hope," which premiered at Washington's Arena Stage in1967, with James Earl Jones as the boxer, Jack Jefferson, and Jane Alexander as Eleanor Bachman. The play received ecstatic notices and soon moved to Broadway.
The Theatre Program also provided support for professional nonprofit theaters. This support began modestly with grants made to a small number of regional theaters; much broader assistance was provided in later years. Thus, the NEA was in the forefront of the broad movement that saw increasing growth in independent regional theaters—a trend, which, over the years, led to their becoming as vital a force in American theater as Broadway.
One of the earliest regional theaters to establish a reputation for general excellence was the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. It became the first regional theater company to bring plays to New York. The NEA provided $75,000 to help finance a tour in 1968-69 of two Guthrie productions—"The House of Atreus," adapted from the "Oresteia" of Aeschylus and Bertolt Brecht's "Arturo Ui"—to New York and Los Angeles.
Other regional theater companies were able to come to New York as a result of another mechanism put in place by Stevens. As he was leaving the NEA in 1969, Stevens turned his attention to restructuring the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA) with which he had been associated frequently since the early 1950s. He devised a plan with two objectives: to give assistance to ANTA, which did not have a large cash reserve; and to encourage regional theaters that had received support from NEA to bring their productions to New York. NEA granted ANTA $438,000 to retire the mortgage on the ANTA Theatre, which was then donated to the Endowment. Then, NEA funds were made available to plan a first season of regional theater presentations in the ANTA Theatre. The ANTA board was reconstituted to include members from regional theater as well as from the mainstream Broadway community. Producer Jean Dalrymple administered the overall operation, and Alfred De Liagre Jr., a longtime producer and associate of Stevens, put the actual theater season together. The season included productions of Edward Albee's "Tiny Alice" and Feydeau's "A Flea in her Ear," directed by Gower Champion, both from San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, as well as "Henry V" from the American Shakespeare Theatre.
In addition to contributions from the regional theaters, other presentations included "Harvey," under the banner of New York's Phoenix Theatre, with Helen Hayes and James Stewart; and a production of "Our Town," which De Liagre had presented with Henry Fonda at the Plumstead Playhouse. While the latter two productions did well at ANTA, response to the rest of the season was disappointing, and the venture came to an end. Although the ANTA experiment was not ultimately successful, it was one more indication of Stevens' earnest wish to try to provide an administrative and financially sound base for the presentation of high quality theater, and to encourage broad-based production across the nation.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Following his appointment by President Kennedy as chairman of the National Cultural Center, Stevens vigorously pursued the fundraising necessary for the construction of the vast edifice. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts became one of Stevens' greatest accomplishments in enriching the cultural life of the nation.
The Kennedy Center opened on Sept. 8, 1971, with the world premiere of "Mass," specially commissioned from Leonard Bernstein. Presented in the Opera House, it was later dedicated to Stevens. Stevens served as chairman of the Kennedy Center until he became Founding Chairman in 1988; he maintained an office at the center until his death in 1998.
The Kennedy Center has been host to an enormous variety of presentations of plays and world-class orchestras, dance and opera companies during its three decades of operation. Not surprisingly, many of the plays were produced in association with Stevens. After his appointment as NEA chair, Stevens put aside play production to avoid any suggestion of conflict of interest. He resumed producing plays in 1969 when he left the NEA. He continued to present at the Kennedy Center a wide mix of new plays, classics and popular dramas.
In his later years, Stevens never stopped planning for the future. He pursued his dream of creating conservatories for music and drama as part of the Kennedy Center, a dream which has yet to be realized. In the 1980s, he fostered more than one effort to establish a national theater at the Kennedy Center. One of these projects was headed by the imaginative and often controversial director, Peter Sellars. Stevens was always on the alert for the new and exciting in all of the arts. He organized the Fund for New American Plays, and he remained active as a producer, presenting plays and winning a Tony Award for his part in the 1993 revival of "She Loves Me," with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick.
The Legacy of Roger Lacey Stevens
Stevens did a great deal over the years to promote plays he thought represented something fine in the theater. A large percentage of these were financially unrewarding, but Stevens gave the public a rare opportunity, if they cared to take advantage of it, to see remarkable productions. Stevens' commercial sense led to the presentation of a number of plays that did very well indeed, promoting attendance in theater, and perhaps helping to fund his continuing efforts to produce other less popular works. Stevens' superb sense of theater and of the subtleties of organization served the nation well. He joins the thin ranks of those producers in American theater history who dedicated themselves to giving the public the very best.
Walter Zvonchenko is a theater specialist in the Music Division.