Before I came to DC, my bucket list included one visit to the Kennedy Center. I ended up visiting at least half a dozen times, and appropriately, my final visit for this year was with Maggie. I suggested that we go for a tour and find out more about what we had been seeing for the past year.
In the early 1960’s President and Mrs. Kennedy introduced the idea that there should be a cultural center for the performing arts in the Capital, and that it should have an international flavor. Up until that time, the White House had been the only venue to serve anything like that purpose. Congress agreeably acted to create this performing arts center with the stipulation that it must be self-supporting. After President Kennedy was assassinated, the focus of the center shifted to encompass a national Presidential Memorial.
The two major entrance hallways are the Hall of Nations and the Hall of States. Each hallway features walls built from statue-grade Carrera marble that was a gift from Italy. Overhead in the Hall of State are the flags of all the American states and territories. In the Hall of Nations, the double ranks of flags represent all the countries with whom we keep up diplomatic ties. Many of those countries gave gifts for the construction of the Center, both because it was intended to be international and as tributes to JFK. I lost track of the sources of all the artwork, but certainly the crystal chandeliers donated by Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Ireland were spectacular!
The first time I went to a show at the Kennedy Center, I was a bit bewildered to find that there was more than one theater under a single roof. Indeed they count at least six theaters, of which the three main theaters are all on the first floor. The space connecting all of these theaters runs behind the Hall of Nations and Hall of States, and it is called the Grand Foyer. We were told that the Grand Foyer is the largest freestanding room in the world, and it is longer than two football fields placed end-to-end, or longer than the Washington Monument lying on its side.
Every day of the year at 6 PM, there is a performance on the Millennium Stage, which is actually two different stages at opposite ends of the Grand Foyer. These performances are free, and we were also told that recordings from the past decade can be streamed from the internet. I still cherish singing “I’m Just a Bill” and “Interjections” with the crowd here when I came to see Schoolhouse Rock.
The second largest theater, the Concert Hall, reminds me of Symphony Hall in Boston because most of the seating is on the Orchestra level with multiple levels of shallow boxes ringing the walls. Reminiscent of some European theaters, the box seating extends onto the stage, and if there is no choir singing with the orchestra, then the elevated seats behind the stage and just beneath the pipe organ are also sold. This theater is the home of the National Symphony, and it is where I saw the holiday pops concert in December and later where I attended the tribute to Sally Ride.
The Opera House is the largest and most opulent of the theaters, and I’ve seen numerous ballets here plus “White Christmas” and “Anything Goes.” It is all done up in red velvet with a spectacular crystal chandelier in the center of the ceiling. The “Book of Mormon” is now playing and has been sold out for weeks. Because the set does not have a front curtain, I was not allowed to take pictures, but I’ve had a good time for every show I’ve attended here.
I think I’ve only been in the Eisenhower Theater once, and that was with my parents to see the Washington Ballet dance, “The Sun Also Rises.” This smaller theater is a more intimate setting and is intended to be similar to some of the older Broadway theaters. In contrast to the lush textiles of the Opera House, the walls of the Eisenhower are East Indian Laurel wood, and the black accents create a very modern feel.
These three main theaters each features a Presidential Box on the second level. On the outside, the box entrances are identified by a Presidential Seal, with the exception of the third theater where a portrait of Eisenhower marks the location. When the President attends a show, a Presidential seal is affixed to the theater-side of the box as well. Each of the three main theaters has several themed reception rooms on the second level that are used for special events or gathering significant donors. Gifts of artwork from various countries are also displayed on the second levels of the theaters. Maggie and I apparently never buy tickets for this level because all of these features were new to us!
Upstairs there are three more theaters, one that tends to feature jazz, one that has been hosting “Shear Madness” ever since I arrived, and a third that hosts smaller groups including the national collegiate level theater competition that also involves technical competitions such as costuming.
One of my newest pleasures of the Kennedy Center is to arrive a little early and go up to the Terrace level. After acquiring a beverage at the small cafeteria, I like to wander around the roof deck terrace and take in the superb views of Georgetown, the Potomac, and the National Cathedral on one side, and the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, and Jefferson Memorial (It’s not as close as it looks!) on the other side. Sightseeing and theater watching on the same outing is an excellent combination.
Prior to the tour, I hadn’t consciously identified the Kennedy Center as connected to the National Mall and the many monuments. As was pointed out to us, the Kennedy Center is different because it is a living memorial that feeds us in the present and looks to the future as well as paying tribute to the past. My instinctive reaction was, “Wow, that’s so much better!” and I’ll appreciate having that awareness when I attend performances in the future.