On this day in 1962, National Cultural Center Week began
In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed bipartisan legislation creating a National Cultural Center in the nation’s capital, setting the stage for what would ultimately become the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The original architectural design for the Center was an ambitious one, featuring many curves and extending into the Potomac. However, these original plans were deemed cost-prohibitive and in 1962 architect Edward Durell Stone was asked to provide a more modest option, resulting in the current design of the Kennedy Center’s main building.
Although the cost of the new — and ultimately approved — design was significantly less than Stone’s original proposal, the National Cultural Center construction project still faced a $31 million deficit. A small-scale model of this new design was presented publicly in Newport in September 1962, with President Kennedy and the First Lady in attendance. One month later, on October 16, 1962, President Kennedy declared the week of Nov 26–Dec 2, 1962 as National Cultural Center Week as part of a concerted fundraising campaign.
The cornerstone of National Cultural Center Week was the fundraising telecast “An American Pageant of the Arts,” which took place on November 29, 1962. It was filmed at the D.C. National Guard Armory, where five thousand attendees gathered to attend this black-tie event. Performers were beamed in from Chicago, Illinois, President Eisenhower attended from Augusta, Georgia, and the telecast was screened at over 60 locations across 24 states, along with a closed-circuit television program for viewers at home.
The lineup for “An American Pageant of the Arts” included actor/comedian Danny Kaye; singer Marian Anderson; poet Robert Frost; dancer Maria Tallchief; pianists Andre Previn and Van Cliburn; seven-year-old cellist Yo-Yo Ma with sister Yeou-Cheng Ma on piano; actor Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain; comedian Bob Newhart; singer Harry Belafonte; actors Frederic March, Florence Eldridge, Bradford Dillman, Colleen Dewhurst, and Jason Robards Jr. under the direction of Jose Quintero; soprano Dorothy Kiersten and tenor Richard Tucker; the United States Navy Band; the National Symphony Orchestra, and more. Leonard Bernstein hosted the evening, expounding on the significance and importance of the arts, while introducing some of the nation’s top performers across music, dance and theater.
Other efforts to support the establishment of a National Cultural Center included regional fundraising events, testimonials from artists, and partnerships such as “The National Cultural Center Presents” series of commercial recordings released by the bands of all branches of the U.S. military. First Ladies Jacqueline Kennedy and Mamie Eisenhower were particularly involved as Honorary Chairs of the National Cultural Center Campaign. Two months after President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Congress passed and President Johnson signed into law legislation renaming the National Cultural Center as a “living memorial” to John F. Kennedy and the Kennedy Center opened to the public in September 1971.
View the full recording of “An American Pageant of the Arts” with JFK, Yo-Yo Ma, Newhart, Belafonte, Bernstein, Frost, and many more below.