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Living Legacy: The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

"The National Cultural Center is the most significant cultural undertaking in the history of this city and has enormous importance to the cultural life of the nation as a whole."

-- President Kennedy, March 9, 1961 in letter to the President of the Senate and to the Speaker of the House on the proposed
National Cultural Center

The Dream

The seed for John Kennedy's dream for an American cultural center was planted in the 1930's, when Eleanor Roosevelt proposed the building of a National Theatre to give work to the large numbers of unemployed actors in the nation's capital. Although President Roosevelt did not find the original design comprehensive, he took interest in the idea. Eventually, in 1935, he introduced a bill to Congress proposing a building for the Department of Science, Art, and Literature that would house four theatres. A lack of funds prevented construction, but the dream had taken root, crossing political party lines and migrating from one presidential administration to the next.

In 1950, discussion began for a Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial Theatre. Three years later, a movement arose to create a National War Memorial Theatre. A bill to that effect was introduced in Congress resulting in a commission to encourage performing arts across the country and to provide grants to states for individual projects. In 1958 President Eisenhower signed the National Cultural Center Act into law. Ground was never broken, however, for a cultural arts center, which would blossom only from a tragedy, played out before an international audience, on the world stage.

The Kennedy Contribution
When John F. Kennedy entered the White House, funds raised for the Center were meager. He made development of the Culture Center one of his earliest priorities, writing a letter to the Senate in March to urge additions to the Culture Center legislation. In the meantime, he and Jackie made the White House a cultural center of their own.

"I am hopeful that it will not be necessary always to have a special stage put in the White House for Shakespeare, or for a special hearing for a distinguished musician, but that in Washington we can have a great cultural center which expresses the interest of the people of this country," Kennedy said. He appointed Jackie and former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower co-Honorary Chairmen of the Center to help with fundraising, and he established November 26 to December 2 as the 1962 National Cultural Center Week, hosting "An American Pageant on the Arts" to raise money.

Two months before his death, Kennedy signed an amendment to the National Cultural Center Act saying, "We feel it essential that this Cultural Center be finished. Every major capital in the world...has a center which demonstrates the performing arts, serves as the place for exhibiting the finest in the Nation's cultural life... if we can build this Center it will be a very good thing for this country."

Fund-raising lagged until Kennedy's assassination, however, when the shock of his death prompted donations of money and building materials from all over the world. As funds came in, the government agreed to underwrite more of the construction costs. Only a few weeks after his assassination, Congress approved the naming of the Center after the fallen President. President Johnson wrote, "It seems to me that a center for the performing arts on the beautiful site selected would be one of the most appropriate memorials that a grateful nation could establish to honor a man who had such deep and abiding convictions about the importance of cultural activities in our national life."

At the groundbreaking ceremonies on December 2, 1964, Johnson remarked: "As this center comes to reflect and advance the greatness of America, consider then those glories were purchased by a valiant leader who never swerved from duty--John Kennedy. And in his name I dedicate this site."

The Dream Realized

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts officially opened on September 8, 1971. In the inaugural program, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wrote: "Now, at last, we will have a home for the performing arts in our own nation's capital...This is a place not just for the wealthy elite, but for all America."

Dedication Statements by Richard and Patricia Nixon, Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Published in the inaugural program, September 8, 1971

Jackie had commissioned a piece for the opening from Leonard Bernstein, a longtime personal friend of the Kennedys. He responded with his most ambitious (and perhaps most controversial) piece: his Mass. The piece paid tribute to Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic president. Bernstein wrote in the program notes, "The intention of Mass is to communicate as directly and universally as I can a reaffirmation of faith."

Roger Stevens, chairman of the Center's Board of Trustees, introduced the performance, saying that "President Kennedy, more than any of his predecessors, lent dignity to the role of the arts in America. We have tried to do justice to his memory." He remembers the performance as "the most thrilling night I have ever spent in the theater. The production lasted one hour and forty-five minutes. There was not a sound from the audience. At the end there were about three minutes of silence and none of us knew whether we had a failure or a hit on our hands. Then everyone rose to their feet and cheered for half an hour."

Note: Bernstein's Mass was performed here in Columbus, Ohio, by the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra at the Southern Theatre in 2004. This was only the second time that this pivotal work in American history had been performed in its chamber version, and was a rare opportunity to hear the foremost interpreter of Bernstein's Mass, Douglas Webster, who made his debut in the role of the Celebrant for the composer's 70th birthday gala in 1988.

An Epilogue

It matters not if one believes the myth of Camelot aptly portrays the Kennedy White House. The Kennedy Center keeps that myth alive because it strives to fulfill President Kennedy's vision of producing and presenting an unmatched variety of theater and musical and dance performances by the greatest artists of America and abroad for people of all ages, races, and religions. The Kennedy Center's shining lights honor the man whose name is inscribed on the building and the dream that he had for making America a better place.

"John Kennedy is gone. Each of us will know that we are the lesser for his death. But each is somehow larger because he lived. A sadness has settled on the world which will never leave it while we who knew him are still here."
--President Johnson, from Remarks of President Johnson and Under Secretary of State George W. Ball at the Presentation of the Medal of Freedom Awards (December 6, 1963)

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