For the capital's showboat - a tough new captain. As Ralph Davidson, the no-nonsense former chairman of Time Inc., takes the helm at Washington's Kennedy Center, will he chart a change in course for national culture?
RALPH DAVIDSON, dry-fly caster and former chairman of Time Inc., has hooked another really big one this time. Earlier this month Mr. Davidson became an arts czar - the chairman of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, as its founder, Roger Stevens, after 17 years of a long-running hit. Davidson became captain of the white marble showboat on the Potomac, where glittering international names in theater, concerts, dance, opera, film, and chamber music routinely appear, from Mikhail Baryshnikov to Pl'acido Domingo.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Stevens, the founding father of Kennedy Center and legendary producer of 250 shows (including hits like ``Annie'' and ``Les Mis'erables''), is considered a hard act to follow. Davidson's longtime associate and friend Ed Ney, former chairman of the advertising agency Young & Rubicam, says, ``It's a challenge, a tough job'' following the man who invented Kennedy Center as surely as Thomas Watson invented IBM or Henry Ford the Ford Motor Company
Davidson is a tall, broad-shouldered guy with shaggy gray hair and a voice that sounds like Charlton Heston's - deep, resonant, and pure Californian.
``I'm not Roger Stevens; my management style is different, my personality is different,'' he says. ``Roger has put together a unique, marvelous place. I like to say this is the house that Roger built. And what we're trying to do - and what I'm going to do, specifically - is build on what already is one [great] performing arts center.''
Davidson is dressed in a gray and white striped shirt, his red paisley tie slightly askew, like a reporter on deadline. He has a ruddy, outdoorsman's complexion, wary blue eyes, a sort of ``Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'' boyish drive. He steps gingerly over the first few questions as if they were firecrackers that might explode under him.
``We will try to do the best, get the best, present the best,'' he says, ``and maybe push the frontier a little bit every now and then, maybe bring in some unusual and offbeat productions.''
At Kennedy Center, one of the most difficult roles for Davidson as chairman may be walking in the Stevens footsteps as producer extraordinaire, a Broadway insider with a longtime network of talent who could fill an empty theater with merely a snap of his fingers.
Davidson has no theatrical background. In our interview I asked whether he planned to hire a theatrical honcho with producing experience or do the booking job himself. ``The way the system is emerging, I will be doing that...,'' he said.
``A lot of the productions which will be produced at Kennedy Center are going to be plays by [people like] William Saroyan, Tennessee Williams; I'd like to see Neil Simon - plays that have got a proven track record. Also I'm going to bring in new and exciting playwrights and try to put on some of their productions.''
In our interview he said he wouldn't be daunted by ``dark theaters'' when a play folds unexpectedly, losing lots of money for the Kennedy. Just as he became chairman, that happened. An expensive touring production of ``Sleuth'' folded on the road just before opening at the center. Despite Davidson's efforts, the Eisenhower Theater will remain dark for over a month until previews for a previously scheduled Stevens favorite, ``Sullivan and Gilbert,'' begin Sept. 7.
A spokesman for Kennedy Center says that, ``with the passing of the [chairman's] torch, Stevens also passed the theatrical responsibility on to Davidson as well. He now feels it's Davidson's turn.'' Since the ``Sleuth'' vacancy, Davidson has decided to hire a general manager with a theatrical background to run the production side and is advertising for one. His attitude: ``I'm not afraid to make a mistake, not afraid to put on something that flops. On the other hand, I hope that I, too, will find an `Annie' or a `Les Miz,' or what have you.''
At Kennedy Center, where ``The Mystery of Edwin Drood'' played (as ``Drood!'') this spring, the real mystery is what the new boss is like. Mr. Ney, who has known Davidson professionally and personally for 20 years, says, ``Ralph is a strong person with definite ideas about how things should be done, a guy with wide experience, a Californian, a Stanford graduate, with service in the CIA and experience in publishing and all sorts of things. To be chairman of Time Inc. is one of the great jobs in America.''
Ney says that Davidson has ``a keen mind. He's articulate, doesn't suffer fools gladly, and he can fight and argue with you. He's a fine athlete, beats me in tennis.'' But in life, says Ney, ``Ralph is not playing games. What you see is what you get. He's a very straight-ahead person. A lot of people think he's blunt at times, but he says what he means ... and doesn't try to color it up with a lot of soft phrases.''