Remarks at a White House Reception for Kennedy Center Honorees

December 2, 1984

Good evening. Nancy and I are delighted to welcome you to the White House, a home that belongs to you and to all Americans.

You know, when this good old house was built our country was little more than a band of towns, a very thin band, running along the eastern seaboard -- people clinging to the edge of a vast and untamed continent. And when it came to art, drama, and music, Americans looked back to the old country from where most had just come.

But as our nation grew and our people pushed West -- plowing fields, felling forests, and building new cities and towns -- a new and distinctive culture began to develop, a culture that was as fertile as this new land, as bold and confident as the American people. It took on the twang of the frontier fiddle, the joy of jazz, the excellence of the new American orchestras, and the sparkle of Hollywood movies. And today our nation has crowned her greatness with grace, and we gather this evening to honor five artists who have helped her to do so.

Lena Horne, when you started making movies a columnist wrote, ``Lena Horne has put dignity into daring. She has given glamour manners. Hollywood has never before seen such a combination.'' And neither had the world.

And, Lena, you got your start at the age of 16 as a chorus girl at the legendary Cotton Club and then broke into the Big Band scene as a singer with Charlie Barnet. And during this period, one observer remarked that your voice could thaw the ice in a customer's drink. [Laughter] And in the 1940's you became the first black woman ever to be signed to a long-term Hollywood contract. And you've made unforgettable films like ``Cabin in the Sky'' and, an American classic, ``Stormy Weather.''

You often had to battle prejudice, but your work expanded the roles available to black performers. During the 1960's you became an ardent champion of civil rights, appearing in benefits, joining protests, and speaking out again and again. And through it all, you've played a direct and vital role in the cause of justice.

Today, Lena, your voice and style are as powerful and as renowned as ever. Your recent show, ``Lena, the Lady and Her Music,'' was the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history. And you know something, Lena? After five decades, when you sing our spines still tingle and the ice still melts. [Laughter]

And Arthur Miller, you grew up in Harlem, graduated from high school, and decided to study drama at the University of Michigan. You worked for 2 years, including a job as a shipping clerk in a warehouse to save money for your tuition. After college you wrote radio dramas for the CBS Columbia Workshop and NBC's Cavalcade of America, supporting yourself by working as a truck driver and a steamfitter in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Your first Broadway effort, ``The Man Who Had All the Luck,'' closed after four performances in November of 1944. [Laughter] Your disappointment would have made many young men give up. Not you. In 1947 you returned to Broadway with a play that no one who sees or reads will ever forget, ``All My Sons.'' Two years later the Broadway curtain rose on a new Arthur Miller drama, one that many critics consider the greatest American play ever written, ``Death of a Salesman.'' And that play ran on Broadway for 742 performances, was made into a motion picture, and today, more than three decades later, is still enjoying revivals around the world.

Since that brilliant work, you've continued to make rich contributions to American letters with plays like ``The Crucible'' and ``A View From the Bridge.'' And today, Arthur Miller, you're one of America's most renowned living playwrights, and you're still writing strong.

Gian Carlo Menotti, you wrote your first opera back in Italy at the age of 11. When you were 13, your mother enrolled you in a conservatory in Milan. And in 1928, when you were 17, she took you to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, armed with a letter from the wife of conductor Arturo Toscanini. Years later your teacher at the Curtis Institute would recall, and I quote, ``Early on I told him, `Gian Carlo, if I am to teach you we must come to an agreement, you and I. I promise you that I will be uncompromisingly severe. Do you promise to put in some very hard work?'''

Well, Gian Carlo promised, and he abided by his agreement. And today millions are grateful that you did. You've given a glorious medium new life with such operas as ``The Consul,'' ``The Saint of Bleecker Street,'' and, one of the best loved operas of all time, the Christmas classic, ``Amahl and the Night Visitors.''

Gian Carlo Menotti, you have always kept your Italian citizenship. But you've spent so many years among us and contributed so much to our national life, perhaps tonight you'll allow us to claim you as an honorary American.

And Isaac Stern, you were born in Russia and moved to San Francisco with your parents when you were 1. Your mother gave you piano lessons, but at 8 you were fascinated by the sound of a friend playing the violin. At 10 you began formal training in the violin at the San Francisco Conservatory. Your studies were paid for by a woman who recognized your promise. As you put it years later, ``I got my break because of the faith and belief private people showed in my work.''

At 11 you appeared with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. At 17 you debuted in New York. And by your midtwenties, you were performing some 90 concerts a year. Today your repertoire ranges from the classics to the moderns. And one critic has called you, ``The only major violinist exclusively a product of American environment and training.'' And you've spent a lifetime showing how that American environment glitters with artistic excellence.

Danny Kaye, during one of your tours in England, Prime Minister Anthony Eden remarked, ``Gad, sir, they treat him as if he were a nation.'' [Laughter]

Born in Brooklyn, you made your acting debut at age 5 in the role of a watermelon seed. [Laughter] At 13 you left home to become a clowning busboy on the Borscht Circuit in the Catskill Mountains. In your early twenties, you joined a troupe touring the Orient. Your resourcefulness on that tour became legendary. During a typhoon in Osaka, for instance, you sat on the edge of the stage, sang every song you knew, and spotlighted yourself by holding a flashlight in each hand. [Laughter]

When that tour was over, you played nightclubs in London and throughout the American East. At Camp Tamiment in Pennsylvania you met Sylvia Fine, a pianist and composer. And her witty, sophisticated satire was perfectly suited to your delivery and led to a great collaboration.

In 1940 your career soared when you stopped the Broadway show ``Lady in the Dark'' by performing a number in which you reeled off the names of 50 Russian composers in 38 seconds. [Laughter] Something else happened in 1940 -- Sylvia Fine became Mrs. Danny Kaye.

And signed by Sam Goldwyn, you starred in a succession of hit movies, including ``Wonder Man,'' ``The Kid From Brooklyn,'' ``The Inspector General,'' ``The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'' -- in which you played no fewer than seven roles -- and the much-loved ``Hans Christian Andersen.'' Forgive me, Danny, but I can't help wishing I'd had one or two of those roles. [Laughter]

In 1970 you returned to Broadway as Noah in Richard Rodger's musical, ``Two by Two.'' And when you injured your leg, you decided that the show must go on, and for 10\1/2\ months you performed on crutches while wearing a plaster cast.

In the 1950's, Danny, you took on a new role, becoming ambassador at large for UNICEF, the United Nations children's organization. And since then, you've made scores of trips around the world on behalf of needy children and appeared at countless benefits as a guest symphony conductor.

Danny Kaye -- comedian, actor, singer, and conductor -- you've brought aid to thousands of children and helped millions of adults to feel young at heart.

Each of the artists we honor tonight overcame hardship and each suffered setbacks and failures. Indeed, Isaac Stern once said that after his New York debut, and I quote, ``I was convinced that I didn't know my elbow from A flat.'' [Laughter] Yet they worked long and hard, following their dreams, and succeeded in bringing music, drama, and laughter into our lives. And tonight, as we appreciate their work, let us take comfort and inspiration from their lives.

Lena Horne, Arthur Miller, Gian Carlo Menotti, Isaac Stern, and Danny Kaye: On behalf of all Americans, thank you, God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 6:17 p.m. in the East Room at the White House, where he and Mrs. Reagan hosted the reception honoring the recipients of the seventh annual Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement.

Following the reception, the President and Mrs. Reagan attended the annual gala honoring the recipients at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.