Farewell to producer Roger L. Stevens whose name was synonymous with Broadway in the 1950s and 1960s, who was instrumental in creating the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, and who once owned Playbill.
The New York Times reports that Stevens died Feb. 2 of pneumonia at age 87. He'd suffered a stroke in 1993 that partially paralyzed him and affected his speech.
Born in 1910, Stevens wasn't always a money machine. Accepted to Harvard, he had to drop out and work at his father's real estate business. During the Depression, Stevens worked at a Ford assembly plant until he was laid off, but in 1934 he joined a real estate firm that made him a wealthy man in only three years. Riches then came easily to him. In 1949 he got his first taste of producing: an Ann Arbor Drama Festival mounting of Twelfth Night, which he himself directed. He then brought the show to Broaday, followed by his next assignment, Peter Pan, with Boris Karloff and Jean Arthur. With other partners, Stevens purchased the Empire State Building in 1951, but for theatregoers, his greatest achievement may be raising the seed money -- and then running -- the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. At the opening night, Leonard Bernstein conducted his "Mass," which, according to the NY Times, Stevens called the most exciting evening he'd ever spent at the theatre.
The late producer brought more than 200 shows to Broadway and on tour, including West Side Story, Death Trap and Bus Stop). He was an early champion of Harold Pinter (Betrayal) and Arthur Kopit (Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Bad).
Stevens was also once an owner of Playbill magazine. He bought the company in 1956 from Richard M. Huber, but then sold it to Gilman Kraft only four years later. The first chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Stevens received the 1988 National Medal of Arts and Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Reagan. The honors were for his "lifelong dedication to improving the performing arts in our country."
The Times quoted Stevens own assessment of his career: "A quarter of the time I have big hits, a quarter of the time artistic successes, a quarter of the time the critics were crazy, a quarter of the time, I was crazy."
That "craziness" made him a major figure in American theatre for 40 years.
-- By David Lefkowitz