Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Washington Social Diary

The Kennedy Center Honors show will go on, but without Michael Stevens and his father, George Stevens Jr.
by Carol Joynt

Washington, famous for being one of this decade’s most fruitful employment hubs, is about to post a prime job opening, and it’s not for the next President of the United States or owner/manager/coach/quarterback of the football team. This particular job has more longevity, or at least had more longevity. In the midst of the Kennedy Center Honors this past weekend, with the focus trained on a batch of glittering honorees and their acolytes, the evening’s impresario, George Stevens, Jr., drew the spotlight to himself, announcing he is stepping down.

Over 37 years, he’s the only person who has ever had the job. A producer who knows how to stage a show, he offered a showstopper, making the dramatic announcement from the stage after the intermission. Jaws dropped.
George Stevens Jr., at one of the brunches he hosts each year before the Kennedy Center Honors gala.
While its not entirely clear whether Stevens opened the stage door himself or whether Kennedy Center board chairman David Rubenstein opened it for him, the announcement upstaged everyone who was being honored. Stevens reasons were emotional and personal. To a packed house of celebs and swells, he broke his news, calling out Rubenstein as wanting a new producer, a fresh approach. Only element missing was a drum roll from the orchestra pit.

Producing the Kennedy Center Honors seemed to be a job that was Stevens’ until the day he decided he didn’t want it anymore, and only then would it be handed gracefully to his son, Michael Stevens, who has worked with him for years, much as George worked with his father, Oscar-winning “Giant” director George Stevens. But that’s not how this break went down. (Another drum roll) Stevens said that Michael, too, also out. And thus the search is on for a new Honors producer, altogether a tough job but also a plum job.
David Rubenstein greets honoree Al Green at the State Department.
David Rubenstein with Dorothy McAuliffe and her husband, Terry, the Virginia governor. 
The Kennedy Center’s hierarchy was quick to pour oil on the water. Spokesman John Dow issued a statement: “The Kennedy Center is enormously grateful for the contributions George and his son Michael have made to the Honors over the years. The Kennedy Center Honors have grown in stature over the past 37 years to become the preeminent recognition of the performing arts in America. With tonight’s news, the Kennedy Center will begin a search for an Honors producer that will build upon this strong foundation in the years to come.”

What else there is to know is that Stevens contract had expired and there was no new agreement. The backstory will roll out for days to come, especially about how it came to such a public display of bad feeling. In a town where the boys often behave like boys, Rubenstein and Stevens are among the city’s more serene and well behaved. Even the firing of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, while awkward, was handled with appropriate official ceremony. Obviously, whatever went on in negotiations pushed Stevens over the line, because he is not a spotlight-grabber and his routine demeanor is friendly and congenial.
Kennedy Center Honorees of 2014: Patricia McBride, Lily Tomlin, Tom Hanks, Sting, and Al Green.
Class photo: Deborah Rutter, John Kerry, Patricia McBride, Lily Tomlin, Teresa Heinz Kerry, David Rubenstein, Tom Hanks, Sting, Al Green, Michael Stevens, and George Stevens. 
The job of producing the Honors is monumental. It’s about staging a complex show, booking and then keeping secret the names of the performers, producing a CBS broadcast, and a gala with the President and First Lady in attendance, and it involves dealing with some of the most high-strung and pampered personalities: actors, singers, dancers, musicians, writers, directors ... and, well, also Kennedy Center board members.

Its unlikely Stevens will rest on his laurels, though he has considerable laurels. In addition to creating the Kennedy Center Honors, he is the founding director of the American Film Institute. He wrote the play Thurgood, he wrote the book Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, he’s won eleven Emmy Awards and his film, The Thin Red Line, was nominated for seven Oscars.
Jane Fonda arrives at the State Department.
Put this man on the Kennedy Center board: Bruno Mars. Misty Copeland.
Charlie Rose.
Nancy Pelosi. Margot Schulman and James Johnson.
Chicago's own Penny Pritzker, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.
CBS News correspondent and host, Norah O'Donnell. Trudie Styler and Sting.
Two more should-be Kennedy Center board members: Patty Scialfa and Bruce Springsteen, husband and wife musicians. 
The Kennedy Center over recent years has displayed a hunger for youth. I’m not privy to the backstage deliberations of the board, but let’s hope they aren’t falling into this pit: “We gotta go younger.” “We gotta go hipper.” “We have to get those Millennials.” There’s not much wrong and usually a lot right about a fresh approach, but is fresh the wheelhouse of a government arts institution? At the very least, this will be the test.

I didn’t purposefully intend to bury the lead, but it is that kind of story. Here’s the other news out of this year’s Kennedy Center Honors: the honorees were actor Tom Hanks, ballerina Patricia McBride, comedian and actress Lily Tomlin, musicians Al Green and Sting. The President and First Lady hosted the evening, preceded by a White House reception. Michelle Obama was red carpet spectacular in a shimmering white Monique Lhuillier gown. Saturday night, at the State Department, Secretary John Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, hosted a pre-game dinner. The performers at the Honors  – chosen by Stevens – included Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Esperanza Spalding, and Bruce Springsteen, to name only some. Stephen Colbert was the host. 
Secretary of State John Kerry welcomes guests to the Saturday night dinner before the Sunday Kennedy Center Awards gala.
Dinner is served in the Kennedy Center's main hall. 
Jane Wagner, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda at the State Department dinner the eve of the Kennedy Center Honors.
Lily Tomlin and Debbie Stabenow.
Hey, here’s an idea, Mickey. Let’s put together a new board and let’s put Gaga and Bruno and Bruce and Esperanza on it, and lets make Stephen chairman! That would be a new approach.
Darren Walker and Jessye Norman.
It wouldn't be a Washington gala without Adrienne Arsht, here with Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter. Nini Ferguson Johnson with her husband, Jay.
Giselle Fernandez and Herbie Hancock.
Amb. Yousef Al Otaiba of the United Arab Emirates with Deborah Rutter.
Here's a hat trick: Sting, Herbie Hancock and Meryl Streep.
Cutting it up, of course: Stephen Colbert with Kris Kristofferson.
On the left, Bonnie McElveen-Hunter.
Note: The Kennedy Center Honors broadcast will air on CBS on Tuesday, December 30, though I expect with the Stevens moment edited out.

The New York Social Diary archives include these two earlier stories about the Kennedy Center Honors and George Stevens Jr.

• A Visit to a Kennedy Center Honors rehearsal

• The Kennedy Center Honors Brunch, Hosted by George and Liz Stevens
Photographs by Yassine El Mansouri, Scott Suchman, John Filo, and Carol Joynt.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt