Burl Icles Ivanhoe Ives is toying with the chorus of a cowboy's lament. His voice warms the cool beige reaches of his Washington hotel room. Reedy, supple, faintly scratchy, it is a sound that seems made for a box radio or an old phonograph. A monaural voice that pleases its master.
"By golly, I like that," says Ives. "Di di diddley dee, diddley di-oh."
At 75, he has distilled to the essence of himself. There is the white goatee on the ample chin, just like Big Daddy wore it in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," but it seems fuller and snowier now. Placid blue eyes, the same twinkling countenance that beams from the backs of dozens of folk-song and children's albums. Six feet tall, well over 200 pounds, and he sits like an emperor on an upholstered chair.
Sartorial paradoxes. His collar is cinched with a black silk ribbon tied in a loopy bow, a bohemian touch. But the meaty fingers glint with diamond jewelry and a large Masonic ring. "Master Mason, California, Scottish rite," Ives explains. "I'm also a Knight Templar."
It is hard to imagine him bellowing "Mennnndacity!" or "Bull!" or "Ida, stop that yammering!" as he did when he played Tennessee Williams' dyspeptic Big Daddy on Broadway and in the film. "It's hard to reconcile the two," he says. "See, I was known as a singer of sweet ballads -- 'I Gave My Love a Cherry,' that kind of song -- so when I got this role, the playwrights all fainted."
Ives interrupts himself to shoot an annoyed glance at his wife of 19 years, who has been gesticulating from the sofa on the opposite side of the room.
"Dorothy, what are you doing?" he snaps.
"I want you to talk about our job! Work!" she says.
"Education!" prompts a Kennedy Center public relations person.
Ives blinks. Duty! He is the new spokesman for the Kennedy Center's programs for children, which include the Imagination Celebration, a national children's arts festival under way here and in 11 other cities this spring.
Tomorrow Ives will receive the Kennedy Center Award for Excellence for what a Kennedy Center press release calls his "contributions to the field of programming for young people." He also will sing for 30 minutes after each performance of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit." That done, he says, he and his wife will crisscross the country making commercials and doing anything else that will promote the idea of using art to educate and inspire young children.
But on this recent afternoon, he seemed more interested in folk singing. "Let's have a little fun!" he says. "I know this much better than I know the other, because I'm sure of this. Where was I?"
"I just want to break in," the same Kennedy Center person says moments later. "What is it about education that should be changed to encourage creative personalities, create a young Burl Ives?"
He thinks about this. "Freedom and love," he says finally.
Later, he expands, saying that he hopes to include teachers, as well as children, in the Kennedy Center's plans. "That idea appeals to me very much. The teacher is right up there next to Mama, you know, for a child. I can look back at my teachers and, by golly, they were important! The teacher has to be elevated in this country."
Ives did as much acting as he did singing in later years, but it was his voice that got him out of Jasper County, Ill. "I'm really not a tenor. I'm really not a baritone, and I'm not a whiskey baritone because I don't drink. Contra tenor? Steel tenor? People ask me all the time and I don't know. My voice is -- it's sort of like no other one, I guess."
Ives lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., now, sings scales and other vocal exercises two hours every day. He performs about 40 concerts a year. Hundreds of folk songs, church hymns, ballads, including "The Blue Tail Fly" ("Jimmy Crack'd Corn, and I Don't Care" to the cognoscenti).
"Nearly every one's a picture to me," he says. Every time he sings "Mr. Froggy Went a-Courtin' " he sees the small lily pond at the southwest corner of his parents' old farm. " 'Barbara Allen' is a drama that's the same every time I sing it. The same girl, the same man dies, she goes out into the same field and brings the coffin in."
He says he hardly ever uncorks Big Daddy anymore. "I only use him at home, when I want something done. Then I'll raise my voice and holler." CAPTION: Picture 1, Burl Ives: "My voice is-it's sort of like no other one, I guess." Picture 2, Burl Ives: "I was known as a singer of sweet ballads . . . when I got this role [Big Daddy], the playwrights all fainted. Photos by Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post