THE KENNEDY CENTER has had a more vivid and action-packed life than most 10-year-olds. And with any luck, its life expectancy will be longer than that of anyone else celebrating a 10th birthday this week -- though sometimes the inhabitants of the big, white building on the Potomac may wonder about that.

A few blocks away from the monuments to Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson -- which have been until recently the best-known in the nation's capital -- it is reportedly the busiest national monument in the city and the third-busiest building. Some 1.5 million tickets are sold per year and an estimated 4 million to 5 million nonpaying tourists wander through to look at the flags, the white marble and the massive, craggy, bronze bust of the president who got the project rolling in high gear during his administration and gave it a focus and an impetus by his death.

Only the Air and Space Museum (the world's busiest) and the White House feel the tread of more tourist feet each year. Carpets are chosen for toughness (as well as a distinctive shade of red) in the Kennedy Center, but they have to be replaced approximately every three years. This is one of the hidden expenses that make the Kennedy Center perhaps the most debt-ridden 10-year-old in the world.

During its first 10 years, the Kennedy Center has seen moments of breathtaking artistic glory -- for example, performances of the opera companies from such cities as Vienna, Berlin, Milan, Paris and Moscow. It also has plunged into depths of bathos -- most recently in a production of "A Partridge in a Pear Tree" that chairman Roger L. Stevens calls "in my opinion the worst production that we put on in the 10 years we've been here." One of its tackiest moments came during the last inaugural week, when prominent Republicans from middle America were herded through the center like cattle and given cheap champagne in tiny plastic glasses. In 1978 the center experienced two successive strikes -- first by the Instant-Charge employes, whose picket line was honored by other union members, and then by the National Symphony, which had conductor Mstislav Rostropovich marching in its picket line. The center's most prolonged agony was undoubtedly the leaky roof era, a long period beginning in 1977 when the Grand Foyer was buttressed with wood scaffolding to protect the heads of patrons from falling fragments of ceiling.

"We have made mistakes," admits a staff member, but what remain in the mind are the moments of glory: the Vienna State Opera's "Marriage of Figaro," Peter Brook's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the Bolshoi's "Boris Godunov," Rostropovich conducting Britten's "War Requiem," the Berlin Opera's "Cosi" and La Scala's "Bohe me," Baryshnikov introducing his "Don Quixote" and his revised "Swan Lake" to the world, Lois Nettelton in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Leonard Bernstein's "Mass," which was written for the Kennedy Center's opening and has come back for its birthday.

Like "Mass," some theatrical pieces have become specially identified with the Kennedy Center -- "Annie," for example, which started there and has played there repeatedly. Besides ticket sales, the center owns a share of the show, which is now reportedly grossing $1 million a week in five productions around the world. "Annie" royalties have contributed some $1.5 million to the Kennedy Center's coffers. The center has become a sort of home away from home for British playwright Tom Stoppard, whose plays usually make their American debuts there and whose curious blend of music and theater, "Every Good Boy Deserves Favor," has had two runs -- not in the Eisenhower Theater or the Opera House but in the Concert Hall. Preston Jones' "A Texas Trilogy," emerging from its native state, first encountered the larger world in the Eisenhower Theater, and if the world (read New York) has failed to see its merits, there are many in Washington who remember the plays fondly.

Before it was born, the Kennedy Center was an object of fear and loathing to many in Washington. "I never expected to see so many people who would not want it to happen. People were always telling me how it was going to be a white elephant," says Roger Stevens, who has been associated with the 10-year-old for 20 years -- since it was an impossible dream; long before anyone imagined that John F. Kennedy would die young and this building would bear his name. In Congress, until it became a memorial for a hero shot down, the project encountered a resistance to "culture" compounded by reluctance to spend money outside of one's home district. In the Washington cultural community, there was a fear that this newcreature, by its sheer weight, would crush all cultural activity outside its walls.

The Mushroom Effect

The opposite has happened; in the shadow of the Kennedy Center, small, local performing arts have sprung up like mushrooms after a spring rain. Local groups are performing in churches, cellars, converted warehouses and other unlikely spots as never before in the city's history. Their partisans may refer to the Kennedy Center with elitist or avant-garde scorn, but many of them secretly aspire to play there. Some do. The Theater Chamber Players, who began on Monday nights in the West End Theater when nothing else was happening, are now in residence at the Terrace, the newest and smallest of the Kennedy Center's four halls, which has radically enlarged the possibilities of what can happen in that building. "We can use it to do something that's a little different," says Stevens, "without losing anywhere near the kind of money that you can in the other theaters. We call it our avant-garde place."

