By DONNA URSCHEL
Maybe Roger L. Stevens was listening carefully when John F. Kennedy said "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."
For what Mr. Stevens did for his country, quite simply, is elevate its cultural life.
He built the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and ran it for nearly 20 years. He produced and co-produced more than 200 plays for Broadway, including the illustrious West Side Story, A Man for All Seasons, Bus Stop, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Deathtrap and Mary, Mary.
He served as President Lyndon B. Johnson's special assistant on the arts, shepherding legislation that established the nation's first National Council on the Arts, later the National Endowment for the Arts, which he chaired from 1965 to 1969.
Mr. Stevens, 87, worked with and championed some of the best-known and best-regarded artists of the modern stage -- Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter, T.S. Eliot, Tom Stoppard, Jean Giraudoux, Arthur Kopit and Friedrich Dürrenmatt.
A behind-the-scenes look at Mr. Stevens's long and fascinating career in the arts and politics will soon be possible at the Library. Mr. Stevens donated his personal and business papers, including correspondence, memoranda, board meeting minutes, photographs, playbills and press releases to the Library. Once the papers have been organized, the public will be able to peruse them in the Performing Arts Reading Room in the Library's Madison Building.
Mr. Stevens was 51 years old, already a wealthy real estate entrepreneur and a successful Broadway producer, when President Kennedy called him to Washington in 1961. Kennedy wanted him to establish the National Cultural Center. The idea for the arts center germinated in the Eisenhower years but had failed to grow further. There were too many obstacles, too many conflicting opinions. Where would the center be built? On the Potomac or on the Mall? How much should it cost? A group of separate buildings or all under one roof?
Kennedy appointed Mr. Stevens as chairman and put him in charge of everything, including raising the money. There were no funds allocated at the time. In two years, Mr. Stevens had raised $13.5 million toward construction costs.
Still, it was not easy making the structure a reality.
"I knocked on every door," Mr. Stevens reminisced to The Washington Times in 1988. "John Kennedy tried and tried to get things going, but Congress wouldn't go along. He was going to create the center by decree -- the way that Roosevelt used to do things -- and I understand the papers were on his desk, waiting for his signature, the day he was killed.
"The night after the assassination -- I remember it was a Saturday -- I had dinner with my friend Paul Hoffmann, who told me that there might be an opportunity in this terrible tragedy to push through this idea that Kennedy wanted so much," Mr. Stevens told the Times.
"I always thought that the National Cultural Center was a bad name anyway," Mr. Stevens said. Thus the name was changed to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In 1964 Congress declared it a national memorial to the slain president and appropriated $15.5 million in matching funds. More money was raised. By the end of the year, during the Johnson administration, ground was broken for the Kennedy Center.
"After his assassination, it never occurred to me that we wouldn't finish the building. We just kept pushing along until we got it done. Now I think Kennedy has the best of all the presidential memorials in this city," Mr. Stevens said.
Pushing things along and persevering were traits Mr. Stevens probably acquired during the Depression. Born on March 12, 1910, in Detroit, Mr. Stevens grew up in Ann Arbor. His father, a well-to-do real estate broker, sent his son to a Connecticut boys' school, Choate. But when the Depression hit, Mr. Stevens's plans to attend Harvard were scuttled. He entered the University of Michigan, instead, to save money.
After a year, however, he had to quit Michigan and grab any job he could find: tending a gas station, working on a Ford assembly line. Mr. Stevens's job at Ford was to polish gears by holding them up to whirring metal brushes. During one of the company's notorious speedups, Mr. Stevens's hands were turned into a bloody pulp; he became a lifelong supporter of the working man.
He even worked in a real estate office, earning nothing, learning a lot.
Through it all, Mr. Stevens found solace in books. The public libraries, of course, were free. He read voraciously: Fielding, Shaw, Shakespeare, Proust, Mann, Thomas Wolfe and Pirandello.
The '30s weren't all bleak for Mr. Stevens. He met and married Christine Gesell, a tall and beautiful Ann Arbor undergraduate, whose uncle, Arnold, was the famous child psychologist. They've been married nearly 60 years. Mrs. Stevens is a tireless crusader for animal rights. She is the founder and president of the Animal Welfare Institute.
As the Depression abated, Mr. Stevens returned to real estate in Ann Arbor. He didn't really make it big until after World War II, when he began buying and selling hotels and commercial centers. In 1951 he even starred in his own dramatic endeavor -- though unrelated to Broadway -- when he formed a syndicate to buy the Empire State Building for $51.5 million, the highest price ever paid for one edifice. The syndicate turned it over three years later at a profit of nearly $10 million.
On one of his trips to New York from Ann Arbor, Mr. Stevens met theater producer Alfred deLiagre Jr. and announced that he was ready to buy the old Belasco Theatre. DeLiagre warned that theater-owning was risky; Mr. Stevens wound up putting money into a new deLiagre production, The Madwoman of Chaillot, by Jean Giraudoux, which won the 1949 Drama Critics Award as the year's best play.
Brimming with new enthusiasm for the theater, Mr. Stevens rushed a 1949 production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night from an Ann Arbor festival to Broadway.
"Nobody came to my first show," Mr. Stevens said. "I mean, really, nobody."
Undaunted, willing to push this theater passion along a bit further, Mr. Stevens soon jumped on another chance.
"This fellow had Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff tied up for a production of Peter Pan and he couldn't raise money," he recalled in 1988 to The Washington Times.
"I found out that it would never be easy to raise money for a play, but I agreed to produce this one," Mr. Stevens said.
He also brought in a youth named Leonard Bernstein to write the music for J.M. Barrie's classic play. Peter Pan was one of the biggest hits of 1950 -- and at least two careers took flight.
