'Tis the season for giving, and the National Endowment for the Arts is doing so in a big way. NEA chairman John Frohnmayer has announced 37 recipients of 1991 Challenge III grants, totaling $15.6 million. The grants support a wide variety of projects and programs, ranging from an $850,000 award to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for an earthquake preparedness and renovation program to a $90,000 grant to Philadelphia's Painted Bride/American Festival Project to support an annual cultural exchange celebration. Closer to home, the Baltimore Museum of Art will receive $400,000 to support an arts education program that involves the Baltimore City Public Schools.

Recipients of the 1991 Challenge III grants are required to match each grant dollar with a minimum of $3 in new or increased non-federal contributions. There were 87 applicants for the grants.

"One of the things that you will see in these grants is a specific emphasis on the multicultural richness of the American people," said Frohnmayer. "We have in our citizenry representatives of all cultures of the world and our real challenge is to work together to build communities on this culture and to benefit from the diversity and richness that each of them brings."

Shalom, 'Shear Madness'

Like the Energizer bunny, "Shear Madness" keeps going and going and going. This Thursday the comic-mystery play begins an open-ended run in Tel Aviv, Israel, under the title "Rosh Meshuge" (Crazy Head). This is the 13th production of "Madness" since its debut as a summer show in Lake George, N.Y., in 1978. Besides the current show at the Kennedy Center (where it is now in its fourth year), "Shear Madness" productions are running in Boston (11th year) and Chicago (ninth year). A version is also currently touring Spain.

The play's longevity -- the Boston show is the longest-running non-musical in theater history -- and its ability to translate into many languages no longer surprises its creators. "Frankly, at first, we thought we were going to run for eight weeks in Boston and make all our money back," said Marilyn Abrams, who co-wrote "Madness" with Bruce Jordan. "But now we don't have any reason to believe that it won't be running somewhere indefinitely."

Abrams, who lives in Albany, N.Y., said the play has "a universal appeal because it's a whodunnit, and people are very drawn to that. People love to solve a crime ... people all over the world do respond to that."

"Shear Madness" invites the audience to solve the murder of a concert pianist. It is set in whatever city it appears in and uses references to local people and events. The newest version will be performed by members of the Cameri Theatre, the resident company of the Municipal Theatre of Tel Aviv. "It doesn't surprise me that a serious company like the Cameri is going to do it, because they also do comedies," said Abrams. "And because of the changing references to events, they'll have to improvise. And that's a great challenge for any actor."

A Magnificent Melting Pot The D.C. Community Humanities Council has announced a major project for the spring that will celebrate the experiences of Washington's migrant and immigrant populations, the varied ethnic communities in the city and the major figures who helped shape the city's past. Titled "Urban Odyssey," the project coincides with the city's Bicentennial and officially starts Feb. 25 with a television series dramatizing the lives of migrants and immigrant populations in Washington. It will air on WHMM-TV, Channel 32, through March 3.

Other events planned: a conference in May at the Sumner School Museum and Archives that will bring together scholars and community leaders to discuss major issues of migration and immigration to the city; a theatrical presentation touring schools and community centers that will portray people who became leaders in their ethnic communities; and a volume of essays addressing the experiences of migrants and immigrants, to be published in 1992 by the Smithsonian Institution Press.