News & Politics

George Stevens Jr.: The Man Behind the Kennedy Center Honors

The longtime producer of the annual Washington event talks favorite memories and expectations for this year.

While state dinners, National Gallery of Art openings, and a few other local galas get worthy attention, Washington’s most glittering cultural and social event takes place this weekend: the annual Kennedy Center Honors. It is many things: a tribute to talent, a weekend of haute hobnobbing at black-tie dinners, a groovy brunch, a White House reception, an extravagant show plus an Emmy-winning television broadcast. And none of it would exist if not for the creative vision of George Stevens Jr., who has been the event’s producer and gentleman impresario since its birth in 1978.

There is certainly much more to Stevens than the Kennedy Center Honors. He is the founding director of the American Film Institute, a playwright (Thurgood), an author (Conversations With the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age), an Academy Award nominee (1963’s The Five Cities of June), a child of Hollywood (his father is Oscar-winning director George Stevens), and an almost lifelong resident of Georgetown. But for Washington’s cultural credibility, and to the larger entertainment industry beyond the capital’s borders, the highly acclaimed program is the core of his reputation and will be his legacy.

The honorees this year are Broadway chanteuse Barbara Cook, pop singer-songwriter Neil Diamond, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins, and actress Meryl Streep. The broadcast airs December 27 on CBS.

“It amazes me that it is 34 years,” says Stevens, when we chatted with him about producing the program year after year—the highs, the lows, and the occasional glitch. “It is an idea that continues to seem so fresh.” The first honorees were George Balanchine, Arthur Rubinstein, Marian Anderson, Richard Rodgers, and Fred Astaire. “It’s a long way from Balanchine and Rubinstein to Streep, etc.,” he says, “but there seems to be a kind of straight line through those 34 years of gifted people and real accomplishment.”

Stevens with his son, Michael. Photograph by Carol Joynt.

Since 2008, his son, Michael, has served as his co-producer, and they make a good team. “It’s great,” says Stevens. “We do get along. I worked with my father. Michael and I have similar tastes but different skills and frames of reference.” But does father have veto power over son? “Yes.”

What the two producers do is guide a talented army. Stevens says as many as 1,000 people are involved in the production, many of whom are brought in from Hollywood and New York. “Almost everyone who works on this and who is seen on that stage comes from somewhere else. They are expert technicians and cameramen and writers, who so love doing this show,” he explains. A few, like Stevens, have been with the production since the beginning.

Event planner Carolyn Peachy is a veteran member of the Honors crew and a seasoned admirer of Stevens. “His gift is that he doesn’t let go of his vision. He never sat back any year and thought, Oh, well, they know how to do the camera seating [where celebrities sit in the audience], I won’t bother to look at it. It matters to him because of his attention to and insistence on detail and standards of excellence.” Peachy goes all the way back to the earliest days, when then-chairman of the Kennedy Center Roger Stevens first consulted with George Stevens and the late producer Nick Vanoff about mounting an honors program. “Both Roger and George were very hands-on in the beginning, George in particular. He wanted guests to sit in the theater and have no real sense that the show was also being televised.”

From a collection of so many, what is a standout happy memory for Stevens? “When Henry Fonda was honored, the United States Naval Academy Glee Club came onstage in their dress blues and sang ‘The Red River Valley,’ echoing his John Ford movies. At the end, a handsome African American midshipman stepped forward and said, ‘Thank you, Mr. Roberts,’ and then they all walked up the aisle waving to him. Henry was so moved.” (Mr. Roberts, the title character of the 1955 film, was one of Fonda’s most popular roles.)

Though Stevens was too polite to cite this episode as a low point, he recalls the 2006 show when Jessica Simpson performed, or tried to perform the song “9 to 5” in tribute to honoree Dolly Parton. She flubbed the lyrics before the Opera House audience and then again later, when Stevens let her re-record the song before an empty house. She was dropped from the broadcast. There were no hard feelings. Stevens says she understood he spared her embarrassment and told him, “Thank you for watching out for me.”

A funny memory? “There was a lovely moment when Rex Harrison did his fine tribute to his friend Cary Grant, and then he turned and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Katherine Hepburn.’ Audrey Hepburn came out, bowed deeply, and smiled at the audience.” How did he fix that for the TV version? They dubbed the audio.

And, of course, there are the occasional glitches. At the 2005 event, “Beyoncé brought her own microphone to the Tina Turner tribute. Somehow it went out in the show. She came back afterward and did it all over again, brilliantly.”

The weekend is a whirlwind, and Stevens is expected to show his face everywhere, even though his principal concern is the two rehearsals and the show. There’s a Saturday night formal dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department, where the honorees receive their beribboned medallions.

Stevens and his wife, Liz. Photograph by Carol Joynt.

Sunday begins with a private brunch for 250, including many of the same people from the night before, hosted by Stevens and his wife, Liz, at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Stevens and cast members shuttle between the Mandarin and an all-day rehearsal. To be in the Opera House for the rehearsal is a rare perk, an opportunity to watch some of the world’s most talented performers run through all kinds of routines, incorporating singing, dancing, choirs, orchestras, and comedy.

Sunday afternoon, in advance of the gala, there is an early evening reception for the honorees at the White House, hosted by the President and the First Lady. At this point, everyone is in their best bib and tucker. Photos are taken, and then all are off to the show, which runs a little more than two hours, followed by a dinner dance that begins in the Grand Foyer around 10:15 and goes to the wee hours. The show is attended by 2,200 people, most of whom paid to be there (ticket prices start at $400). The dinner is winnowed down to about 1,950.

At the 2011 Emmy Awards, The Kennedy Center Honors won its eighth Emmy, for Outstanding Music, Variety, and Comedy Special—beating out, among others, Lady Gaga and PeeWee Herman. Stevens laughed and said he hadn’t really thought about the competition.

At an energetic 79 years old, how many Kennedy Center Honors does Stevens see in his future? Has he set a retirement date? “I haven’t really thought about it,” he said. “Stevenses are very instinctive, not plotting.” For now, he enjoys the show. And the Kennedy Center board appears to enjoy him, too. Take, for example, these warm words of praise from board chairman David Rubenstein: “The Kennedy Center’s 34-year partnership with George Stevens has been a great gift to the arts and our country. He is peerless in his creativity and devotion to excellence.” Maybe they should give Stevens his own Kennedy Center honor? Maybe, someday, but you’d never hear him suggest that.

In fact, he says, his happiest moment each year is “when it’s going on. It’s one of the rewards of what Michael and I do. When you feel an audience engaged and surprised and enthusiastic, reacting to what you’ve planned, that is the reward. It’s better than the Emmys.”

With that, he had to say goodbye to take a phone call from Mike Nichols.