Mr. Stevens went on to produce many more Broadway plays. He teamed up with Robert Whitehead to start a producing firm. The men, to this day, share an office in Times Square. They often worked independently, but their alliance is responsible for more than 30 Broadway productions, including Bus Stop, A Man for All Seasons and Texas Trilogy.
During the '50s, Mr. Stevens was named to the board of several important theater groups: ANTA (American National Theatre and Academy), the Phoenix Theatre and the Playwrights Producing Company. He worked on 40 shows with the Playwrights.
While his Broadway career was booming, Mr. Stevens joined the Volunteers for Adlai Stevenson. He served as chairman of the Democratic Finance Committee for the 1956 campaign.
"I went into politics out of curiosity," he once told a reporter. "I wanted to see how the inside worked. ... I found out."
A year later, Mr. Stevens produced one of his favorite plays, West Side Story. He was sold on the project from the start, but he, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein did not have an easy time convincing other people.
"Not one single person wanted to put in a dime. Nobody believed in it," he recalled.
But he followed his hunches and pushed the project along. On Sept. 26, 1957, West Side Story opened. It was a huge success.
"There were two things that happened in West Side Story. One was the music, which was new and great. Also, it was the first time that dance was used to advance the story line.
"I believed in it, I loved that musical," Mr. Stevens reminisced. "I still love it."
Mr. Stevens was also ahead of his time in looking toward London's West End for future Broadway hits. He brought in works by Terence Rattigan, Peter Shaffer and Tom Stoppard.
Although he made Mr. Stoppard one of the hottest playwrights in New York, Mr. Stevens passed up what would become the biggest Stoppard hit, The Real Thing.
"Commercially, I missed the boat on that one. But I didn't like it," Mr. Stevens said.
"The theater is always a gamble. I've never made a bad deal in real estate -- well, maybe once, when I trusted an agent who hadn't actually seen the property, but no other time. In theater, you can't always tell. One quarter of the time, I'm right; one quarter, the critics are right; one quarter, they're crazy; one quarter, I am," he explained to The Washington Times in 1988.
One playwright he felt was never right was Neil Simon. His dislike of Simon's work was legendary. Besides commercial appeal, Mr. Stevens was looking for literary appeal in the plays he produced.
"Simon is very successful," Mr. Stevens said, "but frankly, his plays bore me."
He may have chatted with presidents and playwrights, but Mr. Stevens was never known for being talkative or easy to know.
Arthur Cantor, a prominent producer once said, "He's a decent man whose word is his bond. But he's an intensely private person, with a moat around himself. Not the kind of man you would expect to hug you, but he's hugged the theater all his life. His enthusiasm is his strongest asset."
Mr. Stevens succinctly explained his personality to David Richards of The Washington Post in 1988: "From time to time, I've been perceived as a cold fish. The truth is the reason I appear aloof is I'm shy. I inherited it along with a lot of other qualities I have. Shyness is a stinking trait, I can tell you. But I just don't like to push in anywhere. I've never done anything I wasn't asked to do. I've been invited to join every club I belong to.
"A lot of people see me out walking and I guess I have a bad reputation for ignoring them. Even back in the Ann Arbor days, when I was going to the university, they used to jump on me for walking by a good-looking girl without paying attention. I don't do it on purpose. I'm just thinking. I'm like a rat in a maze. I do a lot of my problem-solving during my walks in the morning."
When Mr. Stevens served as chairman of the Kennedy Center's board of trustees from 1961 to 1988, he not only orchestrated fund-raising efforts but also guided its programming, which included the commissioning of many new works, among them Leonard Bernstein's Mass for the center's opening in 1971.
Through Kennedy Center Productions Inc., the center's nonprofit investing arm, he could provide financial help to pre-Broadway shows that ran into trouble here. The nonprofit subsidiary, for instance, sank money into Pippin and Annie. The center accrued profits from these investments, many of which were plowed into the center's free educational programs. Mr. Stevens made no money personally on any of these center operations.
Before there was a Kennedy Center with Roger L. Stevens at the helm, Washington was always a decent two-week stand, observed Philip Langner in 1979, then president of the Theater Guild. "Roger and the Kennedy Center have turned it into the most desirable tryout city in the country. It's electric and alive. Every producer I know wants to start his play there."
In 1988, the year he retired as chairman of the board, he received the Kennedy Center Honors, along with Alvin Ailey, George Burns, Myrna Loy and Alexander Schneider.
"I was quite surprised," said Mr. Stevens at the time, "and quite moved. I got the call, and I first was told the other four names. When my own came up, I couldn't believe it. I thought they only chose the stars, you know. But then, I guess a producer, too, has something to contribute to the arts."
His other honors in the United States include: the National Artist Medal, the highest award of the American National Theatre Association (1983); the award for Distinguished Service to the Arts from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1984); the National Medal of Arts (1988) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1988).
Mr. Stevens served on numerous boards: Metropolitan Opera Association, Peabody Conservatory, Folger Library, Circle in the Square Theatre, American Film Institute, American National Theatre Association, National Symphony Orchestra Association and the Ballet Theatre Foundation. He was co-founder of the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre and Academy and founder of the National Institute of Music Theatre. He was a member of President Reagan's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, and he was chairman of the National Book Awards.
"I don't think I'm particularly smart," he told The Washington Post in 1988. "I'm outsmarted all the time. But then I never thought being smart was a matter of sitting people down and talking them into a deal. I just never looked at it that way.
"What I do best is solve problems and come up with new ideas. I've inherited that ability and if I say so myself, I'm terribly good at it. But that has nothing to do with being smart. It's a kind of intuition I was blessed with."
Donna Urschel is a Washington freelance writer.