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Harry Houdini

Arts Days: March 24, 1874: Magic Maker
His family immigrated to the U.S. when Harry Houdini (then known as Ehrich Weiss) was just four years old. It wasn’t long before his taste for thrills was cemented; by age nine, he was a trapeze artist. He moved on to simple card tricks, but the magician and “escapologist” was always searching for the next stunt—the trick that would ensure his reputation as the man who routinely cheated death.

Using ingenious props—and sometimes swallowing keys he could spit up on command, or purposely dislocating his shoulders—Houdini upped the ante from, say, escaping from handcuffs to escaping from a straitjacket dangling from a building. Some of his stunts were the result of his superior strength and flexibility. Others made use of illusions or trapdoors. No matter what, his escapades thrilled audiences.
Innovators & Pioneers, Popular Culture, Controversial, Europe

Tennessee Williams

Arts Days: March 26, 1911: For Dreamers Only
Stanley Kowalski, Amanda Wingfield, Big Daddy, and Blanche Dubois are only a few of the memorable stage characters created by Tennessee Williams, one of America’s greatest playwrights. Born Thomas Lanier Williams, his brutish, traveling salesman father and traditional, Southern belle of a mother provided all the necessary emotional turmoil Williams needed to fuel his plays. No wonder Williams chose to write about people who are emotionally crippled by hypocrisy and illusion, lies and denial.

It was while waiting tables in New York in 1944 that Williams got his lucky break. The Glass Menagerie, his play about the complex relationships within the dysfunctional Wingfield household, opened to rave reviews. Williams followed with A Streetcar Named Desire, his highly-charged encounter between a woman haunted by her past and her crude, confrontational, working-class brother-in-law.
Playwrights & Plays, Controversial, Theater

The Godfather

Arts Days: March 15, 1972: Mob Appeal
The Godfather was a hit when it first appeared in movie theaters. Critics hailed the work of the cast—from Al Pacino as Michael Corleone to Marlon Brando as his father Vito, the Mafia godfather of the title—as nearly flawless. The drama also earned kudos for its music and screenplay, and for the nuanced portrayals of the members of the Corleone family and their friends and rivals in organized crime. Over the years, The Godfather has stood the test of time.

Critics—as well as millions of ordinary fans—have continued to praise the film and its director, Francis Ford Coppola, for making viewers feel sympathetic toward characters who routinely committed murders and other crimes. Coppola pushed his actors to explore and portray the psychological reasons why their characters acted as they did, making each character multi-faceted and complex. Adapted from the book of the same name by Mario Puzo, The Godfather won several Academy Awards®, including one for Best Adapted Screenplay.
America, Controversial, Family, Literature, Movies & Movie Stars

Vaslav Nijinsky

Arts Days: March 12, 1889: Lord of the Dance
One of the most talented ballet dancers the world has ever seen, Polish dancer Vaslav Nijinksy is forever associated with Russia and its exceptional heritage of ballet. Without question, Nijinsky could leap higher than anyone else and dance on the tips of his toes, a feat usually performed only by female dancers. Whether portraying a straw puppet in Petrushka or a charming prince in Sleeping Beauty, Nijinsky’s dancing was equally expressive and bold.

But Nijinsky’s career truly turned the corner when he met ballet producer Sergei Diaghilev. Diaghilev made Nijinsky one of the stars of his famous dance company, the Ballets Russes. Over the years, Nijinsky often performed in starring roles in Gisele, Scheherezade, and many other important ballets. Later in his career, he went on to choreograph his own ballets, breaking the rules about how ballet “should” be performed and greatly expanding modern dance as he did so.
Dance, Dance Legends, Controversial, Innovators & Pioneers

Sidney Poitier

Arts Days: February 20, 1927: Breaking the Color Line
The first African American actor to receive an Academy Award® for Best Actor, Sidney Poitier helped dismantle a worn-out belief system in Hollywood—that audiences were not familiar with seeing black actors in lead roles of serious films.