The National Symphony Orchestra, liberated from Constitution Hall and finally able to hear itself play, has experienced a new growth in the 10 years of the Kennedy Center and has attracted a conductor of the highest international celebrity, Mstislav Rostropovich, who might never have accepted the assignment if it had not included access to the superb Concert Hall. The Washington Opera, whose achievements were mixed during most of its quarter-century, has been given one of the world's finest opera houses and is growing at an amazing pace, in its artistic standards, the adventurousness of its programming and the length of its season. With the Terrace, it is now able to offer both grand opera and chamber opera, and is using that option with considerable skill.

The strongest impact of the Kennedy Center has been in the field of dance. There have been regular seasons by American Ballet Theatre, and normally the New York City Ballet is an annual visitor. The new "Dance America" series highlights smaller groups from around the country. And there have been extended visits by virtually every major international company. The appetite of audiences for dance and more dance seems inexhaustible. "I thought we were going to take a bath with the Royal Ballet this spring," Stevens recalls, "and instead it nearly sold out for the whole run." Martin Feinstein, the center's former executive director who now runs the Washington Opera, believes that "in the dance, Washington is second only to New York." He says that he set this as one of his goals when he came to the center and considers it one of his proudest achievements, along with his booking of prestigious foreign companies and the thematic festivals he developed.

Only in dance have the dire prophecies that the Kennedy Center might kill local activities proven true, with the death of the National Ballet. But in live theater (perhaps because the offerings at the Kennedy Center have been rather uneven) there has been a renaissance. Store-front "off-broadway" types of theaters are flourishing, the Arena Stage (the greatest Cassandra of them all) has enormously expanded its activity, the Folger has broadened the scope of its productions, and two major houses, the Warner and the National, are offering busy seasons of live theater. The Warner has been adapted from its former incarnation as a movie house. The National has been renovated and (after a brief period as a satellite of the Kennedy Center) is thriving on its own. Last season, it presented the most notable theatrical event of the year in Washington, Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus." Meanwhile, the Kennedy Center was offering Elizabeth Taylor's stage debut in an excellent production of "The Little Foxes," by Lillian Hellman, which sold out almost immediately.

Besides live performing arts, the Kennedy Center has become the home of the American Film Institute, with a lively program of film classics, occasional special festivals and an occasional world premiere.

A continuing problem for which the Kennedy Center has not yet found a solution is that of attracting black audiences in a predominantly black city. "This is a problem faced by every performing arts center across the country," says Roger Stevens.

Bicentennial Bonanza

No small blessing to the Kennedy Center in its first 10 years was the occurrence of the American bicentennial in 1976. This was the occasion for visits by many notable performing arts organizations of Europe, and it has given the Kennedy Center a hard act to follow in its second decade. Now, the Kennedy Center marches resolutely toward its teen years in a period of budget-cutting, not only in America but around the world. There will be visits by foreign companies in the future, the Munich Opera, for example, tentatively scheduled for 1983. But there is not likely to be another barrage such as Stevens and Feinstein engineered in the '70s. When Feinstein resigned two years ago, he had skimmed the cream of spectacular imports. Only a season of the Royal Martian Ballet could have topped what had actually happened. The closest that could be managed was a visit by the Peking Opera.

Inevitably, the early '80s seem slightly anticlimactic, and observers are asking themselves whether the Kennedy Center is on a downswing or whether it's settling into a realistic pace for the long haul. In the past two years, there has been a shift of emphasis; the Kennedy Center has become a showcase more for American than for international performers. Some staffers maintain that this is as it should be; in any case, it harmonizes with current economic conditions. There is also talk of giving local performers more access to the Kennedy Center, particularly the Terrace, where one group is already permanently in residence. But this talk, like discussions of a repertory company at the Eisenhower, is largely in the future tense. One little-publicized aspect of the Kennedy Center is its extensive public service activity, particularly special programs for children, reduced-price tickets for the aged and other groups, and such events as the American College Theater Festival.

