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Arts in the White House

The Reagan administration seems to be launching a new campaign to become known for performing arts as well as performing budget cuts. In what some might consider a skillfully coordinated manuever to reverse its low-profile, downscale cultural image -- as against its Stockman-esque high-profile, upscale supply-side image -- the White House held a highly publicized "Luncheon with Nancy" party the other day for some 50 members of the nation's television press, carefully integrated with celebrity performers, Public Broadcasting executives, and White House staff.

Ostensibly, the only reason was to announce that a series of four White House concerts hosted by Beverly Sills would be televised nationally on PBS, beginning Nov. 22 at 10 p.m. Eastern standard time. Originating from the East Room, "In Performance at the White House" "will feature distinguished artists and their young proteges in a wide range of artistic expressions. Principal artists, other than Miss Sills will be dancer Gene Kelly, pianist Rudolf Serkin, and country music composer and performer Merle Haggard.

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According to Mr. Weinberg, the series will be taped live at Sunday afternoon performances to an audience invited by President and Mrs. Reagan and then transmitted nationally that evening on PBS, with stereo simulcasts on FM radio.

The merger-protege theme is a very stylized concert form that, officially, "is intended not only to demonstrate continuity in America's performing arts, but to reveal the variety and complexity of the cultural life of this country." However, it is hoped by advocates of large-scale government funding of the arts that it is also meant to serve notice on those who have denigrated the administration's devotion to the arts, that "Stockmanomics" will not be allowed to have a devastating effect upon US culture, and that the Reagan aministration wishes to improve its relations with PBS, the National Endowments, and the performing arts.

Besides celebrities Beverly Sills and Rudolf Serkin, present at the luncheon were several arts and media figures.

Having never before attended a White House luncheon, the invitation and subsequent visit became a social as well as professional adventure for me. Despite attempts to remain casual and businesslike, I found myself impressed by just about every bit of presidential trivia I observed and make sporadic frantic notes -- a few of which I shall now pass on to readers -- before posterity moves in to place them in their proper trivial perspective.

First of all Nancy Reagan. She appeared to me to be a shy, gracious, beautiful woman with a tentative, vulnerable smile, despite other press attempts I had read which made her seem like another "iron butterfly." I was introduced to her in a receiving line set up in the Blue Room, next door to the Green Room.

Through her director of White House special events, a charming woman who sat to my right at the place-carded luncheon table, I was able to chat with Mrs. Reagan after lunch and we discussed the foster-grandparent program in which she is involved and about which she is writing a book for Bobbs Merrill.

I tried a Fran Lebowitz quote from I had just read en route to the White House: "Never allow your child to call you by your first name -- he hasn't known you long enough." Mrs. Reagan laughed at that one and said: "Now, that is funny -- and too often true."

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On the other side of me sat a pleasant and friendly man whom I did not recognize so asked his affiliation, assuming he was press. He informed me that he was "sort of with the White House." We chatted about television and he indicated a desire to learn more about the current state of the art in cable television and asked if I could recommend a good source of such information. Later, on the shuttle plane returning to New York, I discovered that the inquisitive dinner partner had been Mr. Hodsell, Mr. Reagan's probable candidate to head the National Endowment for the Arts head, due to face congressional inquisitors soon.

After dessert, Mrs. Reagan went to the podium placed under a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and made the official announcement of the White House/PBS TV series. She stressed her familial ties to the arts. "My mother was an actress, I was an actress, the President was an actor, I have two children performing in the arts. I have had many wonderful opportunities to meet and appreciate the greatest performing artists of out time. That is why I am so excited about this White House series. . . ."

"The President'd House" had proven to be a warm, tasteful, well-staffed home, graciously presided over by a sincere and unpretentious First Lady who will, I suspect, come to be known as much more than "the President's wife" before the Reagan administration ends.

The New York contingent waited en masse at the Eastern shuttle. Across from me sat Beverly sills and her husband. Since no bread and butter had been served at the White House luncheon, Miss Sills and I seemed to be feeling pangs of hunger simultaneously. "I am starved," she said, "and we've got to dash right over to a Mayor Koch's reception for Begin. What I wouldn't do for a bagel . . . or even a ham sandwich . . . ." I was about to offer to find subsistence for this marvelously amusing lady when the flight was announced and we all dashed for the gate energetically -- and hungrily.

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