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Before the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Part 2

As we discussed in last week’s post, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has just completed a landmark year, providing a fitting moment to share some of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center’s holdings documenting the beginnings of the Kennedy Center, then known as the National Cultural Center.

The last blog post shared the ideas presented by architect Frank Lloyd Wright for a national cultural center in the December 1959 television program, “A National Cultural Center,” from the Library of Congress’s PBS Collection. Wright passed away on April 9, 1959, shortly after The National Cultural Center Act had become Public Law 85-874 on September 2, 1958.

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy sits with her mother, Janet Lee Auchincloss and architect Edward Durrell Stone at the unveiling of the National Cultural Center in Newport, RI, in September of 1962.  [//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.00250]

On June 23, 1959, Edward Durell Stone was appointed consulting architect for the National Cultural Center, and his plans were approved by the Center’s Board of Trustees on July 20, 1959.[1] Stone’s plans would change over time, but a model for the plan was unveiled to the public in Newport, Rhode Island, on September 11, 1962. This unveiling ceremony before an audience of over 300 people not only included Stone, but also one of the National Cultural Center Campaign’s honorary co-chairs, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.[2] The other honorary co-chair, former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, was unable to attend.[3] The event was included in a color broadcast on NBC television, in a program titled “A Stage for Excellence,” on November 11, 1962.[4] (We recently discovered a film in the Library’s collections from this date, listed as “NATIONAL CULTURAL CENTER” and in black and white color, and are in the process of researching it now.)

NAVCC’s information about “A Stage for Excellence” comes from the “National Broadcasting Company Television Master Books. 1939-1991.” This rich resource in the Library’s NBC Collection is a day-by-day log of program scripts with annotations, advertising, and music master sheets all stored on microfilm, though the Library is beginning the process of digitally preserving and making the collection accessible on-site. While not a word-for-word transcript, the NBC Master Books supplement the actual programs, or in cases where no access to programs exists, provide unique access to television history.

“A Stage for Excellence,” film reels photographed at the Library of Congress.

“A Stage for Excellence,” also known as “NBC News Presents a Stage for Excellence: A Report on the National Cultural Center,” was fully sponsored by Magnavox, according to a November 5, 1962 NBC press release available on-site for full-text searching at the Library.[5] In the program, Jacqueline Kennedy explains to NBC News correspondent Sander Vanocur that the National Cultural Center model unveiling started the fundraising effort for the Center. In addition, “A Stage for Excellence” featured Robert Frost, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Mahalia Jackson, and others as “examples of the type of performances that might be presented in the National Cultural Center.”[6]

“A Stage for Excellence” also promoted the upcoming fundraising for the National Cultural Center, “An American Pageant of the Arts.” The Library of Congress’s National Audio-Visual Conservation Center has audio elements labeled “An American Pageant of the Arts” as part of its NBC Collection, and it holds a black and white copy as part of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Collection. (The Kennedy Center has also made a copy of this program, which they acquired from the JFK Library, available over their website.) Since “An American Pageant of the Arts” was presented via closed-circuit television on November 29, 1962, it was not available for viewing over broadcast television. But approximately 69 locations in the United States and Canada “(plus community antenna and pay-tv) tied in via Theatre Network Television” could see it at a cost of $1-100 per attendee.[7] [8] The production used 15-foot television screens and Eidophor projectors in order to share programming among the various locations.[9] [10]

Ruth Shiver stands in for Mrs. Kennedy during rehearsals for “An American Pageant for the Arts.” Photo from Washington’s “Evening Star” newspaper of November 29, 1962.

The Kennedys and other guests would participate from the National Armory in Washington, DC. Other locations presented performers, as well as the Eisenhowers who were seen from Augusta, Georgia. Among the other performers and locations showcased: Marian Anderson, Harry Belafonte, Danny Kaye (all from Washington, DC), Robert Frost (from New York), Yo-Yo and Yeou-Cheng Ma, Bob Newhart (from Los Angeles) and Maria Tallchief (from Chicago).[11] [12]

In the time leading up to the fundraising, NBC press releases mention that Jane Fonda, then a board member of The Actors Studio, would appear on NBC (on the “Today” show) on November 9, 1962 to talk about the National Cultural Center.[13] Fonda was one of the Actors Studio members, including Anne Bancroft, Ben Gazzara, and Paul Newman, who were among those scheduled “to act as ticket sellers and as hosts, greeters, and door-prize ushers at Carnegie Hall Thursday Nov. 29 when the studio will sponsor the national closed circuit telecast for the National Cultural Center” as a 50/50 fundraising initiative for both the Center and the Studio. [14]

