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Before the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Part 1

One of the many cultural institutions in Washington, D.C. is the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The mission of the Kennedy Center is:

“As the nation’s cultural center, and a living memorial to President John F. Kennedy, we are a leader for the arts across America and around the world, reaching and connecting with artists, inspiring and educating communities. We welcome all to create, experience, learn about, and engage with the arts.”[1]

The beginning of 2023 is a fitting moment to share some of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center’s (NAVCC) holdings documenting the origins of the Kennedy Center, as 2022 provided many milestones in the Center’s history. September 2022 marked the conclusion of the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary season, with the opening of the new exhibit, “Art and Ideals: President John F. Kennedy”; a restaging of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS; and in December, the taping and later broadcasting of the 45th “Kennedy Center Honors.” This blog and the following blog post will discuss some of the NAVCC moving images and recorded sound materials documenting the National Cultural Center, before it became the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The plan for a national cultural center was formalized with the passing of Public Law 85-874, The National Cultural Center Act, on September 2, 1958. The Library of Congress’ PBS Collection includes one of the television programs created shortly after this law was passed, called “A National Cultural Center.” The program was produced for National Educational Television and Radio Center by Potomac Film Producers and is listed in the Library’s documentation as part of the Platform series, dating from  December 20, 1959. The episode is timely because the interviewee on this program, Frank Lloyd Wright, had passed away on April 9, 1959, and is described in in the program’s introduction as one of Wright’s last public appearances.

Frank Lloyd Wright (left) and Robert Richman pictured together more than a decade before their appearance in “A National Cultural Center.”  (Photo by Harris/Ewing, 1949)

That introduction to “A National Cultural Center” comes from then American Institute of Architects’ president, John Noble Richards. He describes Wright’s visits to the proposed site of the National Cultural Center,“a piece of land on the Potomac, now partly occupied by an old brewery,” as a pan of the site is shown. In fact, later in the program, it’s mentioned that Wright visited the site three times. Richards goes on to state that “He [Wright] left little doubt as to who he thought should be the architect. In fact, he offered his services free.”

The program then continues with the interview of Frank Lloyd Wright recorded on October 3, 1958 in front of a live audience at the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C. [2] Wright and the interviewer, Robert Richman, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, sit beside each other on an empty stage. While the staging is simple, the audience’s occasional laughter and the conversational nature of the interview enliven the program. [3]

“The traffic problem is the problem the architect must meet and solve first,” says Wright, and that the “the building levels begin above the parking level.” At the same time, the waterfront location of the Cultural Center was noted, including extending the building to and even over the water.

Another topic discussed is the nature of how to design theaters and stages. Wright states that the “proscenium is a thing of the past.” Later he states, “…that would mean perhaps then that we’d need three different kinds of stages or auditoria…the theater or symphony concert hall would have to double, an opera house for the opera, classical, and modern ballet and modern dance, and then a small chamber auditorium for poetry readings, and chamber music, and small chamber theater.”

Prepared questions asked by Robert Richman came from various participants in the National Cultural Center planning including: Representative Frank Thompson, a sponsor of the National Cultural Center’s bill; Dr. Paul Callaway, conductor of Washington Opera Society and National Cathedral Choirs; and National Capital Planning Commission Director, William Finlay. Not only did these questions elicit responses about traffic and theater design, but also on government’s role in the arts, funding of the National Cultural Center, projects in Dallas and Baghdad, and the aesthetics of the Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial.

“Architecture which is organic” is one theme repeated by Frank Lloyd Wright throughout this program. In the next blog post on the National Cultural Center, more National Audio-Visual

Eventual Kennedy Center architect Edward D. Stone, Stone’s wife, Maria, Frank Lloyd Wright and Wright’s son-in-law in December, 1957. (Photo by Charles Rossi)

Conservation Center holdings documenting the beginnings of the Kennedy Center will provide an opportunity to continue to reflect on Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, but also to explore the architecture of the National Cultural Center as it was developed by the Center’s eventual architect, Edward Durell Stone. In addition, appearances by Dwight D. and Mamie Eisenhower, John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy, and stars in the performing arts will tell the story of the National Cultural Center, now part of the Kennedy Center’s own history, through moving images and recorded sound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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

Notes:

[1] “Mission.”

[2] Richard L. Coe, “Arts Center Ideas Aired By Wright.”

[3] Richard L. Coe.

 

Bibliography:

The Kennedy Center. “Mission,” n.d. https://www.kennedy-center.org/our-story/mission/.

Richard L. Coe. “Arts Center Ideas Aired By Wright.” The Washington Post and Times Herald (1954-1959). October 4, 1958. 149027011. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post.

 

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