Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Roger L. Stevens

 

January 13, 1988

 

Thank you all, and good evening to you all. Special regards, of course, to Roger, Christine, and their family. Roger, you were thrilled almost 40 years ago when the New York Times gave you a good review to your first Broadway production, and by the way, I can understand that. Since taking this job, I've found out just how hard it is to get a good review from the New York Times. [Laughter]

 

Well, tonight, Roger, we're giving your entire life a review, and it's a rave. Born in Detroit, educated at Choate, Roger's schooling ended with the advent of the Depression. He spent 5 years at odd jobs. He pumped gas. He worked on the assembly line in a Ford factory. He spent 6 months in real estate and earned not a penny. And some say he kept himself in pocket money mainly by playing blackjack and poker. [Laughter] Then in 1934 Roger sensed that certain old apartment buildings were undervalued. He put money into them and launched his first brilliant career in real estate. Soon he had holdings across the country -- Detroit, New York, Seattle. And during the war, he spent 2 years at a naval air station in Florida and took the opportunity to look into Florida real estate. When the war ended, he and his colleagues bought three hotels in Florida and one in South Carolina.

 

By the mid-1950's, Roger's holdings qualified him as a tycoon, a magnate, a hard-driving real estate giant, but not his manner. No, there was a sense of humility and gentleness about him and always a sense of fun. In the words of a banker who worked with Roger in those days -- I'll quote: ``Business is a game to him. He makes it fun for you, too, because in dealing with him, you never have to concern yourself about what you'll get out of it. As a matter of fact, you sometimes wonder if he's keeping track of how he'll come out himself.'' [Laughter] Well, it's significant that when Roger engineered the purchase of the Empire State Building the room he selected for his office -- there in what was then the tallest, most glamorous building on Earth -- the room that Roger selected for his office was a cubbyhole that used to belong to a window washer. [Laughter]

 

Roger kept his files in cardboard boxes scattered around the floor. But as I said, real estate was only the first of Roger's brilliant careers. His second, as a New York theatrical producer, got started in 1949, when Roger staged Shakespeare's ``Twelfth Night.'' The show ran for 48 performances, and Roger lost just a little less than $1,000 on each. But it was up from there -- up and up and up. In the fifties and early sixties, Roger had as many as eight shows on Broadway a year. He produced playwrights from around the world: the Frenchman Giraudoux; the Swiss playwright Durrenmatt; the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas; and the Englishmen, Shaffer, Bolt, and Pinter.

 

Yet it's for his contributions to American theater that Roger should perhaps be most honored. This is the man who produced ``Bus Stop,'' by William Inge; ``Tea and Sympathy,'' by Robert Anderson; and ``Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,'' by Tennessee Williams. And ladies and gentlemen, Roger Stevens is the man who backed a crazy idea to update ``Romeo and Juliet'' and place it in New York -- backed the idea even after another producer pulled out. And after three decades, the mere mention of that show still has the power to thrill. It was called ``West Side Story.''

 

By the way, through much of this period, Roger remained an active player in the real estate market. There's a story about a theatrical producer who needed to speak to Roger about a leading lady. When he was told that Roger was in a banker's meeting about a multimillion-dollar loan for a construction project, the director explained: ``How can anybody bother with a hole in the ground when we're casting?'' [Laughter]

 

But there's still a third brilliant career to speak of. For it was, as has been said here already tonight, in 1961 that President Kennedy asked Roger to see what he could do about founding a national center for the arts here in Washington. And I might add that we Republicans were especially happy to see Roger take on the assignment. You see, it cut into the time he'd been using to raise money for the Democrats. [Laughter]

 

In Roger's own words: ``I thought it was a shame that the world's richest nation did not have a decent place for the performing arts. I thought I'd put it together in 3 or 4 years and go back to New York. But it took 10 years to get the darn thing built, and then somebody had to run it. So, there I was.'' Well, today the Kennedy Center represents one of our nation's premiere cultural institutions, and more than 20 years later, Roger, there you still are. Now, Roger, if I may, I'd like to ask you to join me here at the podium. Roger?

 

Roger Stevens, on behalf of a grateful nation, I present to you this nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom. And now permit me to read the citation:

 

``A quarter of the time, I have big hits; a quarter of the time, artistic successes; a quarter of the time, the critics were crazy; and a quarter of the time, I'm crazy.'' [Laughter] It figures out pretty well that way.

 

That humble assessment is by Roger L. Stevens, Chairman of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, real estate giant, chairman of the first National Council on the Arts, and producer or coproducer of more than 200 plays, including such American classics as ``Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'' and ``West Side Story.'' Roger Stevens may be humble, but his achievements have enriched our nation's culture beyond measure. Congratulations, Roger. And God bless you. Thank you.

 

Note: The President spoke at 10:25 p.m. following a dinner in the Corcoran Ballroom at the Four Seasons Hotel. Mr. Stevens had served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.