President Kennedy speaks during “An Americana Pageant for the Arts,” a televised fundraiser for the National Cultural Center shown in November of 1962. [//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.31146]

The evening’s events began with President John F. and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy giving speeches from Washington. President Kennedy stated that:

…our culture and art do not speak to America alone. To the extent that artists struggle to express beauty and form in color and sound…to that extent they strike a responsive chord in all humanity.[15]

The First Lady and honorary co-chair of the National Cultural Center Campaign noted that:

I know there is still an enormous amount of work to be done before Mr. Stone’s beautiful building rises beside the Potomac, but I hope that by this spring, ground will be broken…It would be an encouragement to all of us who must keep on working until the center truly exists.[16]

Master of Ceremonies Leonard Bernstein offered in his speech to the audience toward the end of the over two-hour event: “In reviewing the artists we have beheld tonight I can think only what a marvel it is that they are not only great artists but such warm, affectionate generous people. That seems to me to be a unifying trait among American artists…”[17]

“An American Pageant of the Arts” was not the final television-related event to serve as a forum for the National Cultural Center. On the December 23, 1962 episode of “Update,” according to the NBC press releases, host Bob Abernathy would lead a program on how “the cultural ‘explosion’ has resulted in the passage by Congress in 1958 of a bill providing for a National Cultural Center in Washington, DC, and the building of the Lincoln Center of Performing Arts in New York.”[18]

Additionally, 1962 does not mark the end of the discussion of what a National Cultural Center should be, or what influenced its architect, Edward Durell Stone. For example:

PETER: You say now Wright has influenced your work, would you say?

STONE: Oh, yes.

This comes from Stone’s July 18, 1963 interview in the John Peter Collection, which is available in the Recorded Sound Research Center of NAVCC. John Peter was a magazine editor, a radio and television reporter, and the author of books including “The Oral History of Modern Architecture: Interviews with the Greatest Architects of the Twentieth Century” (1994). The Collection includes audio interviews, transcripts, and photographs of many 20th century artists including Frank Lloyd Wright and Edward Durell Stone.

While Peter’s interview with Stone does not specifically mention details of the National Cultural Center, Stone’s statements on Versailles and the Albany Center that he was then designing reflect back to Wright’s comments about building design in “A National Cultural Center” from the Part 1 blog post:  “…great formal composition where all the buildings are connected, all servicing is below the level of the great platform…”[19]

Architect Edward Durrell Stone

Edward Durell Stone would continue to share his ideas on architecture when he spoke at the National Press Club luncheon on March 10, 1964 –a talk which is one of 2,000 talks included in NAVCC’s collection of National Press Club speeches.

Regarding seating capacity at the proposed Cultural Center, Stone says:

This is no place to compromise with quality. In other words, ideal visual and auditory conditions should…transcend the quick buck.

In the speech, Stone also discusses the choice of the Center’s location within Washington DC. One point that he brings up is that the location of different activities is changing. Another point is that, “The tradition of Washington is a large white building in a park” and “we have a site, which on the Potomac side, is in 80 acres of park.” And later:

Sure we may have to build a couple of overpasses, why not? So you see, I’m convinced that this is an idyllic site where you walk around the city, will you find anything as beautiful as the prospect over the Potomac to the Roosevelt Island…

Although the architecture of the Center comprises a substantive part of his National Press Club talk, Stone also offers his perspective on the Kennedys and the arts:

Again, in this era of overabundance, we seem to be able to afford everything but beauty. President Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy did more to encourage the arts, in my opinion, than anyone since Thomas Jefferson. And I consider it poetic, and myself extremely fortunate, that the Cultural Center, here in Washington, is to be his memorial.

Sample script page for “A Stage for Excellence.”

Stone’s remark, coming less than four months after President Kennedy’s assassination, makes these lines from 1962’s “A Stage for Excellence” especially poignant:

“I think it [the National Cultural Center] is important for many reasons. It will be a living symbol of our national appreciation and pride in the Arts. It will be a national stage for excellence to encourage young composers, playwrights and performing arts. It will provide a much needed setting for distinguished artists from abroad, and it seems fitting that they should appear in our Nation’s capital.”[20]

The NBC Master Book listing for “A Stage for Excellence,” identifies the speaker of these words as then First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Sixty-one years after Jacqueline Kennedy offered these words about the “national stage” to which she contributed, and over 50 years after the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts held its first performance, the Library of Congress’ National Audio-Visual Conservation Center’s moving image and recorded sound collections provide a fitting opportunity to reflect on the earliest days of the Kennedy Center.

