Times Staff Writer

Burl Ives is not a man to easily overlook. At 76, he is still a massive presence: the familiar girth, the commanding voice, the white hair and beard that give him the look of both biblical prophet and Falstaffian rogue.

This has been the Ives persona for the 40 years that he has reigned as one of America’s best-known folk singers. The image has also served him well as an actor, notably as Big Daddy in Broadway’s original “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and as the maverick patriarch in the movie “The Big Country.”

But Ives’ visit to Orange County this week cast him in yet another role: as official envoy for the Kennedy Center’s “Imagination Celebration” festivals, the nationwide showcase of efforts in arts education.


Wednesday morning, he appeared at “Imagination Celebration Internationale,” a multicultural program of student and other community performers held at the Santa Ana High School Auditorium before a capacity audience of 1,600 schoolchildren. The concert was sponsored by the Orange County Historical and Cultural Foundation and Orange County Department of Education.

“It’s great fun for me, and I hope, too, for the children. It makes me feel very young,” Ives said before the concert, sitting on a portico with his guitar, putting on an impromptu performance for a group of awe-struck youngsters.

Named official spokesman a year ago for the Kennedy Center’s various arts-education programs, Ives plans to appear this year at numerous other “Celebration” regional festivals, as well as the national festival to be held at the Kennedy Center in Washington next month.

Ives has also agreed to perform at a benefit in the near future at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, as well as the opening of next year’s “Imagination” festival, expected to be held at the Center.

Wednesday afternoon, Ives paid a visit to the Center site, which is now in its final phase of construction.

But the “Celebration” festivals aren’t the only arts-education involvement for Ives. He has also toured the United States in connection with the Kennedy Center’s “Very Special Arts” program, which showcases projects for the physically and mentally disabled.


And Ives has traveled throughout the Caribbean and Central America--including El Salvador last year and Guatemala in 1984--to promote similar programs for the disabled on behalf of the Organization of American States. This summer, he said, he expects to make an OAS-backed visit to Rio de Janeiro.

Of his performances for the “Imagination Celebration” and OAS tours, Ives said: “It’s nothing fancy. I guess I’m kind of the shill for them--the one to help attract the educators and children to the workshops and teaching sessions. My part is to help get things going. I go on and sing a little, talk a bit, listen to the kids--and give them a lot of love.”

The overall goal, Ives said, is the same for all of these arts programs: that the arts can be used to enhance the education of all children, even the severely handicapped. “I hate that word. Sometimes I think it’s the rest of the society that’s handicapped because we cannot always understand that minds and imagination can be reached, no matter the obstacles.”

Even in his Central America appearances, his songs--which include many of the American works long associated with Ives, from “Big Rock Candy Mountain” to “Foggy, Foggy Dew”--are all sung in English.

“They (non-English-speaking children) still seem to love the songs. They don’t understand the words, but I believe there’s a feeling you get--a spark, a real communication--that’s there,” Ives said. “It’s a music that’s universal.”

Ives, however, hasn’t abandoned the regular concert circuit, one of his mainstays since the 1940s. Before his Orange County visit, he gave one-man concerts in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Akron, Ohio. His next concert stop is in Davenport, Iowa.

Last week in Nashville, he cut 24 songs for a new album that he hopes will be released this fall. And he said he might consider doing a stage revival of Paul Osborn’s “On Borrowed Time.”


Most of all, there doesn’t seem to be any let-up in his singing for schoolchildren audiences on the “Imagination Celebration” circuit.

But, Ives said, he is well aware that this generation doesn’t remember him from his “Desire Under the Elms,” “Let No Man Write My Epitaph” or “The Spiral Road” movies, or his “The Bold Ones” series on television.

“I’m a realist,” he said, laughing. “These kids don’t know me as Big Daddy. But you can bet they know me as Frosty the Snowman,” referring to his singing for a highly popular cartoon character.

Still, the pleasure of performing before schoolchildren was obvious Wednesday, as Ives--looking resplendent in white suit, pink shirt, flowered tie and black beret--sang a few songs for the delighted students.

Although his appearance was brief, Ives demonstrated that he has not lost his touch: His voice was as assured, as mellifluously gentle as ever, his no-frills style still disarmingly direct as he regaled the children with “I Bought a Goat” and “Little Bitty Tear.”

But the song that brought down the house was the one most identified with Ives, and the one that sent the children into a clapping sing-along. It was, of course, “Blue Tail Fly.”