Pat Boone led some of Washington's best-known politicians and socialites in gospel songs at the Kennedy Center last night, songs that gave the Concert Hall, at least temporarily, the air of a Christian revival.
Boone, who opened his act in a satiny green jacket with "Heaven" written across the back, sang to the crowd:
"He's got a little bitty baby in his hand.
"He's got the president of the United States in his hand.
"He's got the whole country in his hand."
A good portion of the audience sang along, but a number seemed quite startled by the events on stage. Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) talked to his date most of the way through. Former CIA director Richard Helms sat stiff-lipped.
"I've never been to a show like this before," Helms said at intermission. "It's rather hard to describe."
Boone was the warm-up act for the evening's main offering, a one-woman musical about the mother of Christ. It starred Carol Lawrence, the first Maria in "West Side Story" on Broadway. All week long those invited had wondered whether it was to be a religious, social or political event. In a town where parties are neatly pigeonholed by underlying purpose, here was one that left Washington baffled.
More than 4,000 invitations were mailed out a month ago, naming "Mrs. Ronald Wilson Reagan" as honorary chairman (although she didn't attend). There were 72 other hosts listed in elegant script, most of them politicians and socialites from Washington and Texas.
The performance was called "Someone Special." Lawrence appeared first as a 13-year-old Mary of Nazareth, singing that "miracles happen" and dancing down one aisle when told she was to give birth to Christ. Later she pulled part of her robe up over her head as a cloak, turning into an old Mary who prepared a Passover Seder. "Praise God," she sang, "for the onions and the matzoh . . . and the chickens in the pot . . ." The evening, which for some came with a dessert reception in the Atrium afterward, was free, paid for by the more-monied members of the host committee. It was not a fund-raiser, premiere or apparent promotion. For anyone.
Unless you count Jesus Christ.
"It does, I'm sure, raise some suspicions," host committee member Dee Jepsen, the wife of Sen. Roger Jepsen (R-Iowa) and a self-described born-again Christian, said earlier. "But no one has any hidden agenda. None. There isn't anyone who is going to make a penny. When you believe in the lordship of Jesus Christ, and when people in this day are reaching out for something solid--and certainly people in Washington are--it's an ideal time to present them a very positive, helpful message."
Perhaps 2,500 heard that message in the Concert Hall last night, although there was a steady trickle out the doors as the performance progressed. Many listed as hosts on the invitation--including the White House "Big Three" advisers--Edwin Meese, James Baker (who both attended) and Michael Deaver (who did not)--are not born-again Christians. But so many had accepted the invitation (good for two seats each) that 1,000 "apologies" were sent out, disinviting the invited because the Concert Hall holds only 2,800--although last night it looked like not everyone had shown up. The hosts say they hadn't expected the initial response. "The people who are coming," said one, "just amazed us."
"I must have gotten 20 or 30 calls," said a Washington public relations consultant. "First they asked if I were doing the event, and I said no. Then they hooted. Half of them said they wouldn't go near it with a 10-foot pole and the other half said they couldn't stay away because they were so curious. Then I saw the invitation. Whoever's doing it has a fabulous list, a real, good, solid list. They've done their homework."
How this event actually occurred may be more of a story than the event itself--although it is something of an event when Eunice Kennedy Shriver and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, attend the same social affair. "I don't know quite what to say," Shriver said of the performance. "Fantastic," was Falwell's review.
The evening was an example of what can happen when three powerful elements--politics, organized religion and establishment society--come together. Carol Lawrence gave her time (and a $2,250 loan to retain the Concert Hall). Wealthy, evangelical socialites on the host committee gave their money, among them Holly Coors, wife of Joseph, the beer company president, and Joanne Herring, wife of Robert, the late Texas oilman.
Neither would say how much. "Sweetie, don't ask me those questions," said Herring. "There's no price tag with God."
