- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 11, 2002

Real estate broker and Broadway producer Roger L. Stevens bought and sold the Empire State Building and helped create the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kennedy Center.

"Even if a production didn't have commercial viability, if he believed in it, he went ahead full steam even when he was fairly certain it wouldn't make it," says Walter Zvonchenko, theater historian with the Library of Congress' Music Division.

That stubborn streak helped "West Side Story" come to be, and his artistic tastes stoked the theatrical careers of Audrey Hepburn and Vivien Leigh, among other talents.

The Library of Congress is honoring the creative life of Mr. Stevens (1910-98) with an exhibition, "Roger Stevens Presents: Stage for a Nation," opening Thursday in the Great Hall of the library's Jefferson Building.

Distilling the essentials of Mr. Stevens' professional life took some doing, Mr. Zvonchenko says. (He is no relation to George Stevens Jr., who produces the Kennedy Center Honors show.)

"You could do a whole series on Roger Stevens and not exhaust him," he says.

This exhibition, funded by Mr. Stevens' daughter, Mrs. Hugh Gough, and his widow, Christine Stevens, focuses on his theatrical work.

The material comes from existing Library of Congress collections, including papers given to the library in the mid-1990s by Mr. and Mrs. Stevens and from the Kennedy Center. Mr. Stevens helped establish the now-thriving performing arts center, serving as head of its Board of Trustees from 1961 to 1988 and as its chairman for its first 17 years.

Items to be displayed include letters, plays, newspapers, production photographs, prints and theatrical posters of his many projects.

Documents such as a 1961 letter designating Mr. Stevens as chairman of the National Cultural Center, which would become the Kennedy Center, and a missive from British director Sir Peter Hall about their joint production of Freidrich Durrenmatt's "The Visit" flesh out his impact on the theater world.

"So quickly, he became a central figure in American theater," Mr. Zvonchenko says. "[Mr. Hall] addressed him as no less than an equal."

Mr. Stevens shared as much interest in literary classics as he did in European theater.

He started his theatrical career in Detroit, supporting an Ann Arbor, Mich., drama festival that eventually spawned his first show, a New York production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."

Mr. Stevens produced more than 100 plays during the 1950s and 1960s, including "Bus Stop," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "A Man for All Seasons."

"It's hard to look back at the theater map in the 1950s and find a major figure he was not connected with," Mr. Zvonchenko says, citing names such as composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein and actress Deborah Kerr.

Typical of Mr. Stevens' theatrical efforts was the play, "The Madwoman of Chaillot," by Jean Giraudoux.

"He didn't know if a play by a relative unknown was going to make it," Mr. Zvonchenko says of the production, which Mr. Stevens helped finance. "It wasn't a tremendous success, but it did have a run."

What made Mr. Stevens such an imposing figure in the arts was his real estate savvy. He blended the two sides of his career like a Shakespearean actor balancing comedy and pathos.

"He achieved a wonderful synergy putting two of his careers together," Mr. Zvonchenko says. "He was a genius for being able to attack so many things on a significant level. Everything he did, he did intensely."

The producer's familiarity with theatrical real estate convinced President John F. Kennedy that he should name him to head the National Cultural Center.

Later, Mr. Stevens served as President Lyndon B. Johnson's special assistant for the arts. Mr. Johnson tapped him to oversee the National Endowment for the Arts' first few steps.

He used his Washington connections to bring the creation to life, Mr. Zvonchenko says, including low-rent housing for artists and grants for the American Ballet Theatre. He served as the organization's leader for its first four years.

Mr. Stevens' professional relationships, like his long-standing ties with Mr. Bernstein, sparked many classic productions, from "Peter Pan" to "West Side Story." Mr. Stevens was instrumental in fostering the latter, says Mr. Zvonchenko, even though he wasn't the primary producer.

Mr. Stevens grew up in comfort but watched his father lose a sizable portion of his wealth during the Great Depression. His educational plans were affected by the loss.

"Anyone who knew him said he was unusually intelligent man," Mr. Zvonchenko says. "He read constantly, both plays and literature in general."

Mr. Stevens' influence spread beyond the arts. He had a hand in the renovation of numerous downtowns, including that of Seattle.

By accounts a shy man who found public speaking a chore, "he was still a commanding person," Mr. Zvonchenko says.

"If there ever had been such as thing as a secretary for cultural affairs in this country, he would have had superb credentials for it," he says.


WHAT: "Roger Stevens Presents: Stage for a Nation"

WHERE: Library of Congress' Thomas Jefferson Building, First Street Southeast between Independence Avenue and East Capitol Street

WHEN: Thursday through Sept. 7. Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/707-4604


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