Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at a White House Reception for Kennedy Center Honorees

December 05, 1982

Someone once said that an artist is a dreamer consenting to dream of the actual world. That description is particularly apt for the five artists that we honor tonight. George Abbott, Eugene Ormandy, Lillian Gish, Benny Goodman, and Gene Kelly are five American dreamers who have made their dreams come true for the rest of us. In the years they've devoted to their crafts and during their countless performances, they have lifted our lives from the commonplace to share the sublime.

George Abbott created or contributed to hit after spectacular hit through his acting, writing, producing, and directing. The Abbott touch made magic on the stages of America's theaters. We laughed with him during the "Pajama Game" and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." We shed a sentimental tear during "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and soared with the music and dance in productions like "The Boys From Syracuse," "Pal Joey," and "Damn Yankees."

Mr. Abbott—I'm not sure enough yet about calling him George. I'm temporarily between engagements and— [laughter] . But he has surely earned his reputation as the Dean of Broadway Showmen.

America was lucky to lure another great talent, Eugene Ormandy, from Hungary. He was music director of the famous Philadelphia Orchestra for nearly half a century, conducting, programing, and exacting an unrivaled freshness and vitality from his talented musicians. But this great man, who we're so proud today to call American, began life far from Philadelphia.

He grew up as a child prodigy in Budapest. At 2, he could easily identify symphonies. Almost before he could stand, he was playing a specially made fiddle. And at 4, he loudly interrupted a violin recital to announce, "You played an F sharp instead of an F." [Laughter] At 5, he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Music as its youngest pupil.

He later said, "My lessons filled my days with work and with dreams. I had tasted the intoxicating wine of being a wunderkind. And my whole ambition was to be a wundermann as well." Well, tonight, Mr. Ormandy, your fellow Americans want you to know that in their eyes you've made it.

And Lillian Gish is a homegrown talent and beauty whose performances set a standard of enigmatic allure that has never been equaled.

As a child actress during her first performance, she burst from behind some scenery at the sound of a scripted explosion and ran screaming into the footlights. The audience loved her that night as they've continued to love her throughout her career. Such successes as "Birth of a Nation," "La Boheme," "The Scarlet Letter," and many others led her to be known early in her career as the First Lady of the Silent Screen. She went on to other great accomplishments in the talkies and on the stage.

A normally caustic critic once wrote of the Gish girl that her smile "is a bit of trembling happiness. The tears of the Gish girl are the tears that Johann Strauss wrote in the Rosemary of his waltzes." Her smile is as enticing today, her talent as compelling as it was when she first sparkled on the silent silver screen.

And the talent of Benny Goodman is another example of the diversity that makes our people and our culture so rich. Benny Goodman, the son of an immigrant Chicago tailor, also took up his craft as a child. But he got his training in the local synagogue orchestra and at Hull House, the noted Chicago settlement house founded by Jane Addams.

He began playing on bandstands while still only a boy and became known in musical circles as "the kid in the short pants." By the time he was 20, he had made records, led a combo, and played with a well-known band. And 8 years later, he ushered in the era of swing on the stage of New York's Paramount Theater, and his music took America by storm.

Twenty-five years after that, he took his band to Moscow, where, as one writer observed, "the swing music that had once set the jitterbugs dancing in the Paramount aisles almost blew down the Iron Curtain." You wouldn't like to make a return trip, would you? [Laughter]

Although in his career he has mastered everything from big bands to classics, Benny Goodman will always be known to Americans and the world as the King of Swing.

And the fifth artist we honor tonight is an old friend of mine, a friend of Nancy's, Gene Kelly.

Someone once described Gene as having an American baseball personality. And I think that's just about right. He's a talented dancer, singer and actor, choreographer and director, and a man I personally admire. As a boy, he saw himself as more of a football player and went to his dancing lessons under parental duress. But by the time he was in college, he had founded a dancing school and after graduation tried his luck on Broadway. His talents won him a small dancing part in "Leave It to Me" with Mary Martin, and his career took off. He starred in Mr. Abbott's "Pal Joey" and the "Best Foot Forward" before moving to Hollywood to make film classics like "For Me and My Gal," "Cover Girl," and, of course, "Singin' in the Rain."

Bob Hope used to say that every time Gene Kelly dances, Fred Astaire starts counting his money. [Laughter]

Gene isn't dancing much anymore, but he's encouraging promising young dancers to develop their talent. And his legendary accomplishments are ours to enjoy at the turn of a reel or by closing our eyes and remembering. To have seen Gene Kelly dance makes most of us start counting our blessings.

A famous clergyman, Henry Ward Beecher, once said that "every artist dips his brush in his own soul and paints his own nature into his pictures." The artists that we honor tonight have painted a panorama with their lives, a spectacular display of talent, achievement, and personal integrity that challenges all of us to be the best that we can be. They reward our spirit by allowing us from time to time to mingle our everyday world with their world of pageantry and dreams. And how lucky we are that they're Americans. They've enriched us all.

George Abbott, Eugene Ormandy, Lillian Gish, Benny Goodman, and Gene Kelly, on behalf of all Americans, thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 5:50 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.

Following the reception, the President went to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for a gala performance honoring the award recipients.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at a White House Reception for Kennedy Center Honorees Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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