Times Staff Writers

It's midday, and in a jammed dressing room at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Jean Kennedy Smith is talking to the media about a theater workshop that is in progress for the handicapped.

Soon, Smith slips out of camera range to greet the Kennedy Center's dark-haired director of operations, who has stopped by to say hello.

In a low voice, Smith congratulates Thomas R. Kendrick on his new appointment as executive director of the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. But she is concerned over who will replace him in Washington as her chief ally for programming for children and the handicapped.

"We're really upset to lose him," remarks Smith, the late President Kennedy's sister and the family's representative on the Kennedy Center board. "If Tom supports an idea, he makes it easy to accomplish. . . . Orange County is very lucky to get him."

Minutes later, Kendrick is pulled aside by a kimono-clad man with hair like porcupine quills. Peter Sellars, the puckish, iconoclastic 27-year-old director of the American National Theater company, wants advice from a seasoned pro on the handling of contrary board members.

"His (Kendrick's) political skills are tremendous," Sellars explains to a visitor.

Kendrick, 51, a former Washington Post reporter and founding editor of the newspaper's trend-setting Style section, was tapped May 9 after a 10-month national search to head up the embryonic Orange County Performing Arts Center. Hired with the Kennedy Center director of operations was Judith O'Dea Morr, 43, the center's general manager of operations. She will be second in command, with responsibility for overall operations.

Orange County center officials have hailed the hirings as a major coup, calling Kendrick and Morr the greatest "one-two" arts administration team in the country. He officially takes the center's helm on Sept. 9; she starts this month.

Center officials say the duo will bring prestige, credibility and important international arts contacts to the $65.5-million complex being built in Costa Mesa and scheduled to open by October, 1986. The planned three-theater complex will be the largest arts facility in the nation to be built and operated solely with private funds.

Asked why he would leave the prestigious Kennedy Center, where he has worked since 1976 in a high-profile position with legendary arts patron and center Chairman Roger Stevens, to start a new complex at this time of great economic uncertainty for the performing arts, Kendrick answers simply, "It's a challenge."

Interviewed at a Kennedy Center restaurant overlooking the glistening Potomac River, Kendrick says it's a good time in his life for personal change.

"The timing (of the move) was right," he says. "My wife and daughter were at a crossroads. Besides, a lot of things come around again after nine years in the same job. . . .

"Besides, Roger (Stevens) is not going to stay here forever. Whoever would come in as chairman would want his own man in, and who knows who the next chairman is going to be?"

Leaning over, he adds in his confiding conversational style, "You know, it may be the last major arts center to be built in this country. . . ."

Kendrick, who runs the day-to-day operations at the Kennedy Center, is generally well regarded for his managerial and budgetary skills. However, there are many in the arts community--including some of Kendrick's current and former associates--who profess surprise that he was considered for the Orange County post. Friends and critics alike claim that Kendrick has little background in the performing arts, stressing that it's been the 75-year-old Stevens who has made all important artistic decisions at the Kennedy Center.

"He's not an artsy type, which makes it even more ironic that he became an arts administrator," says Washington Post music writer Lon Tuck, a longtime colleague and friend of Kendrick. "I think Roger Stevens was impressed with the meticulousness of his management style (at the Post)."

"I questioned why he was even hired at the Kennedy Center in the first place," says Richard L. Coe, the Post's drama critic emeritus. "He was a newspaperman . . . and not a particularly distinguished journalist.

"I was even more baffled when he was signed to this high-paying post at a new performing arts center in Orange County. I can understand the assumption . . . that Mr. Kendrick had a great deal to do with the history and choice of programs. But that is not the case."

According to Kendrick, Coe, who became the Post's drama critic in 1938, was not in a position to know of Kendrick's work on the paper's metropolitan and state staffs and did not work closely with him after Kendrick joined the Kennedy Center in 1976.

Some in the field of arts administration who know both Kendrick and Morr say that Morr is the one with the experience and personnel management skills to make the Orange County center run smoothly--and make Kendrick look good.

Widely considered a tough and seasoned operations manager, Morr worked her way up from an Ohio theater box office 25 years ago and ultimately assumed the responsibilities of general manager at the Kennedy Center from her now ex-husband Alex Morr when he became gravely ill several years ago. She commands staff loyalty with her own low-key management style.

One former high-ranking Kennedy Center official, who asked not to be identified, says of the Kendrick appointment: "He may be a good landlord who can take care of lease arrangements and contracts, but unless he learns a great deal about the performing arts in a very short time, I'd be concerned about the future of the Orange County center."

