Roger L. Stevens, 87, the founding chairman of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts who orchestrated its transformation from dream to reality, died Monday night at Georgetown University Hospital of complications related to pneumonia. He had suffered two partially paralyzing strokes in 1993.
Stevens served 27 years as chairman of the Kennedy Center's board of trustees and in that capacity is said to have raised $150 million from a reluctant and skeptical Congress, corporate benefactors and individual donors for its construction, operation and endowment.
He was appointed in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy as board chairman of what was then the National Cultural Center. At the time, a national facility for the performing arts in Washington was no more than a vision in the mind's eye of the artistic community. For the next 10 years, Stevens guided and coaxed the project along a slippery and tortuous path to fruition. In 1971, the Kennedy Center, named for the slain president at Stevens's suggestion, opened with its first performance, the world premiere of composer Leonard Bernstein's "Mass."
Since then, thousands of the world's leading musicians, actors and dancers and its finest artistic ensembles have performed on the Kennedy Center stages, bringing to the nation's capital a cultural explosion that helped dispel its image as a city of "dead monuments and a dull bureaucracy." Producer David Merrick called it "the most successful cultural facility in the world." Acoustics in its Opera House were said to be among the finest anywhere. In the wake of its opening, scores of other local artistic efforts flourished. Although best known for his work at the Kennedy Center, Stevens also played a pivotal role in persuading Congress to pass legislation establishing the National Endowment for the Arts, which represented the federal government's first attempt to become a national arts patron. He then served as the endowment's first chairman. During the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson, he also was special assistant to the president for the arts.
Before starting his career at the Kennedy Center, Stevens had made a fortune in the business world. He was a real estate broker and a resourceful investor, specializing in hotels and office buildings. In that capacity, he was widely known as a smooth and able negotiator, with a riverboat gambler's love for risky, high-stakes deals and an extraordinary skill for working out the most complex agreements. In 1951, he put together a syndicate that purchased the Empire State Building in New York for what was then a record $51.5 million. He had participated in the urban renewal development of Southwest Washington and other cities, and he had large holdings in downtown Seattle.
He also had produced more than 250 plays and musicals, including "West Side Story," "Annie," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Tea and Sympathy," "The Bad Seed," "A Man for All Seasons" and "Bus Stop." Gore Vidal, T.S. Eliot, Eugene O'Neill, Noel Coward, Robert Anderson, William Inge, Jean Anouilh, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Jean Giraudoux and Harold Pinter were among the authors whose work he brought to the live stage.
Politically, Stevens had been a finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and he also had raised money for the presidential campaigns of Adlai E. Stevenson.
Congress already had authorized a national cultural center when Stevens came to Washington in 1961, but the project had languished in the three years since the legislation was enacted. With architect Edward Durrell Stone, Stevens came up with the concept of a single arts center, housing a concert hall, a theater and an opera house. Tapping a vast network of business, political and social connections, he nursed the idea through disagreements over its location -- a site in downtown Washington, on the Mall or on the banks of the Potomac? -- and he managed to maintain a high level of support despite several cost overruns. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) called him the "Robin Hood of the performing arts . . . robbing his friends to help the arts."
Stevens once talked Congress into forgiving $30 million in interest payments on a $20 million federal construction loan that the Kennedy Center owed the government. During a cash crisis, he persuaded the parking contractor to lend the Kennedy Center $3.5 million. He also put large sums of his own money into the Kennedy Center, and he took no more than $1 a year as salary.
"The Kennedy Center is the house that Roger built. There wouldn't be any Kennedy Center if it weren't for Roger Stevens," his successor, Ralph Davidson, said when Stevens retired.
Tall and austere, with piercing blue eyes, Stevens often was described as a Renaissance-style arts patron. Most mornings he walked to work, from his home in Georgetown to his office at the Kennedy Center, but he rarely greeted or acknowledged anyone he encountered along the way. Often he seemed to have something on his mind. To many, that behavior only lent credence to the notion that he was distant, aloof and arrogant.
"The truth is . . . I'm shy. I inherited it along with a lot of other qualities I have. Shyness is a stinking trait, I can tell you. But I just don't like to push in anywhere," Stevens once said. On the wall in his office, he displayed a photograph of himself sprawled on the carpet in the grand foyer of the Kennedy Center. Next to him was a little girl, and they were both coloring with crayons in coloring books. He described it as "the only picture that ever made me look human."
He was modest and soft-spoken, and he genuinely disliked talking about himself. Despite his penchant for rumpled suits and reluctance to purchase new clothes, there was an air of elegance about him. In his pocket, he carried a piece of lined and wrinkled paper on which he had written down his daily schedule. Playwright Arthur Kopit called that habit, "carrying his office around in his pockets."
Roger Lacey Stevens was born in Detroit and grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., where his father was a wealthy real estate broker. The young Stevens attended the Choate School in Wallingford, Conn., and had planned to enter Harvard University. But his father suffered serious financial setbacks in the Great Depression, and Stevens enrolled instead at the University of Michigan.
