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Exit Max Woodward after four decades at the Kennedy Center

Max Woodward and Patricia O'Kelly at the Kennedy Center on March 31, 2016 in Washington DC. Woodward and O'Kelly are retiring from the arts center after 44 and 40 years on the job, respectively. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

[Two long-time Kennedy Center employees retired in April after a combined 95 years of service: Max Woodward and Patricia O’Kelly. Anne Midgette profiles Patricia O’Kelly here.]

The Kennedy Center had been open just five days in 1971 when a wide-eyed young Max Woodward first came aboard as an usher. This month he retired as the vice president of theater programming on the biggest theatrical platform in the city.

Not bad for a kid from a small Pennsylvania coal mining town who never went to college, and who barely knew what he wanted to do.

“I had no plan,” Woodward says genially.

During his four-plus decades, Woodward worked his way up through accounting offices to management of the Eisenhower. Eventually he had a hand not only in presenting the touring Broadway hits that remain a pivotal component of the center's programming, but also in producing some of the Kennedy Center's best original ventures during Michael Kaiser's tenure as president. The 2002 Sondheim Celebration remains a landmark event, and recent revivals of Sondheim's "Follies" (2011, with Bernadette Peters) and the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty-Terrence McNally "Ragtime" (2009) transferred to Broadway. "Mame" (2006, with Christine Baranski) and "Little Dancer" (2014, with Tiler Peck) were serious, finely wrought contenders.

“That’s the best part,” Woodward says. “You’re starting a show from absolute scratch. You pick a project, you get the rights, hire designers, choreographers and all of that, and put it into rehearsal. The first day of rehearsal is the most wonderful day. That’s the part I will miss the most. Absolutely.”

He was star-struck ever since he was a kid marveling at Broadway performers appearing on TV’s “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He came to Washington when the FBI recruited him out of high school as a filing clerk; the Army swept him to Germany from 1964 to 1967. Back in Washington, he worked as a salesman (“Hated it”) and ushered at the National Theatre until he latched on with the Kennedy Center.

Departing PR director rhapsodizes on 40 years with the NSO

To jog his memory he stands in the spacious green room in the wings offstage at the Eisenhower and looks at the show posters, which go back decades. This is just part of what Woodward pulls out as highlights over the years.

On Roger Stevens, the New York producer and real estate mogul who helped establish the Kennedy Center and ran it until 1988: "The Roger Stevens days were magical. One of the stagehands once referred to him as a steamboat gambler. If Roger loved a playwright he would back him. Tom Stoppard certainly was one of them."

Most controversial project: The American National Theater, championed by Stevens and run by Peter Sellars, then a wunderkind of the avant-garde. The high-minded adventure drew international talent (Patti LuPone, Colleen Dewhurst, Stacy Keach, Zakes Mokae) but flamed out fast, only lasting from 1985to 1986.

“It almost killed our subscriptions. The money that was wasted.  . . .”

Favorite star: Elizabeth Taylor, who headlined "The Little Foxes" in 1981, when she was married to Virginia senator John Warner.

“They had a house on S Street, and they had a party there one night. On Easter Sunday she hired a bus; everyone wanted to go down to the farm in Virginia and spend the day. Just fun. I had the ring on a couple times. Her dresser would take the ring off her, and I would say, ‘Let me see the ring.’ It was a big rock.”

Least favorite star: She goes unnamed. But she still works in movies.

“I always felt if someone came in who was very difficult, just deal with them, because in three or four weeks they’re out of your life. So just suffer a little bit. But the majority of people have been pretty terrific.”

Best show: Maybe "Annie," which tried out in the Eisenhower before triumphing in New York.

"I went into the final dress rehearsal and I thought: I wish I had money. I would throw every penny into this. You just knew it was going to be the biggest hit."

Biggest flop: "Toyer," a 1983 thriller starring Kathleen Turner and Brad Davis ("Midnight Express"). "The clammy feel of a cheap thrill," went The Post review.

“Without a doubt the worst thing that has ever been on the Eisenhower stage. I read the script and thought, ‘These people are out of their minds.’ The director was Tony Richardson. He said, ‘Oh, we’re going to play here, go to New York, we’re talking about a tour, talking about London, talking about a movie.’ I thought, ‘You ain’t gonna leave Washington.’ And they didn’t.”

The $13 million Sondheim Celebration in 2002 featured full productions of half a dozen Sondheim musicals, with A-list actors, designers and directors. Biggest challenge? "Playing crossing guard. At one point we had five different casts here working. Coordinating everything, all the sets. We would preview for just two performances and then open, which was unheard of. But I think we did right by Mr. Sondheim."

Surprised you stayed here so long? "Yeah. I had a couple opportunities to go to New York. And I thought, you go to New York, you work on a show, the show closes, you're out on the street. This is secure. Steady. Working in the theater. Constantly working on shows. I just kept going. Next thing you know, it's 44 years later."

At 69, are you fully retiring? "I don't know. I keep saying I'm going to go volunteer for Hillary."

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