WASHINGTON — It's midday, and in a jammed dressing room at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Jean Kennedy Smith is talking to the media about a theater workshop that is in progress for the handicapped.
Soon, Smith slips out of camera range to greet the Kennedy Center's dark-haired director of operations, who has stopped by to say hello.
In a low voice, Smith congratulates Thomas R. Kendrick on his new appointment as executive director of the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. But she is concerned over who will replace him in Washington as her chief ally for programming for children and the handicapped.
"We're really upset to lose him," remarks Smith, the late President Kennedy's sister and the family's representative on the Kennedy Center board. "If Tom supports an idea, he makes it easy to accomplish. . . . Orange County is very lucky to get him."
Minutes later, Kendrick is pulled aside by a kimono-clad man with hair like porcupine quills. Peter Sellars, the puckish, iconoclastic 27-year-old director of the American National Theater company, wants advice from a seasoned pro on the handling of contrary board members.
"His (Kendrick's) political skills are tremendous," Sellars explains to a visitor.
Kendrick, 51, a former Washington Post reporter and founding editor of the newspaper's trend-setting Style section, was tapped May 9 after a 10-month national search to head up the embryonic Orange County Performing Arts Center. Hired with the Kennedy Center director of operations was Judith O'Dea Morr, 43, the center's general manager of operations. She will be second in command, with responsibility for overall operations.
Orange County center officials have hailed the hirings as a major coup, calling Kendrick and Morr the greatest "one-two" arts administration team in the country. He officially takes the center's helm on Sept. 9; she starts this month.
Center officials say the duo will bring prestige, credibility and important international arts contacts to the $65.5-million complex being built in Costa Mesa and scheduled to open by October, 1986. The planned three-theater complex will be the largest arts facility in the nation to be built and operated solely with private funds.
Asked why he would leave the prestigious Kennedy Center, where he has worked since 1976 in a high-profile position with legendary arts patron and center Chairman Roger Stevens, to start a new complex at this time of great economic uncertainty for the performing arts, Kendrick answers simply, "It's a challenge."
Interviewed at a Kennedy Center restaurant overlooking the glistening Potomac River, Kendrick says it's a good time in his life for personal change.
"The timing (of the move) was right," he says. "My wife and daughter were at a crossroads. Besides, a lot of things come around again after nine years in the same job. . . .
"Besides, Roger (Stevens) is not going to stay here forever. Whoever would come in as chairman would want his own man in, and who knows who the next chairman is going to be?"
Leaning over, he adds in his confiding conversational style, "You know, it may be the last major arts center to be built in this country. . . ."
Kendrick, who runs the day-to-day operations at the Kennedy Center, is generally well regarded for his managerial and budgetary skills. However, there are many in the arts community--including some of Kendrick's current and former associates--who profess surprise that he was considered for the Orange County post. Friends and critics alike claim that Kendrick has little background in the performing arts, stressing that it's been the 75-year-old Stevens who has made all important artistic decisions at the Kennedy Center.
"He's not an artsy type, which makes it even more ironic that he became an arts administrator," says Washington Post music writer Lon Tuck, a longtime colleague and friend of Kendrick. "I think Roger Stevens was impressed with the meticulousness of his management style (at the Post)."
"I questioned why he was even hired at the Kennedy Center in the first place," says Richard L. Coe, the Post's drama critic emeritus. "He was a newspaperman . . . and not a particularly distinguished journalist.
"I was even more baffled when he was signed to this high-paying post at a new performing arts center in Orange County. I can understand the assumption . . . that Mr. Kendrick had a great deal to do with the history and choice of programs. But that is not the case."
According to Kendrick, Coe, who became the Post's drama critic in 1938, was not in a position to know of Kendrick's work on the paper's metropolitan and state staffs and did not work closely with him after Kendrick joined the Kennedy Center in 1976.
Some in the field of arts administration who know both Kendrick and Morr say that Morr is the one with the experience and personnel management skills to make the Orange County center run smoothly--and make Kendrick look good.