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A Weekend of Hollywood in Washington

For this weekend, it’s Hollywood on the Potomac.

For the 10th time, the annual Kennedy Center Honors will bring on the politico-social razzle-dazzle this sedate city somewhat embarrassedly loves--a festive weekend that includes the presentations of the awards at the tony Artists’ Committee dinner Saturday night at the State Department, a celeb-packed Sunday brunch at the Ritz-Carlton followed by a White House reception, the Honors show itself and a gala for 1,200 black-tie partyers following the performance.

“It’s become perhaps the country’s hottest ticket,” said Bonita Granville Wrather, who has steered the gala into a top money maker for the center, with the glitzy party evening netting more than $1 million last year. Wrather has that special combination of show-biz background and Reagan related history that marks many of the presidential appointees from California to the Kennedy Center Board. In addition to Wrather (who for the third year chairs the gala), the board includes MCA chairman Lew Wasserman, Ahmanson Theatre artistic director Robert Fryer, Charlton Heston, former 20th Century Fox chair Dennis Stanfill and Kitchen Cabineteer Marion Jorgensen.

The importance of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has been highlighted and ensured by the annual Honors, “pulling attention in,” according to Wasserman.

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“Of course, I’m biased,” Wasserman said. “I’ve been a trustee since before it was built. I’m on my second 10-year term. Obviously, I’m very partial. It is the national center for the arts. It does a tremendous job in the city of Washington, not just with visitors to the center, but also in making the people in government aware of the value of the arts.”

Honors producer Nick Vanoff was asked by the other Honors producer, George Stevens Jr., to sign on for the first show 10 years ago, after Stevens had come up with the idea and taken it to an enthusiastic Kennedy Center chairman, Roger Stevens. Although those two Stevenses are not related, George Stevens’ wife, Liz, has become an integral part of the weekend team. Active in Washington social and political life, she has worked as a volunteer, chairing the Saturday night Artists’ Committee dinner and dealing with the touchy details of a very limited guest list, its size dictated by the small size of the room to be used at the State Department.

With 10 years under their collective belts, the powers behind the weekend move through their paces with only a few minor glitches.

Production Meeting

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On Wednesday afternoon backstage at the center, Vanoff was in a production meeting. This California crowd knows each other well; for example, Vanoff and this year’s director, Dwight Hemion, began their professional relationship “about 33 years ago, when we did the old Steve Allen ‘Tonight Show,’ ” Vanoff said, adding kiddingly, “Dwight is acknowledged by everyone, including himself, as the most talented director in the business.”

There were lots of freeway-adjacent faces around the table--associate producer Michael Seligman, art director Ray Klausen, lighting director Bill Klages, music director Nick Perito, associate director Ellen Brown and Ray Charles doing the “special music” for the show.

Vanoff currently has a hit show, “The World According to Jackie Mason,” on Broadway, has produced the coming “Julie Andrews Special” and is involved with “The Dolly Parton Show.” With this full production plate, why continue his involvement in the Honors?

“It’s a great marriage for me. I started out in modern dance, in ballet, then went on to Broadway and to television. The show is a great chance for me to renew a lot of old acquaintances,” Vanoff said, pointing out that the center’s first artistic director, Julius Rudel, had been his and his wife Felisa’s rehearsal pianist many years before at the New York City Opera.

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The Honors, Vanoff and others involved agreed, gave the center both the social pull and the artistic appeal that produced “tremendous visibility” for it. It’s a real bicoastal event, with hundreds of Californians making the trek this weekend--either because of long-term involvement in the center, as with investment banker Herb Hutner, who chairs the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts, in Washington for the event with his wife, Julie, or because of a connection to an honoree. The crowd accompanying honoree Sammy Davis Jr. includes Frank Sinatra, who is also there to speak about another honoree, long-time friend Perry Como.

Davis and Como and the other three to be honored--Bette Davis, violinist Nathan Milstein and choreographer Alwin Nikolais--become a special part of the audience Sunday night. The show (to be televised by CBS, for the 10th consecutive year, on Dec. 30) has kept to a similar concept since its inception. As Vanoff explained it, “It seems to work for us. We have speakers who have some relation to the honorees, performances done as homages to them and film biographies. We also have a kind of wild card, an unrelated piece, but you can’t know that until Sunday night.”

Fryer, with a jam-packed theatrical background, said that the interplay of those putting on the honors and the trustees of the center is heightened by the inclusion of more show business veterans on the board. “What I can contribute is an artistic judgment. And that, I think, is helpful to whoever is running Kennedy Center.”

Bunny Wrather took a minute out from her command central--a room packed with desks controlling the gala seating, assignment of the seats in the opera house, the flights on which honorees and performers would be arriving. She was originally appointed to the board by President Richard M. Nixon and reappointed by Reagan. Reagan’s appointments, she said, were “more to the point,” allowing “more people who have had experience in the performing arts to contribute.”

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For the first time since the idea of a national center for the performing arts was “steered” along, the captain of that concept and the center has been Roger Stevens. This year, the appointment of Time Inc. executive Ralph P. Davidson as president and chief executive officer heralds the beginning of the end of the Stevens era.

That’s only one change contemplated as people arrive from the West Coast and these Washington natives take out their most glamorous gowns. Other changes frequently noted in conversations about and around the center--what the end of the Reagan era means, as next year’s Honors will feature a ready-to-retire President. And whether the continuing choices of “elder statesmen of show business” will continue.

One trustee, who asked not to be quoted by name, said that emphasis on entertainment elders was a little too strong. “We’re running out of older stars,” he said, admittedly kidding. But he added in a serious vein that the Honors should also highlight younger but equally great talents--pointing to movie maker Steven Spielberg as a good example.

Yes, but would that make E. T. a possible speaker?

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