 

 

Thank you to Kennedy Center Lead Archivist, Sofía Becerra-Licha, for providing information on the history of the Kennedy Center.

Don’t hesitate to contact Ask a Librarian about this program or any other items in our collections.  Before you plan to come in and view any collection items, please get in touch with our reference staff in the Moving Image Research Center.

 

Bibliography:

Adams, Val. “News of TV and Radio – Culture: Mrs. Kennedy to Appear On National Center Program–Items.” New York Times. November 4, 1962, sec. Arts & Leisure. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times.

An American Pageant of the Arts, 1962.

Esterow, Milton. “Closed-Circuit TV Show Opens National Cultural Center Drive: Cultural Center Opens Campaign.” 1962. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times.

Hume, Paul. “U.S. Culture Center Plan Is Unveiled: New Stone Design Is Shown to 350 By Mrs. Kennedy Totally New Concept Roof Garden Plan U.S. Culture Center Model Is Unveiled.” The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973). September 12, 1962. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post.

Hartford Courant. “Jackie Kennedy Unveils Cultural Center Model.” September 12, 1962. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Hartford Courant.

Kennedy Center. “On This Day In 1962, National Cultural Center Week Began.” Medium (blog), November 26, 2020. https://kennedycenter.medium.com/on-this-day-in-1962-national-cultural-center-week-began-4fbe20b4607.

Landauer, Jerry. “Architect’s ‘Vision’ of Cultural Center Approved.” The Washington Post and Times Herald (1954-1959). July 21, 1959, sec. City Life. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post.

Little, Stuart W. “‘Big Names’ to Sell Tickets for Actors Studio.” New York Herald Tribune (1926-1962). November 7, 1962, sec. Entertainment. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post.

National Broadcasting Company. “National Broadcasting Company Press Releases. Part II, 1951-1989.” Accessed August 23, 2022. //lccn.loc.gov/2020603129.

———. “National Broadcasting Company Television Master Books. 1939-1991.,” n.d. //lccn.loc.gov/2022621509.

Peter, John. “Transcripts and Photographs from the John Peter Collection, 1951-1995.” Mixed material. Recorded Sound Research Center, Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Library of Congress, 1995 1951. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.mbrsrs/eadmbrs.rs006002.

Pitman, Jack. “Plenty Wrong With Culturecast; O’Neill’s Drama Under the Dishes No Delight; Casals as Conductor a Bore.” Variety, December 5, 1962. Variety Ultimate.

 

Notes:

[1] Landauer, “Architect’s ‘Vision’ of Cultural Center Approved.”

[2] Hume, “U.S. Culture Center Plan Is Unveiled.”

[3] “Jackie Kennedy Unveils Cultural Center Model.”

[4] Hume, “U.S. Culture Center Plan Is Unveiled.”

[5] National Broadcasting Company, “NBC Press Releases. Part II.”

[6] Adams, “News of TV And Radio – Culture.”

[7] Pitman, “Plenty Wrong With Culturecast; O’Neill’s Drama Under the Dishes No Delight; Casals as Conductor a Bore.”

[8] Esterow, “Closed-Circuit TV Show Opens National Cultural Center Drive.”

[9] Pitman, “Plenty Wrong With Culturecast; O’Neill’s Drama Under the Dishes No Delight; Casals as Conductor a Bore.”

[10] Esterow, “Closed-Circuit TV Show Opens National Cultural Center Drive.”

[11] Kennedy Center, “On This Day In 1962, National Cultural Center Week Began.”

[12] An American Pageant of the Arts.

[13] National Broadcasting Company, “NBC Press Releases. Part II.”

[14] Little, “‘Big Names’ to Sell Tickets for Actors Studio.”

[15] An American Pageant of the Arts.

[16] An American Pageant of the Arts.

[17] An American Pageant of the Arts.

[18] National Broadcasting Company, “NBC Press Releases. Part II.”

[19] Peter, “Transcripts and Photographs from the John Peter Collection, 1951-1995.”

[20] National Broadcasting Company, “NBC TV Master Books.”

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