In 1930, he left college after a year and went to Detroit, where he worked for the next five years as a gas station attendant and on the assembly line at Ford Motor Co. One summer he rode the rails to Montana, intending to find a job harvesting wheat, but he failed in his first assignment, which was to hitch up a team of horses.
Periodically, he sold his own blood to meet living expenses. He was robbed at gunpoint late one night while working at a Detroit gas station, and he was reprimanded by his boss for carrying too much money -- $25, which the gunman took. At Ford, where his job involved burnishing gears by holding them up against whirring metal brushes, he always was getting his hands cut. From those experiences, he became a labor union supporter and a lifelong Democrat. During his spare time, he compensated for his lack of a college degree by reading extensively at the Detroit public library.
Later he became a Detroit real estate broker. He specialized in locating potentially profitable properties, then finding investors to buy them. For his commission, Stevens generally took an interest in the property, which he would then convert to cash at a subsequent sale. By 1938, such deals were said to have yielded Stevens profits totaling $50,000 -- $570,000 in today's dollars -- a sizable sum for that time.
During World War II, he served in the Navy, returning to his Detroit real estate career after the war. At the urging of his wife, Christine, whom he married on New Year's Day 1938, he became interested in the theater and joined the Detroit Theatre Guild. He backed a Broadway production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" that lost $40,000 but drew excellent reviews, and Stevens wanted to try again.
To his real estate career he added the business of theatrical production, backing Henrik Ibsen's "Peer Gynt" and J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan," with music by Bernstein, which was a smashing success.
"On opening night, it had about 20 curtain calls and really caught fire," Stevens recalled almost 30 years later. "Once you've had a lot of curtain calls and great praise, it's like heroin. You're hooked for life." For a time, he commuted between Michigan and New York, but he eventually settled in Manhattan, where he thrived in both show business and real estate.
There was a $10 million profit in three years for the syndicate he put together to purchase the Empire State Building. His share of the royalties from the cast album of Bernstein's "West Side Story" was $75,000 a year for 10 years. By 1961, when Kennedy named him chairman of the National Cultural Center, he had become independently wealthy, with a comfortable income from his investments.
In Washington, Stevens faced 10 years of patchwork-quilt, catch-as-catch-can financing, fund-raising, lobbying and cajoling to build and open the Kennedy Center. He was discouraged and ready to quit after a little more than a year on the job. A nationwide fund-raising telethon in 1962 yielded dismal results, and Stevens went to the White House to offer his resignation.
"Mr. President . . . I'm doing a lousy job on this. There's somebody else that could do a better job," Stevens recalled saying. Kennedy declined to accept the offer, and Stevens remained as Cultural Center chairman.
He had a heart attack in 1970 but did not slow down. Bernstein still was working on "Mass," which would have its premiere performance at the Kennedy Center's long-awaited opening the next year. Bernstein came to see Stevens at the hospital, asking if there was anything he could do.
"Goddammit, Lenny, finish Mass'!" Stevens snapped. The composition was completed for the opening.
Guiding the Kennedy Center through its early years, Stevens sometimes was criticized for trying to "run things out of his hip pocket." It was still necessary to raise money; now operating expenses had to be met. There were unions to negotiate with, artists to manage, performances to schedule and audiences to attract. His taste in plays sometimes was called elitist and old-fashioned, and he had a definite and pronounced dislike for Freudian or sexual themes.
At his retirement in 1988, he received the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, from President Ronald Reagan. He also received a Kennedy Center Honor Award for lifetime achievement in the arts.
For more than three decades, Stevens had lived in a stately 19th-century farmhouse at the end of a block of sloping land in Georgetown. There, cast parties and receptions commenced in a living room graced with paintings by the likes of Raoul Dufy, Maurice Utrillo and Marc Chagall. When the weather was good, guests invariably drifted outdoors onto a south porch with a view of boxwoods and roses on the grounds below.
In the prime years of his career, Stevens regularly entertained the likes of actors Jason Robards and Gregory Peck, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, violinist Isaac Stern, novelist Herman Wouk and playwright Tom Stoppard. But since his strokes in 1993, Stevens had received guests infrequently. His right side was paralyzed, and he spoke only haltingly and with extreme difficulty.
In his final years, he spent hours sitting on the porch, looking out on overgrown grounds, which, The Washington Post's David Richards wrote, "could be the setting for a Tennessee Williams play." Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Christine Stevens of Washington, and a daughter, Christabel Gough of New York. CAPTION: Roger L. Stevens made a fortune as a real estate broker and investor and was a leading patron of the arts. CAPTION: Roger L. Stevens is joined by his wife, Christine, and daughter Christabel Gough on the porch of his 19th-century house at the end of a block of sloping land in Georgetown. CAPTION: Stevens, the founding chairman of the Kennedy Center, served 27 years as chairman of its board of trustees. He is shown here with President Ronald Reagan. CAPTION: Stevens, pictured with President Gerald R. Ford, was pivotal in persuading Congress to pass legislation establishing the National Endowment for the Arts.