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Kennedy Center turns 10 this week, and it still looks like a mammoth marble box in which its own birthday cake might have arrived. But the $82 million monument to President John F. Kennedy has stood the test of time: It is not just a big white arts palace on the Potomac but a national cultural center whose influence on the performing arts has enriched the whole nation and the world beyond.

"It would be impossible to overestimate its significance. . . . It's had a tremendous role not only in the city but also in highlighting important artistic activities around the country," says cultural guru Nancy Hanks, who for a long time was head of the National Endowment for the Arts.

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One of the big cannons on Capitol Hill fires a 21-gun salute to the center: Rep. Sidney Yates of Illinois, chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee , which holds the purse strings for the arts, says, "The construction and establishment of the Kennedy Center has given the national capital status as one of the great cultural capitals of the world."

Broadway producer David Merrick describes it as "the most successful cultural facility in the world."

Kennedy Center is celebrating its birthday with a series of glittering cultural events this week, capped by a performance Sept. 12 of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass," which was given its world premiere at the center's opening, in September of 1971. The Mass will run for 22 performances and be televised over public broadcasting stations Sept. 19. A National Press Club luncheon will also be broadcast nationally. Other events will include a chamber music concert honoring Aaron Copland, a program of Japanese dance and music in the center's new Terrace Theater, and a White House-Kennedy Center salute to Lionel Hampton, the jazz baron. Hampton will be joined by a galaxy of pop stars: Count Basie, Woody Herman, Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, Pearl Bailey, as well as Tony Bennett, Charley Pride, and Stephanie Mills in this benefit for the School of Jazz Music in Harlem.

The founding father of Kennedy Center, real estate and theater impresario Roger Lacey Stevens, leaves it to others to assess the impact of his 630 -foot-long by 300-foot-wide and 100-foot-high "living monument." He puts the stress on the living part: "It's not just a monument they put up and let the breeze blow through."

Mr. Stevens is standing outside the center in a soft breeze that blows from the muddy blue Potomac over the greensward and bridges and highways that link Washington with the Virginia suburbs. He is talking about why the memorial looming behind him had to be more than a big hunk of stone, however imposing. He remembers President Kennedy's commitment to the National Cultural Center, as it was then known on paper (it existed nowhere else) in the act passed in 1959 during the Eisenhower administration. It was President Kennedy who asked Roger Stevens to serve as its fund-raiser and chairman of the board of the center, a job he took then without pay and has held ever since.

"There were frequent times he [Kennedy] would call me to the White House to see how things were going and talk about it. He was hosting parties and other occasions to help us raise the money," Stevens says.There is a special poignancy in the fact that this President who dreamed and planned for a national cultural center was at the same time preparing for what would become his own memorial. On Oct. 8, 1963, the Business Committee for the NCC, formed by John Kennedy, met at the White House and pledged $1.25 million, the first actual money to make the center a reality. A month later, Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

"I remember one talk in particular," Stevens says of his conversations with Kennedy. "It was in the beginning, when the going was rough financially, and it was hard to raise money at that time. I said to the President, 'You ought to get someone else to raise the money,' because I wasn't doing a very good job of it. He put his arm around my shoulder and said, 'You've got the toughest fund-raising job in the country. I'll do anything I can to help you.' And he did. . . . He had planned a big corporate dinner [for fund raising] in the spring of '64. . . . And those are some of the reasons why I went to Congress and asked them to make the cultural center a memorial to him. I knew how much much he wanted it. He wanted it to be done, to be finished during his term as President, and it probably would have been finished if he'd stayed as President." Stevens says that when he spoke to Congress "I said it should be a living memorial. That's an important point because he wanted it for the people."

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In January 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the dedication of the national cultural center as the Kennedy memorial, with authorization for its first federal money: $15.5 million. To date, Stevens says, "we've raised $35 million" for the center, and the government has spent $27 million. Another $20 million was raised with revenue bonds for the garage, bringing that tab up to $ 82 million.