The Labor Logjam

In addition to anniversary events, the Kennedy Center is currently facing a round of labor negotiations (chiefly with stagehands and members of its resident orchestra) that are expected to be confrontational. "We've lost productions here because of our high labor costs," Stevens says. "Three years ago, we did a study of salaries and found out that Feinstein and Thomas R. Kendrick director of operations were the only ones of the highest paid 15 who were not members of the union." Stevens himself is unsalaried; he can afford it, being a multimillionaire, and he has bailed out the center several times with substantial emergency contributions. "I have run numerous businesses, and have never had a strike, except at the Kennedy Center," he says, and his voice becomes especially firm when he adds, "I will not raise money to pay people for not working."

The Kennedy Center is also about to announce details of several major projects, including the acting company meant to give six plays in a 36-week season in the Eisenhower. Sooner or later (and it may be years, but not many) Roger Stevens expects to announce a major new project: the construction of a conservatory for music and theater arts (a "center for advanced studies"), which will include badly needed extra parking and perhaps dormitory facilities for visiting companies. According to current plans, the conservatory would be built on a vacant lot adjoining the center. Stevens says that "a substantial amount" of the necessary money is pledged already, and he expects to open it within four years, but other staff members think it may take longer.

Accommodations for artists visiting the Kennedy Center are a major industry for hotels in the neighborhood, but Stevens wants to cut down the bonanza. "One reason ABT isn't coming in the spring," he says, "is that it costs them $50,000 more for hotels during cherry blossom time than it does during the Christmas season, when hotels are glad to see them."

Perhaps the most pressing problem facing the Kennedy Center is the shortage of parking facilities. "We badly need parking for another 500 cars," says Stevens. "I think the Symphony suffers greatly from this problem because their programs normally begin last in an evening, at 8:30 . But now they're doing some 7 o'clock programs, the rats. In the first place, we were supposed to have room for 1,650 cars in this garage and 250 spaces sort of melted in the midday sun . . . There's a lot of steel beams down there that took away the space, and adding a fourth theater didn't help."

The parking lot accounts for a substantial part of the construction debt of about $20.4 million owed by the center to the federal government. Interest started accruing in 1979 at about $2 million a year but has not been paid. A bill to forgive this interest debt has been before the last four Congresses but each time has run into snags. "Last year," Stevens recalls, "we only missed it by one vote, and I think they could have maneuvered around that but they didn't."

One partial solution to financial problems, says artistic director Marta Istomin, is a long-range plan for endowments to subsidize special programs such as a chamber music series in the Terrace Theater. Endowed series are an old Washington tradition at such places as the Library of Congress, the Phillips Collection and Dumbarton Oaks, and a similar arrangement probably offers the only prospect of keeping the 500-seat hall running without losing substantial amounts. Other long-range plans include the construction of a shop to make scenery for Kennedy Center productions (and perhaps others), a drive for national membership in the Friends of the Kennedy Center, and possibly the evolution of its newsletter into a performing arts magazine.

A number of events are becoming annual fixtures at the Kennedy Center, including its Honors program, telecast nationally, which gives recognition to Americans who have had distinguished careers in the performing arts. This program ends with a gala dinner in the Grand Foyer, which is also the scene of an annual dance, given after the New Year's Eve "Night in Vienna" concert by Alexander Schneider and associates. The latter is, on the whole, perhaps the more enjoyable of the two, and admission is free for the dancing. The Grand Foyer is the only performance area in the center where the acoustics are less than superb, not that it matters.

At the beginning -- and still, to some extent -- the direction of the Kennedy Center often seemed like a one-man operation by Roger Stevens. The style has turned more toward teamwork in the past few years. Except in theatrical productions, where he has built a towering reputation in past decades, Stevens seems to be delegating many of the basic decisions to staff members.

This administrative support echelon is designed to keep the daily operations of the center functioning when Stevens is absent. It also may supply at least part of the answer to a question that must be hounding everyone who works in or cares for the Kennedy Center: Is there life after Roger Stevens? "My God, I don't even want to think about it!" said Marta Istomin when the question was put to her. This response is typical.

Stevens, who is 71 and has just returned to duty from a heart-bypass operation, answers the question with typical directness: "I think anyone can be replaced. Sometimes, it would be good to have a different look at things. I really want to see how I bounce back from this operation I had. You're supposed to be better than new, so the doctors say. And if that's the case, I might be able to struggle along for a while."

Asked what kind of person he would like to see chosen as his successor, Stevens replies without hesitation: "Well, it depends on which way the board wants to go, especially if we're able to get this conservatory going. I don't think of anybody right offhand. I would imagine they would go in the direction of a university president, whose chief function in the world right now is raising money."