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April 9, 2002
Library of Congress Pays Tribute to Roger L. Stevens in New Exhibition Opening May 16
Roger Lacey Stevens (1910-1998), hard-headed real estate broker, eternal optimist, Broadway producer, moving spirit behind the creation of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and first chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is the focus of an exhibition, "Roger Stevens Presents: Stage for a Nation," that opens in the Great Hall of the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building on May 16. It will remain on view through Sept. 7.
Drawing from the Roger L. Stevens Collection in the Library and the archives of the Kennedy Center, the exhibition documents Stevens' contributions to American cultural history through his untiring efforts to promote the performing arts over a career spanning more than 40 years. The exhibition and the accompanying volume by the same name were made possible through the generosity of Mrs. Roger L. Stevens and Mrs. Hugh Gough, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Stevens.
"Roger Stevens not only built a world-class performance center in the nation's capital, he inspired us all with his unquenchable enthusiasm for, and support of, the arts," says James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress, in his introduction to the book Roger L. Stevens Presents.
A highly successful real estate magnate who once bought the Empire State Building, Roger Stevens backed his first Broadway show, a production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," in 1949. Stevens quickly established himself as a major power in the theater, both in the United States and in Britain. During the 1950s and 1960s, he became one of this country's greatest theatrical producers, 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."
Aside from his Broadway productions, Stevens also played a role in the development of other theater organizations, including New York's Phoenix Theatre and the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn.
He came to Washington in 1961 at the request of President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy asked him to help establish the "National Cultural Center," which later would be named in honor of the slain president as "The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts." As chairman of the Kennedy Center's Board of Trustees from 1961-1988, Stevens led the center's fund-raising efforts and guided its programming during its first two and a half decades.
After the assassination of President Kennedy, Stevens became President Lyndon B. Johnson's special assistant for the arts and played a pivotal role in persuading Congress to create the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which represented the government's first attempt to become a national arts patron. Roger Stevens served as the first head of the NEA, from 1965 to 1969.
A modest and self-effacing man, Roger Stevens was honored in 1998 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Kennedy Center Honors. He continued to serve as an inspiration to all those associated with the performing arts in America until his death on February 2, 1998.
In the Library's exhibition, Stevens's career is examined largely through his involvement with American and European theater. The emphasis is on the more than 250 stage productions which were presented by, or fostered indirectly through, his efforts, for example, with the NEA.
Items on display in "Roger L. Stevens Presents" are drawn from the Stevens papers in the Music Division of the Library of Congress, which were donated by Mrs. Stevens and the Stevenses' daughter, Mrs. Hugh Gough. Items from the Kennedy Center Archives are also featured. The approximately 100 items in the exhibition include letters, plays, newspapers, production photographs, prints and drawings, set designs, theatrical posters, manuscripts, and sheet music.
Exhibition highlights include playbills, performance photographs, and colorful posters representing many of Stevens' most notable productions, such as "Annie"; music manuscripts from "West Side Story" and "Mass" in composer Leonard Bernstein's own hand; a color rendering of the set of Gian Carlo Menotti's opera Goya with an inscription from Menotti to Stevens; the Sept. 2, 1961, document signed by President Kennedy designating Roger Stevens as chairman of the board of the national cultural center; two original watercolors painted by Jacqueline Kennedy in the 1960s that were used as designs for Christmas cards sold to benefit the Kennedy Center; a letter from British director Sir Peter Hall to Stevens concerning their 1958 production of Freidrich Duerrenmatt's "The Visit" with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne; and a letter from playwright Harold Pinter thanking Stevens for helping launch his highly successful career. These materials tell the story of Roger Stevens' constant pursuit of excellence in the theater as well as the breadth and depth of his interests and achievements in New York, Washington, and abroad.
The exhibition is accompanied by a highly illustrated 134-page softcover volume Roger L. Stevens Presents, which includes an introduction by James H. Billington and five essays about different facets of Stevens's career by author and longtime staff writer for the New Yorker E. J. Kahn Jr., who died in 1994; Walter Zvonchenko, theater historian in the Library's Music Division; Ruth Mayleas, first director of the NEA's Theatre Program; Tom Prideaux, playwright, author, and Life magazine entertainment editor; and David Richards, theater critic for the Washington Star, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. The essayists cover Roger Stevens's career as real estate mogul, theatrical producer, and performing arts promoter through his work at the Kennedy Center and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Roger Stevens was a unique character, as David Richards notes in his "Appreciation": "But until he died ... at the age of eighty-seven, he remained for me The Boy Wonder. The bland ties and the wrinkled suits were a disguise. He looked old, but he thought young. He laughed a lot, even if it was mostly on the inside. As for success, he savored it as much as the next man. Unlike the next man, though, he savored it quietly. And while I'd like to imagine him jumping up and down with delight, when no one was looking, I'm sure he never did. He just got a twinkle in those blue eyes."
The book concludes with an overview of the Roger L. Stevens collection in the Library of Congress and a listing of his theater productions from 1949 to 1987. It is available in the Library's Sales Shop in the Thomas Jefferson Building. It can be ordered by calling the Sales Shop at (202) 707-3895, (202) 707-5190; credit card orders can be made by calling the toll-free number at (888) 682-3557.
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