After a stint in the U.S. Army and a stage career, Poitier turned in many deeply nuanced performances in films like Lilies of the Field, To Sir, With Love, and In the Heat of the Night where he created the character of cool, highly-intuitive detective Virgil Tibbs.  In 1967, in fact, he was the top box-office draw, starring in three well-received films including Lilies, for which he won that Oscar®.

Poitier went on to direct films such as Stir Crazy, starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. Audiences have long considered Poitier onscreen and off as charismatic and elegant.
Innovators & Pioneers, Movies & Movie Stars, Controversial

Gone with the Wind

Arts Days: February 29, 1940: Wind Wins
When the epic movie Gone with the Wind—about life in the South before, during, and after the Civil War, from a white Southerner’s point of view—racked up nine Academy Awards®, it broke all previous records for how many awards one movie could win.

It made superstars out of Vivian Leigh (who played Scarlett O’Hara), Clark Gable (Rhett Butler), and others. The soaring music, dramatic shots of battles, and fantastic costumes—plus the love, loss, and intrigue captured in the book upon which the movie was based—all contributed to the film’s amazing success that night.

And one cultural barrier was shattered, too. Actress Hattie McDaniel became the first African American ever to win an Oscar®. She won her award, for Best Supporting Actress, for her moving performance as “Mammy.”
Controversial, Innovators & Pioneers, Literature, Movies & Movie Stars

Woody Guthrie

Arts Days: February 23, 1940: Music of the People, For the People
The great folk singer Woody Guthrie communicated his messages of social justice and human equality through his music. Living as he did through everything from the Great Depression to the Cold War, Guthrie commented on these and other events’ effects on everyday people, like the hunger many faced in the Dust Bowl years.

“This Land is Your Land” was written in response to the themes of “God Bless America” by Irving Berlin; Guthrie considered that patriotic song to be out of touch with the cares and joys of common folks. When he created the song, he borrowed the melody of an old hymn called “O My Loving Brother” and set his own words to it.

Guthrie didn’t record “This Land is Your Land” until 1943, but he tinkered with the verses over the years, adding new words here and there.
Innovators & Pioneers, Controversial, Music Legends, Music, Folklore, America, Poetry

National Public Radio

Arts Days: February 24, 1970: Radio Free America
Formerly known as the National Educational Radio Network, commercial-free NPR was formed to produce and distribute news and cultural programming to a network of public radio stations around the U.S. Its first broadcast, the U.S. Senate hearings on the Vietnam War, went out over the airwaves in April 1971.

The radio stations in NPR’s network are required to be noncommercial stations, to have at least five full-time employees, and not to advocate any specific religious viewpoints. What’s more, they may pick and choose among the programs NPR produces from its Washington, D.C. headquarters. NPR receives funding from listeners, its member stations, and the federal government.
America, Controversial, Innovators & Pioneers

United Artists

Arts Days: February 05, 1919: United They Stood
Picture Hollywood back in the 1910s and 20s. In those days, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith were kind of like the Julia Roberts, Will Smith, Brad Pitt, and Tom Hanks of today; big-name stars whose appearance in a movie would sell lots of tickets.

Pickford and her pals decided to form a company called United Artists to try to get more money per movie and to have the opportunity to star in movies every year. Plus, they wanted to distribute the movies directly to theaters.

However, the time and expenses required to pull that off soon proved hard to come by, especially with the introduction of sound movies. While UA was eventually a very profitable company, these founders never enjoyed the success they had dreamed of.
Movies & Movie Stars, Innovators & Pioneers, Controversial, Popular Culture

Minstrel show

Arts Days: February 06, 1843: Minstrel Stage Debut
As a uniquely American form of musical entertainment in the 19th century, minstrel shows would shock most people today for the racist caricatures they exploited. White performers uses burnt cork to darken their faces and hands, mocked black people as lazy and ignorant, and, pretending to be slaves working for white masters, danced and sang songs about life on the plantation.

On this day, at the Bowery Theater, the Virginia Minstrels—four performers led by Dan Emmett—performed what’s considered to have been the first full-length minstrel show, or “minstrelsy."
Controversial, Theater, Musicals, America

Hedda Hopper

Arts Days: February 14, 1938: The First “Gossip Girl”
Imagine you’re a movie star in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Say you’re spotted out partying on Valentine’s Day with someone other than your sweetheart. You can bet that Hedda Hopper, an actress with a large network of contacts, would have written all about your scandalous escapade in her gossip column.

