- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2001

Tourists often comment that the best part of visiting the District is the number of attractions that charge no admission. The U.S. Capitol, the White House, the Smithsonian museums and the monuments are all there for anyone willing to wait in line.

Add the Kennedy Center to that list. One does not have to invest in a $65 orchestra seat to get a taste of cultural arts in the nation's capital.

The center's Millennium Stage offers free concerts in the Grand Foyer 365 days a year. The stage is at the end of the foyer, and all shows begin at 6 p.m. Four hundred seats are set up (and usually fill up), but there is plenty of standing-room space.

The series began four years ago as a way to make the performing arts accessible to everyone, says Jason Palmquist, a Kennedy Center senior program coordinator. In the beginning, it was harder to find acts than patrons, he says.

"When we got started, we really had to pound the pavement," he says. "Now, it is just the opposite. We are besieged by agents, performers and managers. We usually have our choice of scheduling any one of three or four fantastic artists on any given day."

The Kennedy Center tries to schedule a mix of musicians and dancers from a variety of genres and geographic locations. An opera company might perform one night, and the next night might feature an African dance troupe or a jazz singer.

The audience is a diverse lot as well. At a recent concert given by the National ISIS Strings Academy, a group of teen-age performers from the United Kingdom, the crowd included George Washington University students, tourists, senior citizens and theatergoers passing time before attending a 7:30 performance of the musical "Kiss Me, Kate."

The Hecker family from Houston was among the standing-room-only crowd that rainy night. They had come to the Kennedy Center to take one of the free tours offered at the center, but stayed to hear the show, Lynda Hecker says.

"We saw all the concert halls and the beautiful chandelier," says Mrs. Hecker, who was visiting with her husband, Mike, and two daughters, ages 8 and 10. "It is great to be able to expose the kids to performing arts. It is important that they are seeing children close to their own age perform."

Tourists make up a large part of the crowd each night, Mr. Palmquist says.

"We have never commissioned a study to see exactly who our audience is," he says. "It is a very diverse audience. I would say about half the audience is here for the first time. At many shows, we get many people there to specifically see that show."

The Millennium Stage's State Days, when a performer from a particular state say, Ohio or South Dakota is on the schedule, are popular. The foyer fills up with new Washingtonians, including interns, students and Capitol Hill staffers, eager for a piece of home.

Those seeking a behind-the-scenes look at the Kennedy Center also can show up at the center without much planning. Free tours sponsored by the Friends of the Kennedy Center are offered weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and weekends from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Groups larger than 20 can make reservations in advance.

The Kennedy Center also is preparing for its 17th annual open house. This free event will take place from noon to 6 p.m. Sept. 9.

"This is the 30th anniversary of the Kennedy Center, so the event will be quite special this year," Mr. Palmquist says.

Featured acts at the open house will be the Ailey II dance company, an offshoot of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; jazz pianist Billy Taylor and the Billy Taylor Trio; and the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.

At the open house, the National Symphony Orchestra will offer selections from its Beethoven Festival, which will run at the Kennedy Center Sept. 7, 8, 14 and 15. The NSO also will have a "petting zoo," in which children get a chance to play different musical instruments and meet NSO musicians.

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