By GAIL FINEBERG
A quick visit to the exhibition with its curator is an encounter with the genius of Roger Stevens—producer, dealmaker, and founding chairman of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts—colored by the passion of a librarian for his subject.
Asked to discuss his favorite items in "Roger L. Stevens Presents," curator Walter Zvonchenko, theater specialist for the Music Division, headed straight for a giant collage of 100 playbills that Christine Stevens had assembled for her husband to hang in his new office at the Kennedy Center in 1971.
With a librarian's penchant for details, Zvonchenko noted that the arrangement of the playbills in the display at the Library does not match exactly the collage pictured in a nearby photograph of Stevens at his Kennedy Center desk. After Stevens died in 1998, the Kennedy Center delivered the collage to the Library. Conservation Division staff took steps to preserve the playbills, encasing each one in Mylar and, under the watchful eye of Mrs. Stevens, reassembling them in a slightly different pattern than in the original. The collage will eventually grace a wall in the Music Division's reading room.
Pointing to bills for plays whose authors, producers, directors, casts, opening dates, and theaters he knows by heart, Zvonchenko traced Stevens' early involvement with the theater.
He pointed out a huge orange poster advertising the 1948 production of "The Madwoman of Chaillot," in which Stevens made one of his first major investments. An adaptation from a play for the French stage by Jean Giraudoux, the show was a highlight of the 1948-49 Broadway season.
Moving through the gallery of some 120 performance photographs, theater posters, music manuscripts, color renderings of set designs, letters, and other items from the Library's collections as well as from the Kennedy Center archives, Zvonchenko discussed Stevens' associations with the Playwrights' Company, the Producers Theatre, and several individuals with whom he produced more than 100 plays and musicals during the 1950s and ‘60s.
Stevens had such a good eye for literature that he did not hesitate to promote works whose potential for financial success may have been problematic. "Roger Stevens had a passion for the theater, and he had a passion for quality," Zvonchenko said, noting as examples, Stevens' support of "Peer Gynt" by Henrik Ibsen (1951), "The Confidential Clerk" by T.S. Eliot (1954), "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" by Tennessee Williams (1955), and Swiss playwright Friedrich Duerrenmatt's "The Visit" (1958). His 13 productions on Broadway in 1957 included "West Side Story," with music by Leonard Bernstein. The exhibition includes the composer's holograph score for the memorable song, "Tonight."
During a period of 40 years, Stevens produced more than 200 plays and musicals, all the while brokering huge real estate developments from Boston to Seattle, serving as finance chairman for the National Democratic Party and founding chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and guiding the Kennedy Center into existence.
"Perhaps the most incredible thing about Roger Stevens was his genius for managing so many different projects simultaneously," Zvonchenko said. "While managing his business, he was producing some of America's finest plays in New York and Washington, introducing them to Europe, bringing London plays here, and supporting theater in other American cities. He was traveling to Washington to take on the National Cultural Center, which was to be a center not only for theater and music but also for education and outreach."
Zvonchenko paused beside a drawing depicting architect Edward Durrell Stone's 1959 conception of a National Cultural Center on the Potomac River. Visiting dignitaries would be brought up the river by motor launch from National Airport to an elegant, domed edifice housing a large theater, opera house, concert hall, and two smaller theaters. Visitors would step onto a broad promenade curving into the river on the west side and depart by way of a long circular drive on the east side. That design never materialized. "Money was always the biggest problem," said Martha Hopkins of the Interpretive Programs Office, who, with Zvonchenko, selected items for exhibition and wrote the item labels.
Exhibition photographs document the Sept. 8, 1971, opening of the Kennedy Center, for which Leonard Bernstein was commissioned to compose "Mass" in memory of the assassinated president. One of the exhibition items is a 1985 birthday toast that Bernstein penned on a sheet of Watergate Hotel stationery: "Thank you, Roger, for all you've done/For all of us—and me, for one;/Like West Side Story, and specially Mass—/I thankfully raise this loving glass."
Zvonchenko and Hopkins initially selected some 400 items from the Library's Roger L. Stevens collection that document Broadway's heyday. "This is a very rich collection," Hopkins said. "We hope it will become more widely known because of this exhibition, and that scholars will come to use it."
Gail Fineberg is the editor of the Library's staff newspaper, The Gazette.