Remarks at a White House Reception for Kennedy Center Honorees

December 4, 1983

Good evening again. I'm very pleased to welcome you all to the White House, the home that belongs to all of us.

President Kennedy once said that he looked forward to an America ``not afraid of grace and beauty, an America respected throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.'' Well, today we join the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in honoring five Americans who have taught us a great deal about grace and beauty, five who've helped build a distinctive American civilization.

Even as a little girl, Katherine Dunham loved to dance. When only 8, she created a neighborhood controversy by staging a cabaret to raise money for her church. [Laughter] At the University of Chicago, she founded her own dance troupe and discovered anthropology, a discipline that enabled her to study the dance of many cultures.

In the decades since, Miss Dunham has become a noted anthropologist, an author, a great choreographer, and a role model for an entire generation of dancers. Her studies have taken her to Brazil, the Caribbean, and Africa. I understand that in one Caribbean city her startled host began to worry when she disappeared into the bush to study voodoo. But they calmed down when she gave them a concert and danced to the music of Debussy.

In professional dance, Miss Dunham became known for presenting black dances in their original context. She's renowned for the work with her company of dancers, singers, and musicians, for her schools in New York, which have trained hundreds, and for her choreography of shows and films such as ``The Emperor Jones,'' ``Cabin in the Sky,'' and ``Stormy Weather.''

Today, thanks in large measure to you, Miss Dunham, we not only have dance in America, we have American dance. And all the world loves you for it.

Virgil Thomson grew up in Kansas City but left America for Paris, where he lived until World War II. He decided that if he was going to starve as a composer, then, in his words, he ``preferred to starve where the food is good.'' [Laughter]

He's composed symphonies; operas; motion picture scores; church music; over a hundred musical portraits; incidental music for theatrical productions; concertos; piano sonatas; songs with English, French, Spanish, and Latin texts; and much more. His music reflects his love of European culture, but again and again it's unmistakably American.

He wrote ``The Seine at Night'' in tribute to Paris, but he also wrote ``Wheatfield at Noon'' in tribute to Missouri. Music critic for the New York Herald Tribune during the forties and early fifties, Mr. Thomson has written eight books on music and has received the Pulitzer Prize. His latest book, ``A Virgil Thomson Reader,'' won the National Book Critics' Circle Award for 1982.

No one has labored longer, with greater integrity and determination, or with more success to promote the cause of American music than this gentleman, Virgil Thomson.

Elia Kazan left Turkey for America with his family when he was 4. He went to Williams College, majored in English, and said his only ambition was ``to stay out of my father's business.'' Well, Elia, you succeeded. In your senior year you turned to drama, and in the more than half century since, you've made millions of us mighty grateful that you did.

Elia has directed ``Death of a Salesman,'' ``JB,'' and ``Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'' He cofounded the Actors Studio that trained Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, James Dean, and hundreds of others, and served as codirector of the repertory theater of Lincoln Center. And he's pushed forward cinematic technique with the freely moving style of ``Panic on the Streets,'' the focus on brilliant individual performances in ``Streetcar Named Desire,'' and the realism of ``On the Waterfront.'' More recently, he's adapted two of his own novels for the screen: ``America, America'' and ``The Arrangement.''

Elia, with your boundless energy, your great talent and love of life, you have lifted American drama to a peak of excellence that inspires us all. And we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Now, the last two artists that we're honoring tonight are special friends of Nancy's and mine, Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Stewart.

Francis Albert Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, and started to like music when his uncle gave him a ukulele. And one day in 1936, he went to a Jersey City vaudeville house to see Bing Crosby. After the show, Frank suddenly announced that he was becoming a singer.

In 1937 his group, the Hoboken Four, won first prize on Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour. [Laughter] And for the next year and a half, he sang at the Rusty Cabin, a north Jersey roadhouse, for $15 a week. Let me repeat that. For a year and a half -- [laughter] -- Frank Sinatra worked for $15 a week. But it paid off. He got a $10-a-week raise. [Laughter]

After working with Harry James, Frank joined the Tommy Dorsey Band and started to develop a distinctive song style -- long phrases and glissando -- that's technical talk for crooning. [Laughter] Today, Frank Sinatra has recorded more hits than just about anybody else, hits like ``Night and Day,'' ``That Old Black Magic,'' ``Strangers in the Night,'' ``New York, New York,'' and so many more.

Through the years, Frank's been in a movie or two: ``It Happened in Brooklyn,'' ``On the Town,'' his Oscar-winning role in ``From Here to Eternity.'' And Frank got a chance to sing with his old hero, Bing Crosby, in one of the most enjoyable movies ever made, ``High Society.''

You know, Frank, if they'd only given me roles like that, I never would have left Hollywood. [Laughter] Except for the musical numbers, they'd have had to get you to dub the voice in. [Laughter]

Well, all along, your style has been relaxed and full of life. You're given millions of us fond memories, immeasurable joy. And one other thing, Frank, you did it your way.

Now, James Stewart grew up in a town called Indiana, Pennsylvania. At Princeton he acted in musicals and, after graduation, got a part in a summer production of ``Good-bye Again'' in Falmouth, Massachusetts. He played the chauffeur, spent 3 minutes on stage, and spoke exactly two lines. But he packed those lines with so much humor that he was noticed by visiting New York critics.

In 1932 he went to New York, stayed for 2\1/2\ years and appeared in eight plays. Jimmy was a fine stage actor, but there was a medium on the west coast he wanted to try. So, in 1935 he took a train to Hollywood.

During his first 5 years there, Jimmy made 24 movies. They included a classic of American film, ``The Philadelphia Story,'' and a movie about an idealistic Senator that I wish everyone in this town would study, ``Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.''

During World War II, Jimmy interrupted his career. After winning his wings in the Army Air Corps, he spent a year instructing cadets and then went to Europe, where he flew 25 missions over enemy territory. And if he looks like a patriot on the screen, that's because he is: Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart of the Air Force Reserve.

And the war over, Jimmy plunged back into his work. And his credits now include more than 80 pictures. He's worked with all the greats -- directors like Capra and Hitchcock, and actresses like Hepburn, and actors like Henry Fonda and Clark Gable and Cary Grant. He's fought rawhide outlaws in the ``Far Country,'' led pioneers in ``Bend of the River,'' flown the Atlantic in the ``The Spirit of St. Louis,'' and held long conversations with an invisible, giant rabbit as the unforgettable Elwood P. Dowd in ``Harvey.'' [Laughter]

We think of the Stewart character as open, kind, and honest -- just like the boy next door. Well, Nancy and I and his friends can tell you that that's not just some screen character; that's the real Jimmy Stewart.

You know, there's a story I have to tell. When Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers, first heard that I was running for Governor of California, he said, ``No, no. Jimmy Stewart for Governor; Reagan for best friend.'' [Laughter]

But, Jimmy, you once said, ``The great thing about the movies is you're giving people little, tiny pieces of time that they never forget.'' Well, no one has given our nation more of those cherished moments than you have, my friend.

Henry James, the American novelist, once wrote, ``Art is the shadow of humanity.'' These five people have spent their lives casting those magnificent and powerful shadows. In dance, drama, and music, they've taught us what it means to be human. And by drawing on and adding to the openness, verve, and color of life in our country, they've taught us what it means to be American.

Katherine Dunham, Virgil Thomson, Elia Kazan, Frank Sinatra, and Jimmy Stewart, on behalf of every American, thank you, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 6:18 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.

Following the reception, the President went to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for a gala performance honoring the award recipients.