The Early History of the Friends of the Kennedy Center (1965–1971)

The Friends of the Kennedy Center volunteers are known for their nearly boundless knowledge of the Center, often shared during tours throughout the Kennedy Center Campus. This characteristic of the Friends dates back to 1965, before the Kennedy Center opened, when hundreds of founding members worked to share the progress on the Center with their communities. Their untiring efforts and call to service beginning in those early years helped make a national performing arts center a reality.

In the early 1960s, the plan to build the Kennedy Center was in motion. A location along the Potomac in Foggy Bottom had been selected, a building design had been accepted, and the project had bipartisan Congressional support. Despite these large strides in bringing the Center into existence, the project still needed a way to attract nationwide awareness for the Center and raise private funds to match those provided by Congress.

President Kennedy turned to his mother-in-law and arts supporter Janet Auchincloss to create a committee with the aim of garnering support for the Center. Auchincloss quickly organized a group of people including Center Trustee Ethel Garrett, Lily Polk Guest, Polly Wisner Fritchey, Jane Thompson, and others to form a Washington committee, set on volunteer work that could get the word out about the Center.

Founding members of the Friends of the Kennedy Center Ethel Garrett, Polly Wisner Fritchey, and Jane Thompson, along with Avis Howard Thayer Bohlen and Ambassadors Llewellyn Thompson and Charles Bohlen attend the annual Friends luncheon in the Grand Foyer in 1971. Photo by unknown, courtesy of the Kennedy Center Archives.

Among the early efforts made by this small committee were a documentary featuring Helen Hayes on the need for a national center for the arts and correspondence with foreign embassies to contribute gifts to the Center. However, in order to meet the funding deadline, set by Congress to provide matching funds, the committee needed to expand.

At an open session of the Center’s executive committee meeting on October 14, 1965, Lily Polk Guest and Jane Thompson, together with additional members of the ad hoc Washington committee presented their idea of an auxiliary organization: the “Friends of the Kennedy Center.” The notion was well received by those in attendance. By the end of December, Kennedy Center Founding Chairman Roger Stevens mailed ballots to members of the Board of Trustees to vote on the creation of this organization, recommending they “act favorably on this resolution.” The resolution was successful and in January 1966, the Friends of the Kennedy Center had begun.

Ballot mailed to Kennedy Center Trustees to approve the resolution creating the Friends of the Kennedy Center, 1965. Courtesy of the Kennedy Center Archives.

The Friends of the Kennedy Center swiftly organized into two groups based on function. The National Council operated at regional and state levels to grow financial and participatory support for the Center. The other group, the National Committee of the Friends of the Kennedy Center, aimed to create programming at the Center to bring awareness to the project. By the time of the first annual meeting in the summer of 1967, the National Committee had the support of over 700 members nationwide. In 1969, Lily Polk Guest, a “catalyst behind the founding of the Friends,” became Chairman and would expand the Friends’ focus on service in that position over the next 15 years (Chandler, 2006). Under Guest’s leadership, the Friends of the Kennedy Center made significant progress welcoming guests to the Center and drumming up local and national support.

Friends Founding Chairman Lily Polk Guest, an integral part of the Friends’ founding, with Kennedy Center General Director William McCormick Blair, Jr. and other staff members at the construction site, 1969. Photo by unknown, courtesy of the Kennedy Center Archives.

In addition to their numerous fundraising projects, the Friends promoted the Center by organizing performances, educational events, and tours of the construction site to share the progress of the nation’s stage. A temporary information center was erected on the site which hosted some of these events.

The Kennedy Center Information Center behind the Tom Sawyer Project’s painted fence panels, circa mid-1960s. Photo by unknown, courtesy of the Kennedy Center Archives.

Students from the Peabody School were among the groups hosted by the Friends in December 1968. After touring the construction site and watching sections of Italian marble being placed around the exterior wall of the Center, the students performed a Christmas pageant in the Information Center, what a 1969 Friends’ newsletter playfully calls the “first performance at the Kennedy Center.”

Left: Students from the Peabody School watching the installation of marble at the Kennedy Center, 1968. Right: Peabody School students performing a Christmas Pageant in the Kennedy Center Information Center, 1968. Photos by Hans Trebor Associates, courtesy of the Kennedy Center Archives.

By welcoming guests to the site and sharing construction updates to members throughout the country, the Friends became intensely knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the building’s progress. The Friends started offering “hard hat” tours to visitors at the site, explaining the layout of the theaters and identifying the gifts from foreign nations.

Friends touring the Kennedy Center construction site, circa late-1960s. Photos by unknown, courtesy of the Kennedy Center Archives.

Fifty-seven years later, the Friends of the Kennedy Center continue their call to service, bringing national awareness to the performing arts and the Kennedy Center Campus by conducting tours, staffing the information desks and retail operations, assisting various departments, including Education and the Washington National Opera, and so much more. The Friends have given hundreds of thousands of hours over the years serving the institution they love!

Chandler, Karen A. 2006. Curtain Up on the Friends: A History of the Friends of the Kennedy Center Volunteers.

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The nation’s performing arts center.

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