Remarks at a White House Reception for the Kennedy Center Honorees

 

December 7, 1986

 

Good evening, and welcome to the White House. Tonight we gather in this grand old house to pay tribute to six men and women to whom we Americans and, indeed, millions around the world find ourselves deeply in debt. Others in the life of our nation have seen to our material needs -- built our roads, constructed our cities, given us our daily bread. Still others have seen to the life of the mind -- founding our universities and expanding knowledge in every field. But these six -- these six are artists. And as such, they've performed a different and singular task: to see to the deepest needs of the heart.

 

As a young man, Anthony Tudor began a London career as a clerk in a real estate firm. And then in 1928, at the age of 19, Mr. Tudor attended ballets staged by the great Russian impresario, Diaghilev, and saw Anna Pavlova perform. Within weeks Mr. Tudor had presented himself to Marie Rombert, a noted instructor, to begin his life in dance. That life in dance has now amounted to nearly six decades -- six decades that rank Mr. Tudor with George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton as one of those who brought ballet forward, who made it modern, a part of our own idiom and time. In dealing with themes once thought unsuitable for dance, in extending the classical ballet vocabulary into new modes, Mr. Tudor has expanded the possibilities of ballet itself, giving this magnificent medium new relevance, new vibrancy, and new life. Anthony Tudor, on behalf of those who love ballet the world over, I give you our thanks.

 

Fifty-nine years have passed since an 11-year-old boy, holding a violin, walked to center stage and electrified a New York audience with his performance. The Times wrote of Yehudi Menuhin the next morning: ``It seems ridiculous to say that he showed a mature conception of Beethoven's Concerto, but that is the fact.'' And believe me, Mr. Menuhin, I know from experience that good notices don't come that easily from the New York Times. [Laughter] Beginning in the late 1930's, Yehudi Menuhin appeared as soloist with conductors whose names today resound with greatness: Toscanini, Stokowski, Koussevitzky, Beecham. During World War II Mr. Menuhin gave more than 500 concerts, including performances on ships, in hospitals and camps. In more recent years, he has founded and directed musical festivals in Switzerland and England. And throughout his career, Mr. Menuhin has expanded the violin repertoire bydreviving neglected scores and introducing works by composers such as Bartok, Bloch, and William Walton.

 

Intensely interested in literature, architecture, and a host of other fields, Mr. Menuhin has written: ``May we become better violinists, scientists, artists, writers, and above all better human beings by enlarging and enriching our personal needs to include each others.'' Yehudi MeÓ*ERR18*Ein, for all that you've given to the world as a musician and a man, I thank you.

 

When you mention Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, director Mike Nichols has written: ``You are not talking about limousines, black tie dinners, or star-studded openings. You're talking about sweating under lights, drilling words long into the night, turning up for every performance, every rehearsal, anywhere, always.'' In honoring Mr. Cronyn and Miss Tandy, we celebrate two separate lifetimes of achievement. We think of Mr. Cronyn in plays like ``High Tor'' and films like Hitchcock's classic, ``Shadow of a Doubt.'' We remember Miss Tandy's countless performances, including her Ophelia opposite Gielgud in his historic ``Hamlet'' and, of course, her magnificent, heart-stopping Blanche DuBois opposite Marlon Brando in ``A Streetcar Named Desire.''

 

But we celebrate, as well, a theatrical partnership, from their 1951 performances together in ``The Fourposter'' to ``The Gin Game'' in the late 1970's to the new Steven Spielberg film that the Cronyns began filming this autumn. Asked how they could keep it up, how they could both live and work together, Miss Tandy answered: ``We're safe. I can't play him, and he can't play me.'' [Laughter] And through it all, the Cronyns have shown such utter dedication to the theatre, such total, absorbing professionalism. Again, in the words of one who knows them well: ``They never stop working. They never leave anything to chance.'' Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, for these many decades during which you've worked so hard to give the gifts of enlightenment and pleasure, we thank you.

 

Ray Charles Robinson was born into a South scarred by segregation. By age 8, Ray Charles was blind. By his midteens, he was an orphan. By age 50, he would be forced to free himself from an addiction to drugs. But there has always been something in him that could not be held down, something that finds life-giving beauty in rhythm and melody and tone. Today Ray Charles is known the world over for his infusion of gospel fervor into rhythm and blues and rock and roll and for the quality -- the sheer lilting, rolling musicial quality of his singing. One hit alone, ``Georgia on My Mind,'' has sold over 3 million copies. And, Ray, I don't mind telling you that your version of ``America the Beautiful'' has brought a tear or two to my eyes. ``The important thing in jazz,'' Mr. Charles has said, ``is to feel your music -- but really feel it and believe it.'' Ray Charles, in giving of yourself so completely to your music, you've given of yourself to us, and we thank you.

 

When the first can of film arrived from California, it was taken by messenger from the airport to the offices of an advertising agency in Manhattan. An advertising executive, his friend, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, and the chairman of Philip Morris entered the screening room together. And then the lights went down, and the pilot film began. When it was over, Oscar Hammerstein gave his advice: ``Buy the show. It's a winner, and that actress is terrific.'' And the name of that program was ``I Love Lucy.''

 

In childhood, Lucille Ball loved going to vaudeville shows and movies, then reenacting the performances she had just seen. At 15 she left upstate New York to enroll in a drama school in New York City. But compared to the star pupil, Miss Ball felt, in her own words, ``terrified and useless.'' So, she went back home to high school. By the way, that star pupil happened to be named Bette Davis. [Laughter] In time, Miss Ball returned to Broadway, worked as a soda jerk, got bit parts, then landed a job as the Chesterfield cigarette girl t*** BAD MAG TAPE ***hat led to her selection for a bit part in the 1933 Eddie Cantor film,(hd7Edoman Scandals.'' For the next decade and a half, Miss Ball learned her craft, appearing in more than 30 films. And then came ``I Love Lucy.''

 

When it went on the air in 1951, ``I Love Lucy'' became the number one show within 6 months. It says something about the show's hold on the country that on the occasion of little Ricky's birth more people turned on ``I Love Lucy'' than watched the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower. [Laughter] And I know that Miss Ball would want us to pay tribute tonight to the man who produced ``I Love Lucy'' and starred in it with her, one who meant so much to Lucy and all of us, the late Desi Arnaz. [Applause] ``I Love Lucy'' was followed by more movies, including the 1974 production of ``Mame,'' and by three more television shows: ``The Lucy Show,'' ``Here's Lucy,'' and this year's ``Life With Lucy.''

 

It's no secret that Lucy is a friend of Nancy's and mine, and as far as I'm concerned, this redheaded bundle of energy is perhaps the finest comedienne of our time. And if I seem to get carried away, you'll have to excuse me. You see, after all these years, just like every American and millions more around the world, I still love Lucy. [Laughter]

 

Perhaps it's the preeminent work of the artist to speak to us about reality. For true art is never created out of nothing; it's already there, just unseen and unappreciated, waiting for the craft of the artist to show it to us. We walk from place to place unthinkingly. Then we see the beauty of a dancer upon a stage, and we never look at the human form in quite the same way again. Even the everyday routine of family life contains immense drama and humor; and in watching a program like the one we've been talking about, ``I Love Lucy,'' for a moment we can all enjoy it together.

 

Lucille Ball, Ray Charles, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, Yehudi Menuhin, and Antony Tudor -- to all of you we give this evening, this night of honor. It's the least we can do after all that each of you has given to each of us. God bless you.

 

Note: The President spoke at 6:16 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. The reception honored the recipients of the ninth annual Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Achievement. Following the reception, the President attended the annual gala honoring the recipients at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.