- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2001

The changing of the guard happened Wednesday at a luncheon meeting of the Kennedy Center Board of Trustees.

Lawrence Wilker stepped down after nearly 10 years as the institution's chief executive and a beaming Michael Kaiser stepped up.

Mr. Kaiser takes over as president officially next Thursday, with Mr. Wilker remaining on the payroll as consultant to continue the transition. The latter has been working evenings and weekends in recent months in his new career as creator and producer of cultural programming intended mainly for Internet distribution.

A host of innovations and successes have marked his tenure, perhaps the most widely touted being the increase in annual fund raising from $14 million to $40 million and the paying off of $7 million in accumulated debt. Numerous physical improvements in the center took place, and many outreach programs also were introduced.

The holder of a doctorate in drama from the University of Illinois, Mr. Wilker, 58, was primarily a theater director and producer before taking over at the Kennedy Center. His new business, titled ShowOnDemand, which he began with longtime producer friend Lou Reda, has its headquarters on the third floor of his home in Northwest.

The business, which involves four people, includes building an archive of film, videotape and newspaper material now in storage in a building in Easton, Pa. His office plans to have images of major events in the world available for rent, much of it digitized for downloading, Mr. Wilker said in a recent interview.

Mr. Wilker announced his resignation in April. Eight weeks later Mr. Kaiser, 47, was named president-designate — something of a hiring record by Washington standards.

Farewells since then have been frequent and festive, beginning with a party in November hosted by the center's board of trustees complete with Mr. Wilker's favorite pig-in-the-blanket hors d'oeuvres.

The biggest surprise of the evening, he says, was a gift from entertainer Debbie Allen of a Welsh corgi puppy, now named Casey (after the initials "K.C." for Kennedy Center). Mr. Wilker and his wife, Jill, subsequently bought a Bernese mountain dog, named Ruby, to keep the corgi company. "We always planned on having a dog, but we couldn't do it before because we weren't home enough," he says. He has grown children from a previous marriage.

Ushers at the center feted Mr. Wilker in December and, last week, Kennedy Center staff members threw a Hawaiian beach party for him onstage at the Opera House.

The most personally satisfying professional moments for him, he says, have been in a theater with a live audience. "I really believe the center — and the performing arts — brings people of all walks of life together to celebrate as one the things we have in common rather than what divide us."

He is proud of seeing attendance at the center double during his tenure, given that "it's essentially a small market; Washington is not a big city."

Regrets? The perennially upbeat Mr. Wilker, whose tall, sturdy frame fairly exudes enthusiasm and good will, can hardly name one. When pressed, he mentions the challenges of the early days to get the building's physical plant in shape and the occasional rejection of an appeal for funds.

He estimates that he spent 40 percent of his time on fund raising, 40 percent on programming and "40 percent on other matters." He worked six and seven days a week, with the only guaranteed free time being the days a heavy snowstorm closed the center.

Pleasant memories, too, include visits backstage with former President Bush playing the piano. "He and the first lady would come to the center about one time a month," Mr. Wilker says. He expects the new first lady, Laura Bush — who automatically becomes an honorary chairwoman on the center's board of trustees along with previous first ladies — to be an eager advocate for the center's many education programs.

On Tuesday, Mr. Wilker and Mr. Kaiser manned the lectern together at a luncheon promoting the center's spring gala benefit, set for April 22 to celebrate the institution's 30th anniversary. The annual gala, which rivals December's Kennedy Center Honors as the institution's main fund-raising event, is expected to earn more than $2 million for operating expenses.

Mr. Kaiser announced the entertainment lineup for the gala. It includes jazz vocalist Diane Reeves, actor Sean Hayes, actress Christine Baranski, Bolshoi ballerina Nina Ananiashvili (whom the president-designate calls "one of my best friends"), country and western singer Randy Travis and soprano Hei Kyung Hong .

The two men traded accolades, with Mr. Wilker introducing Mr. Kaiser as "the consummate professional … he has great taste" and Mr. Kaiser praising Mr. Wilker's "work and energy."

The pair first met when Mr. Kaiser was managing American Ballet Theatre, rescuing it from near extinction in the mid-1990s. Mr. Kaiser, who has a graduate degree in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, lived in Washington between 1978 and 1985 and worked as a consultant to several Fortune 500 companies. He served on the Washington Opera's board for two years during that time.

A New Yorker by birth and an opera enthusiast, he once trained to be a baritone singer and sang with the Tanglewood chorus. He also studied the violin. One of his grandfathers was a violinist with the New York Philharmonic.

After stints as fix-it doctor for American Ballet Theatre and Alvin Ailey Dance Theater Foundation, Mr. Kaiser acquired a solid reputation as a wizard able to repair financially ailing cultural institutions. Lured to London in 1998 to take over a troubled Royal Opera at Convent Garden, he erased the company's $28 million debt in two years' time.

Like Mr. Wilker, he has proclaimed theater to be his first love. He also is on record supporting more cutting-edge dance and greater use of technology in the performing arts. His future was decided as a 4-year-old when his mother took him to see "The Music Man," he said, not long ago.

He also noted that "I have this bizarre personality quirk. I love to fund raise."

How this talent will work to his advantage in further defining the center's broad and often confusing mandate to serve both local and national audiences remains to be seen. One of the first issues he faces will be whether to name an artistic director and, if so, whom. The position would be a new on


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