LOTS OF PEOPLE have stories about the ways in which Roger Stevens, for 25 years the guiding force of the Kennedy Center, got money from stones, played the wheeler-dealer and brought in terrific shows. He applied in Washington the skills he had honed as a big real estate operator in New York and as a Broadway producer. This daring, talented, laconic and self-effacing entrepreneur was exactly the right person for President Kennedy to tap to take over the then-languishing Eisenhower-era idea of a national cultural center. Mr. Stevens brought the idea to reality in the form of a memorial to John Kennedy after the president died. Having been instrumental in building and financing the Kennedy Center, he filled its stages with productions and its seats with spectators. Mr. Stevens, who is 77, deserves rich tribute as he steps down now as chairman. His replacement is Ralph Davidson, formerly a Time Inc. executive.
Roger Stevens's contributions were innumerable. He guided a premier national institution into being and ran it for a long time at a high level. He turned Washington into a first-class center for the performing arts (its museums assured that it was already becoming a first-class center for the visual arts). He brought this city firmly into the international circuit of serious music, dance and theater. And he helped to provide immeasurable pleasure to the millions of people who have sought entertainment and uplift at the center since it opened in 1971.
His special contribution was to defy what has been an article of faith for any number of patronizing observers of the American scene for a couple of centuries. They have sustained the nonsense that Washington is fit only as a sanctuary for the functionaries of government. It is a cliche' that Washington could not ''support'' serious cultural fare and one with an undeniable tenacity.
Mr. Stevens fell short of his hope to establish the Kennedy Center-based theater company and conservatory that would have added the dimension of creativity to the capital's role as an enlightened audience. Nonetheless, by demonstrating that the city of government could indeed appreciate the offerings of popular world culture on a broad scale, he riddled an old libel -- and gave us all evening after evening of delight.