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For the capital's showboat - a tough new captain. As Ralph Davidson, the no-nonsense former chairman of Time Inc., takes the helm at Washington's Kennedy Center, will he chart a change in course for national culture?

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RALPH DAVIDSON, dry-fly caster and former chairman of Time Inc., has hooked another really big one this time. Earlier this month Mr. Davidson became an arts czar - the chairman of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, as its founder, Roger Stevens, after 17 years of a long-running hit. Davidson became captain of the white marble showboat on the Potomac, where glittering international names in theater, concerts, dance, opera, film, and chamber music routinely appear, from Mikhail Baryshnikov to Pl'acido Domingo.

Mr. Stevens, the founding father of Kennedy Center and legendary producer of 250 shows (including hits like ``Annie'' and ``Les Mis'erables''), is considered a hard act to follow. Davidson's longtime associate and friend Ed Ney, former chairman of the advertising agency Young & Rubicam, says, ``It's a challenge, a tough job'' following the man who invented Kennedy Center as surely as Thomas Watson invented IBM or Henry Ford the Ford Motor Company

Davidson is a tall, broad-shouldered guy with shaggy gray hair and a voice that sounds like Charlton Heston's - deep, resonant, and pure Californian.

``I'm not Roger Stevens; my management style is different, my personality is different,'' he says. ``Roger has put together a unique, marvelous place. I like to say this is the house that Roger built. And what we're trying to do - and what I'm going to do, specifically - is build on what already is one [great] performing arts center.''

Davidson is dressed in a gray and white striped shirt, his red paisley tie slightly askew, like a reporter on deadline. He has a ruddy, outdoorsman's complexion, wary blue eyes, a sort of ``Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'' boyish drive. He steps gingerly over the first few questions as if they were firecrackers that might explode under him.

``We will try to do the best, get the best, present the best,'' he says, ``and maybe push the frontier a little bit every now and then, maybe bring in some unusual and offbeat productions.''

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