Today’s celebrity publications like People and Us Magazine owe a huge debt to columnists like Hopper, who started writing decades ago about celebrities’ off-screen shenanigans. Wearing one of her trademark hats, she would go to big Hollywood parties, chat with all the celebrities, and uncover the juiciest news and rumors.
Fashion, Popular Culture, Controversial, Movies & Movie Stars

Death of a Salesman

Arts Days: February 10, 1949: The Death of a Dream
When the curtain rose at the Morasco Theater this night, Broadway audiences were introduced to Willy Loman, a middle-aged traveling salesman, on the verge of a breakdown.

All too aware that he is at the end of his career, Loman takes stock of the work he’s done, the money he’s made, the relationships he’s formed—and finds that much of it leaves him feeling defeated and disappointed. With actor Lee J. Cobb starring as Loman, and Elia Kazan directing the play, viewers sadly watched as Willy is forced to recognize himself as a failure.

In its review, The New York Times noted that Miller “has looked with compassion into the hearts of some ordinary Americans and quietly transferred their hope and anguish to the theater.” Today, Miller’s play is studied in schools across the country.
Broadway, Playwrights & Plays, Controversial, Theater, Tragedy

Gladiators Fighting

Arts Days: January 01, 404 C.E.: The Day the Crowd Went Silent

Believe it or not, the ancient Roman practice of pitting professional fighters against one another, wild animals, or condemned criminals for the viewing pleasure of a live audience, is considered one of civilization's earliest forms of social entertainment.

The first known gladiatorial competitions were held in Italy in 310 C.E. to impress the public with reenactments of exciting military battles and demonstrations of individual soldiers' strengths.

Over time, the games evolved into a much more elaborate spectacle. The games were popular with members of all social classes, prompting the construction of a new, larger kind of venue--the amphitheatre, or open air arena--a design still used today.

But hold on, not everyone appreciated the gore-filled competitions. Christians objected to the immorality of the viewers who happily observed the violence. Nearing the fall of the Empire, when numerous wars led to an economic recession and Christianity continued to spread, gladiatorial games began to decline.

After the last known gladiatorial competition was held on this day in Rome, Italy, audiences turned their attention to theater performances.
Controversial, Sports, Theater, World Cultures

Elvis Presley

Arts Days: January 08, 1935: Hail to the King
Elvis Presley, also known as "The King of Rock 'n' Roll," began playing guitar as a teenager and made his first musical recording in 1953. He was a pioneer of rockabilly, an up-tempo fusion of country and blues music. His original sound and uninhibited stage and television performances made him a household name by 1956, and he remained influential in rock music for decades.

Though his career included numerous film roles, he is best known for his music, including hits like "Heartbreak Hotel," "Love Me Tender," "Don’t Be Cruel," "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock." It is estimated he has sold over one billion record units worldwide, more than anyone in record industry history.
Controversial, Innovators & Pioneers, Music Legends, Rock & Roll, Popular Culture

Evita

Arts Days: January 10, 1996: Evita Hits the Big Screen
Casting catastrophe and celebrity coup? The film adaptation of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1978 Broadway musical Evita stars pop music singer Madonna and Spanish actor and singer Antonio Banderas. The story traces the life of Eva Perón, beloved Argentinean first lady and spiritual leader.

Prior to the film’s release, critics were skeptical of the casting, unsure if Madonna was best suited for the lead role. Evita, however, was warmly received and won several awards, including the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song, and the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture.
Broadway, Controversial, Movies & Movie Stars, Musicals, Latin America, Popular Culture

Arthur Miller

Arts Days: June 21, 1956: Just Said “No”
Sitting in the hot seat before the U.S. Congress’ House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), playwright Arthur Miller was pressed to reveal his alleged ties to Communists. Or at least to name people Miller considered sympathetic to Communism and the Soviet Union.

Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, ostensibly about the 17th century Salem witch trials, raised eyebrows among senators like Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy was also suspicious of where Miller’s sympathies lay, knowing that the playwright had attended several meetings of the Communist party in the 1940s. McCarthy and others were on high alert for Communists thought to have infiltrated the government, the arts, and other institutions in the U.S.

Miller, one of numerous writers, actors, and others suspected of having Communist ties, refused to identify anyone and was ultimately convicted of holding Congress in contempt.
Controversial, Playwrights & Plays, History, Theater

Chicago

Arts Days: June 23, 1927: Razzle Dazzle Man
From the hip roll to the finger snap to the perfectly angled hat—these are just some of the signature moves of the unmistakable “Fosse look.”

Jazz choreographer Bob Fosse invented so many moves that are now essential in modern dance that the casual observer may not even be aware of how widespread his influence continues to be. He broke new ground with dances that were demanding, entertaining, and provocative—often by creating one sharp, simple isolated movement. He honed his style in musicals like The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, and Pippin and saw his creativity peak in the musical Chicago and the autobiographical film All That Jazz.

The second film Bob Fosse directed, 1972’s Cabaret, won eight Academy Awards® including Best Director.
Broadway, Choreographers, Controversial, Dance, Dance Legends, Innovators & Pioneers, Jazz

Shuffle Along

May 23: May 23, 1921: Breaking Broadway’s Barriers
The early 20th century ragtime and jazz musicians Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle had a major hit on their hands when they co-wrote Shuffle Along, the first major Broadway musical by, for, and about African Americans. All told, the show ran for more than 500 performances. It played in Washington, D.C. and other locales before lighting up Broadway, where police were assigned on show nights to help ease traffic congestion.

Shuffle Along also made stars of dancers like Josephine Baker and singers like Paul Robeson. Many songs became popular hits. But by today’s standards, some aspects of Shuffle Along are offensive. For example, though the actors were all African American, they applied makeup to their faces to darken them further, and borrowed stock characters from minstrel shows. As the show’s popularity spread by word of mouth, the audiences were filled with black and white theater patrons alike.
Broadway, Innovators & Pioneers, Musicals, Jazz, Controversial, Theater

Lorraine Hansbury

Arts Days: May 19, 1930: Young, Gifted, and Black
With her powerful drama A Raisin in the Sun, playwright Lorraine Hansberry broke multiple barriers.

When it opened in New York City in 1959, the play was the first to be written and directed by an African American, Lloyd Richards. And when her work was voted Best American Play by the New York Drama Critics’s Circle, the 29-year-old Hansberry became the youngest recipient of that prestigious award. Raisin was partly inspired by racial incidents suffered by Hansberry’s family when they moved into a segregated neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago in 1937.

Hansberry went on to write other works for stage, screen, and television. Though she died at only 34, Hansberry’s influence echoes with generations of young writers dedicated to uncovering racism and other injustices with their words.
Innovators & Pioneers, Playwrights & Plays, Literature, Controversial

Isadora Duncan

Arts Days: May 27, 1877: Something in the Way She Moves
Inspired by everything from ancient Greek art to the power of nature embodied in rushing rivers and rainy weather, Isadora Duncan poured all she had into dancing, which she believed to be the body’s expression of the soul’s innermost desires. She rejected classical ballet as too confining and controlled.

A true free spirit, Duncan brought a new athleticism to dancing; her choreography was full of leaps and jumps and skips. Barefoot, her long hair flying, dressed in Grecian-inspired flowing tunics, she was a captivating sight as she danced. She taught her students that the energy they need for dance originated in the solar plexus, a group of nerves in the body’s abdominal region.
America, Controversial, Dance, Dance Legends, Innovators & Pioneers, Choreographers

Iggy Pop

Arts Days: April 21, 1947: Music Gets Punk’d
As a kid growing up in the Midwest, James Newell Osterberg got his punk-rock nickname when he played drums briefly with a blues band called the Prime Movers. Iggy’s bandmates invented his moniker after his previous band, the Iguanas. In the late 1960s, Iggy Pop helped lay the groundwork for punk music by forming his influential band, The Stooges.

