Friday, December 4, 2015

Washington Social Diary: High Drama at The Kennedy Center Honors

A peaceful view of the Kennedy Center, which opened in September 1971.
by Carol Joynt

There should be a tutorial in a special “Welcome to Washington” manual handed out to all who achieve a position of power in the nation’s capital. It would begin:

“CONGRATULATIONS. You’re a winner. You played the game well and got all the bright shiny things that comprise the Washington power matrix: the hot job, the big title, some influence and power and all the transactional friends with whom to share master-of-the-universe breakfasts and also exchange cocktail, dinner and other invitations. If it is a plum job, hooray, you likely also have special circumstances (famous friends, coveted tickets, A-list fast track) and thus can bestow perks and become especially popular.”

But in fine print, ignored by many, is this:

“WARNING:  Play by the rules, and not your rules but their rules. This is a chain of command town. With the exception of the President, you’ll always be looking up. Know who’s up there, if they can help or hurt you, and if they can hurt you, be prepared to woo them or to go to war, and if you go to war with them, and they have money, you will likely lose. Your only hope then is to set aside your rules, and sell your soul. In which case, welcome to a long career in Washington.”
George Stevens, Jr. at a Kennedy Ceneter Honors rehearsal.
It seems George Stevens Jr., did not get this tutorial or, more likely, he did, or knew it intrinsically, and chose – head held high – to ignore the playbook that makes and breaks Washington careers. He did it his way, God bless him, and so this weekend as the Kennedy Center Honors play out at the State Department, White House and the Kennedy Center, there will be no George Stevens, or his wife, Liz, or some of the key behind-the-scenes associates he relied upon to produce the Honors, nearly flawlessly, over three decades. He exited the stage at last year’s performance, and with high drama. When Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein invited him to make a few remarks to the audience, Stevens let it rip.
Kennedy Center board chairman David Rubenstein, with Sachiko Kuno, at the Opera Ball in 2014.
A child of Hollywood and a master showman, he knew how to create a moment. Instead of the usual vanilla accolades for all involved, Stevens, with his son and co-producer Michael standing nearby, announced that Rubenstein had basically showed them the door. “This will be our last Honors.” And with that, “good night.” It's widely reported he knew the end had arrived – contract renewal negotiations had collapsed – and he opted to go out with meaning, in particular for the artists in the audience, who had come at his behest.

His performance got mixed reviews; those who weren’t silenced by shock called his timing unseemly and inappropriate. He had, after all, broken the rules. Couldn’t he behave? Couldn’t he have worked it out behind the scenes, accepted the fact his contract was up, accepted that change was in the winds, that he had powerful enemies; couldn’t he have gone in peace? No, and why should he? He had every reason to make noise.
George Stevens Jr. with his late son and co-producer Michael Stevens.
Arguably, without George there would be no Honors. He saved them from becoming the standard institutional Washington production, talky, self-aggrandizing, and boring. He oversaw every little detail, he was instrumental in choosing the honorees, he fathered every show-stopping tribute, and his total involvement was his virtue, but apparently also his undoing. Even when well done, near absolute control translates as making your own rules, a threat to others, and that’s asking for it. Washington is no place for auteurs.

Maybe the new Honors will have more flash and glitz – supposedly what the Kennedy Center wants – but Stevens gave them grace and elegance, without forsaking dignity and patriotism. Through them, he lifted Washington’s cultural image up from the ordinary. For a weekend, he made us look good to the national audience, in sharp contrast to that spring weekend of media frenzy, the bloated and dreary White House Correspondents Association Dinner.
George Stevens, Jr., at the Kennedy Center Honors brunch in 2009.
Liz and George Stevens talk with honoree Carol Burnett at the Kennedy Center Honors brunch, which they hosted every year on the Sunday morning of the big show.
For the fortunate who qualified to buy the high-priced tickets – $100,000 donors can buy four tickets – the Honors weekend events may seem like business as usual. But scratch the surface of the black tie and ball-gown gloss and it will reveal a divisive Washington drama that pits the old guard and the arts community against money, especially new money, a tale as old as time and an affliction of the Kennedy Center for decades. It also has prompted a lot of inside-Washington bickering.