The way Kendrick sees it, however, "You don't have to be a music or a drama critic to be an arts administrator. In fact, that might be the worst thing. . . .

"The most important thing for an arts administrator," he says, "is to be a generalist. . . . You must have a general understanding of how a center operates and a general understanding of budgets. You need to understand that money is what makes it possible to present the arts."

Orange County center officials say they are convinced they've hired the best people for the job.

"Their acceptance is legitimization that we are real," says Raymond L. Watson, co-chairman of the center's facility committee.

"We have talked about (the center) for 20 years, but I don't think that even with the breaking of ground almost two years ago, people believed it actually was going to happen," says Watson, 58, who is chairman of the executive committee for Walt Disney Productions. "Now it's believable."

The Orange County center's board of directors wants to build a "world-class" facility that will put the wealthy suburban community of 2 million on the world's cultural map.

They want to present nationally and internationally renowned opera and ballet companies, orchestras and top-notch musicals and drama on its stages.

To help achieve that goal, Timothy L. Strader, president of the center's board, says it was necessary to find an executive director of experience and vision. (The center's first executive director, Len Bedsow, retired last February.)

A national search firm helped narrow the list of top candidates from 14 men to six. (A center official confirmed that no women were considered, largely because women in the field have not yet moved up to run large and established regional performing arts centers.)

Strader says Kendrick was approached first because the Kennedy Center is the "finest performing arts center in the United States. . . .

"So, based upon Mr. Kendrick's experience there, we very quickly realized he was the premier performing arts center manager in the country," says Strader, a Newport Beach-based land developer.

When first approached last September, Kendrick turned down the job for personal and professional reasons. This did not, however, prevent him from offering board members some blunt advice:

If they truly wanted "world-class" attractions, he said, they'd better be prepared to raise millions annually in across-the-board subsidies for all performing arts.

No longer is it just opera and ballet that require subsidies above ticket revenues, he said, recounting seven productions, including two dramas and a musical, that left the Kennedy Center budget in the red for the first time in 12 years. The center's deficit of $1.9 million for the 1983-84 season occurred despite hefty subsidies, he told them.

"It was something we didn't know--and wanted, needed, to hear," Strader recalls.

Early this year, negotiations with a second candidate broke down. Orange County board members again approached Kendrick. This time, they made a commitment to raise annual operating and programming subsidies--at least $4 million for the first year--and offered what Kendrick calls "a very generous compensation package" in the six-figure range.

(He and center officials declined to reveal the salary and benefit terms. Their value, however, is rumored to be in the range of $150,000 to $200,000, and is believed to be at least twice his current salary.)

Of his new position, Kendrick enthuses, "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

A tall man who professes a penchant for country music, Kendrick didn't set out to become an arts administrator any more than he intended to become a journalist.

Born and reared in Brunswick, Me., Thomas Ryland Kendrick is a descendant of three generations of college professors (which some friends privately joke may account for his tendency to lecture endlessly).

After graduating from Amherst College in the early 1950s with a bachelor's degree in English, Kendrick says he "sort of planned" to write the "great American novel." But first he took a job as a copy aide at the Washington Post, then the No. 3 paper in town.

Soon he entered the Air Force, hoping to learn how to fly fighters, but wound up helping tend the military air defense detection system in northern Canada. There he met nursing student Valen Bennett, who would later become his wife. (Valen Bennett Kendrick, 47, is a gerontology specialist with the Visiting Nurses Assn. in Washington.)

After leaving the military as a first lieutenant, Kendrick received a master's degree in international communications from Indiana University. From there, it was back to the Washington Post, where he started "as all beginning reporters do--on the night police desk."

He followed the conventional course, moving through the city and county government and court beats, eventually covering the Maryland state legislature and doing political writing.

Kendrick distinguished himself while covering the civil rights marches in the South in the early 1960s. By the time racial strife hit Northern cities, Kendrick was made a deputy metropolitan editor. He subsequently helped turn the newspaper's society and women's pages into a culturally oriented section called Style that set the standard for newspapers around the country.

Kendrick says he spent six months in 1976 "agonizing over the decision" to leave the paper and accept Stevens' offer to help him run the Kennedy Center, an offer tendered, in part, because center board members like former Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas thought Stevens could use help.

After six years running the Style section, he was looking for a change, he said, but none of the several positions he was offered interested him. "I had been a journalist for 20 years," he said. "Maybe I was a little bored, but I agonized."

The move to the Kennedy Center came as a surprise to many in Washington, as has his new appointment.