Robert Pittenger is the brainstormer and organizer of "Someone Special." He's a 33-year-old former real estate broker from Dallas who has lived in Washington a year and a half. He grew up in Texas, the son of an attorney, and says he was an agnostic when he went to the University of Texas at Austin. In his senior year, a Kappa Alpha fraternity brother introduced him to Jesus.
"I came from a background where power and wealth were measured as the only success in a person's life," he said. "There had to be more to life than the status quo of living for materialism."
He joined Campus Crusade for Christ, the international multimillion-dollar evangelical movement, eventually working as special assistant to its president, Bill Bright. In 1980, he began the work that brought him to Washington.
That was STEP (Strategies to Elevate People), an 18-month-old nonprofit organization that says it's trying to get the business and religious communities together to help the inner-city poor. Pittenger and the Rev. E.V. Hill from Los Angeles are among its founders. Pittenger is executive director, operating from a basement in a renovated town house on E Street NE. Last year, he and Hill were among members of the evangelical community who lobbied the administration for a religious task force to help the poor. The result, after unrelated lobbying from the corporate community, was the president's task force on private sector initiatives. E.V. Hill and Dee Jepsen are among its 44 members.
Pittenger says neither STEP nor the president's task force had anything to do with "Someone Special."
But both STEP and the performance seem to have found a bit of fertile ground in Washington. "I'd been told," Boone said in the Atrium after the show, "that a lot of the audience would be folks who weren't necessarily churchgoing people. But I was just elated at the reception. Washington influences the world. So it would be nice to have a strong Christian influence emanating from here."
Pittenger got the idea for "Someone Special" at the end of last summer, when Lawrence, who is active in the Christian movement, performed for Washington political wives at an evangelical luncheon. Pittenger asked Lawrence if she'd like to do the Kennedy Center show. Then he helped set up a December pre-performance at the home of Sen. William Armstrong (R-Colo.), who has said he "accepted Christ as my savior in a dining room" six years ago. At least 20 congressional families were present, and in the words of Nancy Thurmond, wife of Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), it was "just wonderful."
"Someone Special" was written for Lawrence in 1976 by Marilee Zdenek, a West Coast author of several religious books. Ron Harris, Lawrence's conductor, put it to music. Lawrence has been performing it at religious gatherings ever since. For last night's performance, Boone was added as master of ceremonies.
Key supporters of "Someone Special" were active Christians who also have important political and social ties: Claire Schweiker, wife of Richard Schweiker, the Health and Human Services secretary; Alta Leath, wife of Rep. Marvin Leath (D-Tex.); Armstrong's wife, Ellen; and Dee Jepsen.
The phone calls began. Schweiker got Nancy Reagan to lend her name as honorary chairman. "She said it was something she'd really like to do," Schweiker explained. "And of course, Pat Boone and Carol Lawrence had both worked for the campaign."
Schweiker also got Carolyn Deaver, wife of the White House deputy chief of staff. "Claire told me it was a musical based on the life of Mary and that it had broad appeal and that she would like our support," said Carolyn Deaver earlier yesterday. "I know no more than that about it." Both she and her husband are Episcopalians. Neither went last night.
Holly Coors, who is a board member of STEP, got on the committee through Pittenger. Joanne Herring, who couldn't attend because she was in a Houston hospital recovering from a broken leg, was asked to participate by H. Robinson Gowdey, whom she said was the special assistant to Bill Bright, of the Campus Crusade.
Pittenger now says he's more than a little surprised by an event that took on a life of its own. He said he has no social aspirations in Washington, and for this reason, wouldn't allow his picture to be taken in his office.
"I have no desires for anything," he added. "But for the joy of providing an opportunity for other people to experience and know God's love."
Or, as Carol Lawrence sang to the crowd in her peach sequined gown before appearing in "Someone Special," "there's quite enough hope and quite enough power to chase away any gloom, for Jesus, Lord Jesus, is in this very room."
After intermission she was back as Mary, dressed in a flowing blue gown. "Will I ever stop wanting to touch you?" she sang to Christ.
A huge yellow light beamed on the stage. A cross.