Five Questions: Melissa Young and the Many, Many Awards of Roger L. Stevens

In this week’s post we are revisiting an older “In the Muse” series, Five Questions. In the past, we used this interview format as a way to get to know Music Division interns and contract archivists, but in today’s five questions, Processing Technician Melissa Young talks about theatrical producer and Kennedy Center founding chairman Roger L. Stevens and the many, many awards she discovered in his papers.

 What kind of work did you do with the awards and honors in the Roger L. Stevens Papers?

Well, let me just start by saying that Roger L. Stevens did a lot in his lifetime. He produced more than 100 Broadway shows; he was the founding chairman of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as well as the National Council for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts; and he was also a real estate executive. Heading up so many initiatives resulted in a lot of awards and honors being granted to him over the course of his lifetime. Many of these were included when his papers were donated to the Library. While processing the Awards and Honors series of the collection, I inventoried the three-dimensional awards, creating a spreadsheet to identify the name of each award, who gave it, the inscription on the award, and the award’s dimensions. When it wasn’t clear what the award was for or who granted it, I had to do a little research to find out. I also organized the related paper materials and drafted the container list for the series in the finding aid.

Tony Award medalion mounted on black pedistal.

The League of New York Theatres, Inc. Special Tony Award presented to Roger L. Stevens in recognition of his dedication to the theatre, 1971. Roger L. Stevens papers, Music Division.

What kinds of materials did you encounter?

There were all kinds of different materials in the Awards and Honors series. There are things you would expect to find, like a Tony Award. There are actually three in the collection: Death of a Salesman (1984), On Your Toes (1983), and a special Tony for Stevens in recognition of his dedication to theater (1971). There are keys to the cities of St. Louis, Missouri and Winston-Salem, North Carolina; 13 honorary degrees from colleges and universities; and, medals from multiple governments including Austria, the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Stevens also received numerous plaques, certificates, and three-dimensional awards from organizations devoted to dance, opera, and theater.

Did anything surprise you about the work?

It was really the wide range of awards that I encountered that surprised me, the depth and breadth of the collection. It was fascinating to see just how many people appreciated him. I mean, he was named a Knight Commander of the British Empire and an honorary riverboat captain in the Quinsippi Island Fleet in Quincy, Illinois. And, he kept both. The range was something I didn’t expect.

Color photograph Melissa holding up Kennedy Center Honors ribbon award in two gloved hands.

Melissa Young with Roger L. Stevens’s Kennedy Center Honors award, 2021. Roger L. Stevens papers, Music Division.

What was your favorite award?

I would have to say it was the Kennedy Center Honors ribbon. I remember watching those ceremonies growing up, over the years seeing all the different, incredibly important people get that rainbow colored ribbon hung around their necks. Then to encounter one in the collection–it was so cool. It’s surprisingly heavy. Stevens stepped down as chair of the Kennedy Center in 1988, the year he was granted the honor. Even though he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Arts Medal that same year and those are also in the collection, it’s the Kennedy Center Honors that really gave me that “Wow” moment.

How did working with the awards affect your understanding of Stevens and his work?

It really showed me just how involved he was in so many different things. He was a very busy man, and his collection says a lot about the type of person he was, and how well-respected he was within his community as well as by his colleagues and peers.

Color image of honorees wearing Kennedy Center honors ribbon award.

Roger L Stevens standing with fellow awardees Alvin Ailey, [front row] Alexander Schneider, Myrna Loy, and George Burns, 1988. Roger L. Stevens papers, Music Division.

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