- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Kennedy Center took its performing arts mandate to new heights last week, presenting a number of celebratory events in conjunction with the institution’s current festival, “A New America: The 1940s and the Arts.” Even fashion had a formal place in the mix.

Time was — not so long ago — when New Yorkers never would say the words “fashion” and “Washington” in the same breath. Flash forward to Thursday’s luncheon celebrating the launch of the “Fabulous! Fashions of the 1940s” exhibit and you would have heard fashion historian Valerie Steele, chief curator at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology, refer to the Kennedy Center as “FIT’s outpost in Washington.”

“With fashion, change is all,” as Miss Steele said, and the proof was in the show, the first of its kind at the center (where it will be open to the public through April 14). Arranged in cooperation with FIT’s staff and costume collection, it surveys women’s changing styles of the period before and after World War II, along with some memorable fashion photographs of that era. Credit is rightly given to designer Claire McCardell, a Marylander, for helping invent American sportswear at a time when famous French couturiers — traditionally leaders in the fashion field — were cut off from the rest of the world.

Ms. Steele took notice, too, when Kennedy Center trustee emeritus Buffy Cafritz mentioned she had three outfits by Valentino at home, one of which she never had worn. They were a present from her husband when, as a young bride, she had sponsored the designer’s first show ever in Washington — long before he became a superstar.

No wonder Ms. Steele made sure to ask the style-savvy crowd to let her know “if you think you might have in your closet something comparable” to what was on display in the show. The Forties’ theme stayed alive through midnight with the press opening of “Mister Roberts,” the 1948 drama now in revival at the Eisenhower Theater. A cast party afterward featured such nostalgic items of the period as a Sidecar cocktail and coconut cake. Cups and plates were blue and white — reminiscent of a shipboard galley. Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser made sure he wore his spiffiest navy blue suit to greet the guests.

— Ann Geracimos

Saturday’s “Sentimental Journey: The Music of the 1940s” got off to a touching start following “Series for Artistic Excellence” underwriter Catherine B. Reynolds’ brief introductory remarks describing the decade’s unforgettable sounds as “love letters set to music” sent to the nation’s troops during World War II. With Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. Peter Pace at her side in full dress uniform, she announced that 100 wounded military personnel from Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval hospitals were sitting in the Concert Hall with their families. “You, too, have helped. No doubt 60 years from now, someone will be on this stage saluting you for your courage,” Mrs. Reynolds told them to cheers and a prolonged standing ovation from the audience.

Country and Western singer Dwight Yoakam began the show with a greatly overamplified set that contained a few ‘40s Grand Ole Opry classics by Ernest Tubb (“Walking the Floor Over You”) and Hank Williams, but just as many of his own ‘80s billboard hits. Thus began a pattern of sound problems and drifting away from the ‘40s theme that would continue throughout the night. (Later, Mr. Kaiser artfully maintained that the performance was also meant to show how that decade musically affected following generations.)

Harolyn Blackwell and Joel Grey seized the stage with Big Band-style homages to Irving Berlin, the era’s greatest songwriter, with the former hoofing admirably through “Steppin’ Out With My Baby”; the latter evoking the best of Broadway with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Miss Blackwell’s performance, however, was plagued by a faulty microphone. Mr. Grey soon diverged to favorites from “Cabaret,” although no one seemed to mind that the songs were written in the ‘60s about the ‘30s, since he still delivers like a legend should.

Johnny Mathis opened with “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Charade” (written by Henry Mancini in the 1960s). The 69-year-old singer’s remarkably youthful voice and continued success with the high notes belied a rigid shuffling across the stage when he shifted to his own golden oldies (“Gina,” “Chances Are,” “Not for Me to Say”), although his tortoiselike steps quickened considerably during “Brasil,” his set’s one ‘40s hit, filled with the infectious beat of congas, claves and drums.

Finally Aretha Franklin, swathed in mink and acres of beaded white silk chiffon, raised the roof with “Chain of Fools” and “Respect” assisted by a full complement of backup vocalists and dancers. Her “tribute to the ‘40s,” the Edwardian-era tear-jerker “Danny Boy,” was the evening’s real puzzler, but give the Queen of Soul “show must go on” credit for performing despite a rather annoying cough.

Mrs. Reynold’s and her husband, Wayne, who have given about $112 million to the center in recent years, hosted the post-performance dinner in the Atrium, transformed for the occasion into an end-of-winter extravaganza with billowing white curtains, giant snowy pompoms hanging from the ceiling and masses of roses and calla lilies atop towering glass candelabras. Among the crowd dining on salmon carpaccio with caviar, stuffed quail and banana bavarois by Le Paradou chef Yannick Cam were Cardinal Theodore McCarrick; Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Sen. Thad Cochran; Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley Jr., Alma Powell, Jim Kimsey, and Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen A. Schwartzman, who got the biggest laugh of the night when he thanked Mr. Mathis for all the romantic hits that “contributed to the great success” he had “at make-out parties” during his teenage years.

— Kevin Chaffee

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