With their blistering guitar work and relentless drumming, coupled with Iggy’s unearthly yowls, shrieks, and moans, the band is still held up as the prototype for intense, driving rock and roll, with everybody from KISS to the Sex Pistols to Green Day. The Stooges only made a few records, like Raw Power and Fun House, before disbanding, but they and Iggy helped shape the course of popular music.
Rock & Roll, Controversial, Innovators & Pioneers, Music, Music Legends

Martha Graham Dance Company

Arts Days: April 18, 1926: Mother of Modern Dance
The first dance performance Martha Graham attended at age 16 with the legendary Ruth St. Denis on the program, may have flickered through Graham’s mind when the lights went down at the 48th Street Theater in New York City, just before she made her debut. The movements she and her fellow dancers were performing that night were anything but traditional. What the audience witnessed was an early public display of Graham’s “contract and release” technique, in which muscles were held taut, then let go in accordance with the emotions a dancer sought to convey. The movements were angular, athletic, jagged—in marked contrast to the graceful style of classical ballet.

Within a year, Graham opened a dance school, attracting attention from many in the dance community. One of the most acclaimed dancers in history, Graham’s choreography shook up the world of modern dance.
Choreographers, Dance, Dance Legends, Controversial, Innovators & Pioneers

Samuel Beckett

Arts Days: April 13, 1906: Post-Modern Poster Boy
Irish playwright and poet Samuel Beckett is considered the first Post-modernist writer. He explored some pretty bleak subjects in works like Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape including loneliness, hopelessness, and isolation. His work attracted considerable attention in his day—and even still—for often tossing all conventions of character development and plot, even punctuation, straight out the window.

Some of his works attempted to capture the inner thoughts and feelings of his characters second by second. Beckett combined words and ideas in such innovative ways that he earned the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. But because Beckett was such a private person, the fame that accompanied this honor was a double-edged sword.
Controversial, Playwrights & Plays, Europe, Theater

Marian Anderson

Arts Days: April 09, 1939: Let Freedom Sing

For more than 40 years, Marian Anderson’s supple contralto voice—lower than an alto or soprano—thrilled audiences the world over. She preferred singing in recitals to opera performance, though many opera companies tried to entice her to sing with them. However, it was the Daughters of the American Revolution’s refusal to let Anderson sing at Constitution Hall simply because of her race that set the stage for perhaps the most important concert of her career.

With an assist from President Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson gave a spellbinding public performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Some 75,000 people listened live in the chilly spring air, and millions more heard Anderson sing on the radio. In 1955, reconsidering her stance on singing in operas, she became the first African American to perform at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Her grace and beauty—to say nothing of that remarkable voice—made Marian Anderson an important symbol of the Civil Rights Movement.

For more on this historic concert, listen to Of Thee We Sing: Marian Anderson and the Music of the Early Civil Rights Movement.


America, Music, Opera, Controversial

A World of Music

Audio Series: A World of Music
We’re off on a Musical Tour of Europe! The invention of the orchestra hundreds of years ago meant bigger musical possibilities, and composers all across Europe were inspired to try their hand at pushing classical music to new limits
Composers, Controversial, Europe, Folklore, Geography, History, Musical Instruments, Music, Orchestra

Theater seats

Video Series: The Power of Theater
What does theater "do"? Does it matter in a contemporary, screen-driven society? Drawn from the Kennedy Center Education Department archives, this series examines the way theater impacts modern society and culture.
Theater, Jobs in the Arts, Backstage, Controversial, Playwrights & Plays

She a Gem

2700 F St.: She A Gem
Krystin, Jaleesa, and Amber form a double-dutch team in inner city Philadelphia to compete in their neighborhood pageant. If they win, they’ll receive a special prize: their futures told by Ms. Mary, the local psychic. Will they become a famous singer? A hair dresser? Or maybe a “gem,” a special leader who cares for the neighborhood? Then they meet a pregnant teen from North Philly who can jump double-dutch almost better than any of them. Just as the girls anticipate learning about their futures, they’ll learn something important about her past that affects them all.
The Human Journey, Theater, Controversial, Sports