Stevens is standing in the middle of the ruby-red rug that stretches the length of two football fields across the Grand Foyer. He is talking about the day he and President Kennedy hunkered down to talk about how the cultural center should look. "I drew a picture just like this" -- one long, gray glen plaid arm goes up, encompassing the vast, 600-foot-long foyer with its Concert Hall, Eisenhower Theater, and Opera House. Kennedy "liked the idea, but he wanted a more elaborate affair that might have cost $500 million. I said that might be very beautiful but there was no way I could raise that kind of money," Stevens smiles.

Stevens, the entrepreneur who once owned the Empire State Building and is a legendary theatrical producer, planned the center with Kennedy's approval to create street theater indoors. He points to the three separate halls united by the acres of red rug, white marble, and 18 crystal chandeliers. "These are, in effect, streets between the three different theaters. Everyone admires it from the logistics point of view. The operation works magnificently."

Or as the headline read on a Washington Post architectural review of the center when it opened: "If Only It Looked as Good as It Works." That suggests that the center may be a triumph of function over form. From the beginning, there has been great controversy over the architectural design. The late Edward Durrell Stone, who had designed so many US embassies, was chosen during the Eisenhower administration as the center's architect. He originally envisioned a megalopolis of a center, twice the size and cost of the present one; when Stevens took over as chairman he opted for a realistic model, scaling the cost down to $30 million. When it was built the critics were scornful. As the American Institute of Architects Journal points out in its current issue on "Cultural Colossi," the center was described as a marble Kleenex box, as something Hitler's favorite Fascist architect, Albert Speer, would have approved , as bombast in marble. Ada Louise Huxtable, the New York Times critic, wrote: "It's character is aggrandized posh. It is an embarrassment to have it stand as a symbol of American artistic achievement before the nation and the world."

But foreign ambassadors to the United States view it as anything but an embarrassment to this country.

The Swedish ambassador to the US, whose country donated 18 Orrefors crystal chandeliers to the Grand Foyer, thinks that attitude is a lot of graavlax.m The ambassador, Count Wilhelm Wachmeister, says the Kennedy Center is "extremely important, very impressive as a cultural institution. . . . It has transformed the cultural life of the capital, since it attracts the best performers.It has taken the place of New York, without [that city's] difficulty of getting tickets. It frequently presents the best cultural life in America . . . and internationally it plays a great role."

Over the past decade Kennedy Center has been host to the Berlin Philharmonic, the Stuttgart Ballet, London's Royal Ballet, La Scala, the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, L'orchestre de Paris and Chorus, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Comedie Francaise, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Bolshoi Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the Grand Kabuki of Japan, the Peking Opera, the Paris Opera, and the Leningrad Symphony, among others.

Italian Ambassador Rinaldo Petrignani, whose country donated 3,700 tons of white Carrara marble for the exterior and interior of the center, says: "I think the Kennedy Center is most significant, a splendid institution, one of the most remarkable of its kind. It's certainly added to the Washington cultural scene, enriched the capital and its people . . . and made the Potomac even more beautiful."

The Japanese concur. Their nation gave a Bicentennial gift of $3 million to the center which was used to build one of the loveliest theaters in the building. It is the intimate new 512-seat Terrace Theater, designed by Philip Johnson and done in soft tones of mauve, violet, and silver. The theater is used as a showcase for music, dance, and theatrical talent as well as for chamber music concerts.

Other countries have given generously, too. Among the gifts:

Ireland's massive Waterford crystal chandelier for the Opera House lounge, France's two Gobelin tapestries designed by Henri Matisse, Great Britain's bronze figure by Dame Barbara Hepworth, Norway's 11 Hadelands crystal chandeliers for the Concert Hall, Belgium's 60-foot-high mirrors for the Grand Foyer, Austria's chandelier 50 feet in diameter for the Opera House. And 22 African nations have given in African room filled with native art, textiles, and crafts.

The sheer massiveness of the enterprise is dazzling. To date there have been 40 million visitors, who have seen a total of 10,600 performances: 6,002 drama and musical comedy, 1,229 ballet and dance, 1,551 symphony music, 548 opera, and 455 popular music. There have also been programs of choral music, solos, poetry , folk music, and more. That includes performances in the main theaters as well as separate programs in the American Film Institute Theater and the theater lab. Fourteen million people have plunked down the full prize of tickets; 1.2 million bought discounted tickets for students, senior citizens, the disabled, etc. The center sets aside 15 percent of its tickets are reduced rates and has given more than 2,737 free events. Public attention has also been focused on the center by the Kennedy Center Honors given for performing arts achievements over a lifetime , and by the public TV series, "Kennedy Center Tonight!"