The Washington Post on Tuesday ran a recap of the Stevens drama that lit up passions on both sides, but its important to point out the “sides” are a small community of the well off; these are, after all, rich people problems. The Post’s veteran social chronicler, Roxanne Roberts, wrote the piece, which was viewed by Stevens friends as siding with his critics, and with his critics as hitting the mark. Regardless, this paragraph was pointed but also perceptive:

“The Stevenses moved in a tight circle of Washington power brokers and Hollywood blue bloods, ignoring those they considered nouveau riche. Their annual brunch, held on the afternoon of the Honors show, was strictly invitation-only, a social Maginot Line that separated the arrived from the arrivistes. That, friends said, would come back to haunt Stevens, who forgot that the snubbed never forget. And he miscalculated the bottom line of fundraising: To the institution, the age of the money doesn’t matter, just the amount.”
The Kennedy Center Honors brunch at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, where it will be held again this Sunday.
Everyone knows the generosity of rich people is essential to the health of cultural organizations, and that often with gifts of millions of dollars will come a seat on the board. The issue here is once they have that seat just how much influence should they have on the inner workings of the artistic side of the institution. It’s all well and good until it becomes personal. Say, for example, if they don’t like someone due to past grievances, should they be able to influence that person’s role within the institution? Make sure a contract isn’t renewed? It happens, of course. As the imbalance of wealth in America increases, it happens often.

But as noted above, when money is in a position to control your fate, you have to make a choice: fight it or sell your soul. My impression is George Stevens opted to not sell his soul.
At a past honors, Tom Hanks in the presidential box with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
The President and First Lady in 2013, arriving at the White House reception that precedes the Sunday evening Kennedy Center Honors performance and supper dance.
The supper dance that follows the Kennedy Center Honors program, with some 2,000 invited guests. Photo by Daniel Schwarz.
The show will go on Sunday night, of course, starring 2015 honorees Rita Moreno, George Lucas, Seija Ozawa, Carole King, and Cicely Tyson, but there will be changes on stage and off. The annual Honors brunch at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which was hosted always by George and Liz Stevens, will be hosted instead by Adrienne Arsht, who has been very generous to the Kennedy Center. Her co-host is Bryan Lourd, head of the Creative Artists Agency, who was appointed to the Kennedy Center board last year.
Adrienne Arsht at a Washington gala in June 2014.
Creative Artists Agency founder and chairman, Bryan Lourd, in an undated photo. President Obama appointed him to the Kennedy Center board last year.
On Sunday evening, Wayne and Catherine Reynolds are the co-chairs of the supper dance that follows the performance. They, too, have been very generous. Between Arsht and the Reynolds the donations tote up to more than $100 million.

The producers of the show – again, the first new producers in the Honors history – are the experienced duo who produce the Tony Awards, Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss. Like a football franchise with a new quarterback and a new coach, the Kennedy Center hierarchy is all rah-rah on the expectations for the revamped team and the new season. Taking the high road, Stevens is, too.

Not all of the past era was kicked to the curb with George and his son, Michael, who, sadly, had been battling cancer and died in October at the UCLA Medical Center, by far the greatest loss of all for George. The new producers wisely retained his tried and true production team, all of them masters of their crafts. They mount the show in Washington and then fly to Los Angeles to edit it for later airing as a CBS broadcast special. (Here’s hoping the broadcast includes an on screen memoriam to Michael).
Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter with Wayne and Catherine Reynolds at a Kennedy Center gala.
The Post piece made clear the hierarchy of the Kennedy Center are happy with the new order, and in particular President Deborah Rutter likes that the event “fully belongs to the Kennedy Center.” What this means in Washington-speak is that everybody who didn’t have a piece of the pie, and who wanted a piece, now has a piece.

“In this case, they got what they wanted, they got control of this gala and the Kennedy Center,” said a source who did not want to be named but who was happy to name names. But at this point those names don’t really matter, do they? The rules won.