To his critics who claim he has no interest in the arts, Kendrick is quick to inform that as a child he sang in a choir organized by a music professor from Bowdoin College in his hometown. Later, he acted and sang in local productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

He still speaks reverently about the first musical he saw on Broadway, "Guys and Dolls." And he recounts in vivid detail--the loquacious Kendrick almost never uses fewer words when more will do--seeing a young Harry Belafonte singing for change at a club in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.

"I like the ballet, I like the opera. Most of all, I like theater, the musical. I've been to every opening at the Kennedy Center for the last nine years."

Kendrick also has built important political and professional contacts during his 25 years in Washington, especially during his nine years at the Kennedy Center, which, some arts leaders say, should prove invaluable in his new position.

One former associate who feels that Kendrick will be an asset to Orange County is Wayne Shilkret, a former publicity director at the Kennedy Center in the early 1970s, now serving as artistic director at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena.

"He is a very, very capable person," said Shilkret, who was among the candidates for the Orange County job. "I think the center will be one of the great (performing arts) houses in the world."

There are many challenges ahead for Kendrick and Morr as they try to live up to that prediction. Both are uneasy that they were not a part of the Orange County center's original planning and construction process. With the exterior of the massive center theater nearing completion, they say their highest priority now is to ensure that the 3,000-seat house--and its acoustics--are of the "highest quality."

Located east of South Coast Plaza, the 10-story center will house two multipurpose theaters. The largest will be an unusual asymmetrical theater with 3,000 seats in four staggered tiers. Immediately off stage will be a 300-seat "black box" theater, suitable for videotaping as well as more intimate performances and rehearsals.

A 1,000-seat theater yet to be designed is planned for the courtyard area just north of the center's eight-story grand portal entrance. That phase, estimated at $8.2 million, will bring projected construction costs to a total of $65.5 million.

As of early May, the center has raised more than $62 million in cash and pledges toward the total goal of $85.5 million for construction and a $20-million endowment fund. Strader said discussions are under way for a countywide fund-raising campaign to heighten public awareness.

The center will remain privately funded, says Kendrick, who favors minimal government involvement in the arts.

"There isn't any government grant that doesn't come with some restriction to your programming," he says, adding that contrary to popular belief, most operations at the Kennedy Center were privately funded. "That isn't to say I wouldn't like government support for the operational, maintenance costs--those kinds of things. But I'm very nervous about it when it gets into programming."

Kendrick is not, however, worried about interference from his board members or the wealthy patrons who may want to see a particular company perform a particular piece.

"Donors want recognition, they want to be involved," he says. "That's all right. . . . But they are not going to tell me, or any world-class company, what to put on that stage. It would be an insult."

Kendrick says he was concerned at first that critical decisions on the building's interior finish, including the color of walls, carpets, seats, and lighting fixtures, delayed until the new director was chosen, would jeopardize the construction schedule or result in costly last-minute changes that could cut into programming dollars.

However, it has been decided that the interior decor will be done in traditional ruby red, like the grand theaters of Europe, Kendrick says.

No bookings have been announced for the center's debut season, but Kendrick confirms that serious negotiations are "in progress" with the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and others.

He says he hopes to have a cooperative relationship with the Los Angeles Music Center and others, but also plans to be competitive in programming.

"We're going to give the L. A. center a run for its money," Kendrick says. "We are going to offer better things than the L. A. Music Center offers--and we have the contacts to do it." He declined to elaborate.

Eventually, both Morr and Kendrick hope to commission and produce new works, and possibly engage in co-productions with other regional centers. Kennedy Center's Stevens says there would "undoubtedly" be some sharing of productions: "We'd like to do some shows between the two institutions."

One touchy issue facing the new administrators is how to handle the local performing arts groups that have long hoped to be showcased in the new center. Kendrick and Morr say they'll be welcome-- if they can raise the funds to pay overhead costs. The center, they say, cannot afford to subsidize these groups.

In the meantime, Kendrick and Morr must continue to juggle their duties at the Kennedy Center with the pressing decisions that need to be made in Orange County. The Kendrick family also is trying to find a home, preferably "near the ocean," since Kendrick is an avid sailor and swimmer. Morr already has purchased a home in Irvine, where her daughter, 15, will attend school.

Post music writer Tuck says the move West will allow Kendrick room to grow. "He sat around as a loyal deputy to a man who is one of the commanding figures in the national arts. Roger Stevens created a national performing arts center.

"I think there's a natural tendency to want to do that yourself--not only to run it, but to have a real creative influence."

Adds the American National Theater's Sellars: "Rather than wait in the wings for Roger to retire, he'll be spreading his own."

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