Forty million tourists, yes. But "our biggest single disappointment is that the average tourist doesn't come to our performances," Mr. Stevens says. "They tend to visit Kennedy Center but not attend the events. . . . That's one thing we're working on, to try to stimulate that. . . ."

Over the years there have been other problems. The enormous roof sprang an enormous leak, which required extensive repairs. For 18 months great swaths of the posh marble-and-crystal Grand Foyer were fenced off with enough wooden partitions to make it look like plywood city. Repairs cost over $3 million. A wooden floor especially designed to ballet company specifications expanded over a period of time in Washington's humid climate until dancers began to complain of falls.It is now being adjusted. The vast three-tier garage, designed before the Terrace Theater was built, is now short on parking space.

There is another, more subtle problem, as artistic director Marta Casals Istomin points out. "There are problems and glitches every day," Mrs. Istomin says. "In the arts world we now face the problem of artistic quality versus box-office appeal, which do not necessarily come together. There is the problem of whether we should do things that we feel are artistically valid or should we do things that the public likes. I feel we have a responsibility form presenting the various expressions in each of these arts.I'm talking now about ballet, dance, music, and opera, and yet there is some resistance in the public as to new things. They always want brand names that they can recognize, so it's very difficult to present many great artists who for some reason or other do not have , quote unquote, grand names. Or to make known young artists or to present a new work. . . . It's a juggling act."

While Roger Stevens says he's looked at Kennedy Center for the past 10 years as strictly a national cultural center and "not a community center," it has had a formidable impact on the community. Even its native newspaper, the Washington Post, described the city 10 years ago as a "cultural hinterland." Rep. Sid Yates remembers even further back to 1949, when he first came to Washington. He says it was a sleepy Southern town, so Southern that there was "a very serious confrontation over the hiring of a black man to be in the Washington fire department." There was only one major theater then, the National, and a few small theaters scattered around in churches. "Only with the advent of the Kennedy Center has it really taken off as a cultural center, and along with it the Smithsonian [museums] began to expand. Now it's a joy to come and be able to see all this."

"If Kennedy Center were not here, the arts situation in this country would be different, and possibly a little less visible, less important. . . . It's major showcase, deftly run," is the way Donald Moore, deputy chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts, sums it up.

Former NEA head Nancy Hanks acknowledges that Kennedy Center has livened up the cultural scene in Washington, from popularity of the National Symphony under the charistmatic Mstislav Rostropovich to the resurgence of dance in Washington with the American Ballet Theater. But she does not feel it outshines Lincoln Center.

"I do not go so far as some in saying the cultural center has moved from New York to Washington. There is no point in denigrating great strength and activity going on in New York just because we have now a Kennedy Center and a Los Angeles [Chandler] Pavilion. This one is fabulous, but in the Lincoln Center league? It's impossible to answer. . . . It may evolve into a Lincoln Center type of operation [with resident opera and ballet companies], but none of us know what it will be like 10 years from now."

In the next 10 years, Stevens says, "I'd like to see a little more focus on theater. We have hopes of having a national theater company, but we haven't any definite plans right now. We're going to have a season of six plays this season and see how that works out. We're working with CBS as partners in a deal. They'll help finance six productions, and we'll sell them as a unit with subscriptions. We hope to have some good, well-known stars. No, I won't drop any names . . . but no, the stories about Paul Newman being one of them are not true."

And artistic director Marta Istomin adds: "In the first 10 years the Kennedy Center was put on the map by having all these international companies coming here and these big events that established this level . . . in the next 10 years I feel it is our duty to concentrate more -- and not at the exclusion of the international visits . . . but we should concentrate more on showcasing our own American groups and performing arts companies. We should build our own summer festival . . . and also create an atmosphere, putting our own imprint on whatever we do as a national capital and arts center."

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