Long Way Down

2700 F St.: Long Way Down
Sixty seconds. Seven floors. One elevator. Fifteen-year old Will’s brother has just been shot, and Will is ready to follow “The Rules”: 1) “No Crying.” 2) “No Snitching.” 3) “Get Revenge.” But on the ride down, with his brother’s gun in his pocket, his plan is interrupted by a few visitors. Told entirely in free-form poetry, Long Way Down captures the potent minute Will contemplates retaliation. As mysterious guests appear at each floor, Will realizes there might be a bigger story to be told. He knows who he’s after. Or does he?
The Human Journey, Controversial, Theater

Cartography

2700 F St.: Cartography
Inflatable rafts on the Mediterranean. Dark holds of cargo trucks. Family photos wrapped carefully in a backpack that crosses border checkpoints. Cartography explores how the world is alive with movement and migration. Inspired by the artists’ creative work with young refugees from around the world, Cartography asks what part we play in the lives of youth who set out into the unsure waters of their future. From the effects of climate change to war and poverty, this powerful story examines the forces that shape where we have come from, how we have moved, and where we are going.
The Human Journey, Theater, Geography, Controversial

Wilderness

2700 F St.: Wilderness
This New York Times Critics’ Pick is a pulsating new multimedia documentary theater work from En Garde Arts that speaks to our collective search for connection and hope as families navigate the complexities of their children coming of age in 21st-century America. The production is derived from the real-life stories of six families—narratives exploring issues of mental health, addiction, and gender and sexual identity. Video and projection design combines sweeping landscapes with documentary footage of parents, veering from familiar domestic confines to the harshness of the world outdoors.
Controversial, Theater

Dead Man Walking

2700 F St.: Washington National Opera: Dead Man Walking
Dead Man Walking was inspired by the writings of Sister Helen Prejean, an author and activist whose accounts of her interactions with death row inmates provided the basis for an award-winning film in 1995.
Opera, Controversial

Freeze Frame

2700 F St.: Freeze Frame... Stop The Madness: Debbie Allen Dance Academy
A performance based on true stories and told in a fusion of drama, music, dance, video, and art.
America, Choreographers, Controversial, Dance, Dance Legends, Young Artists, JFKC

Titus

Cuesheet: Titus
Ten-year-old Titus has seen life’s disappointments pile up and he’s on edge—the edge of the school roof to be exact. From that perch, he shares the story of his life and all the losses that have left him hurting. He still has his wicked sense of humor, but can he find a ray of hope and happiness for the future?
Theater, Family, Controversial, Playwrights & Plays

Freeze Frame... Stop the Madness

Cuesheet: Debbie Allen's Freeze Frame... Stop The Madness
Part of the Kennedy Center Hip Hop series, Debbie Allen’s Freeze Frame…Stop the Madness hones in on the issues of violence and race relations shaping today’s conversations and news stories in America.
Hip-Hop, Backstage, Theater, Controversial, JFKC

Four Little Girls

Cuesheet: Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963
Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing that took the lives of four young girls, this reading remembers this seminal event in American history and how it helped to galvanize the American Civil Rights Movement.
America, Controversial, History, Playwrights & Plays, Theater

Sancho: An Act of Remembrance

Cuesheet: Sancho: An Act of Remembrance: A Performance and Discussion
Sancho: An Act of Remembrance tells the remarkably true tale of Charles Ignatius Sancho. Based on his letters and publications, Sancho comes to life on stage in this one-man show written by and starring Paterson Joseph.
America, Controversial, History

Darius & Twig

Cuesheet: Darius & Twig
Based on the award-winning novel by Walter Dean Myers, this captivating tale about the power of friendship takes the late author's "unerring eye for what's real and meaningful in life" (Newsday) to depict visceral scenes of inner-city struggle with sensitivity and wit.
Theater, Family, Controversial

The Voice of Anne Frank

Cuesheet: The Voice of Anne Frank
Told through dance, music, spoken text, sound effects, and lighting, The Voice of Anne Frank presents a unique view of Anne as a bright and vivacious thirteen-year-old.
Music, Poetry, Theater, Europe, Controversial

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