THE STORY BEHIND CURT BELL'S
$2.5 MILLION GIFT TO POWER PLAYS
As a child growing up in Washington, D.C., Curt Bell frequently worked in his parents’ silver and fine gifts store, Washington Art Galleries, located near Woodward & Lothrop. “My brothers and I grew up in that store,” recalls Curt.
Benjamin and Josephine Bell’s carriage trade business was known throughout the region, attracting Washington’s most prominent families. Among the store’s famous customers: First Ladies Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy, Pat Nixon, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter. Curt recalls Mrs. Eisenhower arriving in a cobalt blue Chrysler Imperial. And he remembers the excitement when Jackie Kennedy – always accompanied by her valet – would visit. “That exposure early in my life to presidential families stimulated my interest in American history,” he says.
Those uniquely Washington moments may also have planted the seed that led Curt to donate $2.5 million this week to Arena Stage’s Power Plays initiative. Over the next 10 years, Arena will commission and develop 25 new plays and musicals focused on stories of politics and power. Power Plays will encompass five cycles: Presidential Voices, African-American Voices, Insider Voices, Musical Theater Voices and Women’s Voices. Curt’s contribution will be leveraged as a matching gift challenge, ultimately raising an additional $2.5 million to fully fund the Presidential Voices cycle.
Curt’s childhood fascination with political campaign buttons also drew him to Presidential Voices. When not working at his parents’ store, Curt would walk around the corner to the Democratic National Committee headquarters, where he stuffed envelopes in exchange for first dibs on the best campaign buttons. Other days, the nine-year-old would take the streetcar by himself to the Republican National Committee’s offices near the Mayflower Hotel to volunteer and collect candidates’ buttons. Over time, what started as a childhood hobby grew into a true passion. Today, he has three cabinets’ worth of buttons pinned to velvet boards. His most prized possession: a William McKinley campaign button dating from the 1890s – second only to a treasured collection of letters from Mamie Eisenhower to his mother.
Curt’s commitment to Presidential Voices also was shaped by his love of the nation’s capital. After living above the family store, the Bells moved to a house built in 1865 situated on 24 acres just inside the Beltway. That majestic home was the site of an annual garden party at which the Kennedy’s White House Maître d’Hotel, Charles Ficklin, would masterfully carve the turkey. “Only in Washington!” says Curt, adding, “I would never live anywhere but this great city.”
And it was undoubtedly Curt’s passion for theater and his admiration for Arena Stage that led him to give so generously to the ambitious Power Plays initiative. He confesses to having fallen in love with theater many years ago. (He performed in several productions, including “Oklahoma,” while at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda). Since then, he estimates he has seen at least 100 Arena Stage performances. Remarkably, each year he buys eight (eight!) season subscriptions to Arena so he can treat himself and seven friends to dinner and a show.
Curt likes the variety of offerings at Arena – from the silly to the serious. He remembers one show, many years ago, “that left me full of belly laughs.” Later that night, he turned on the 11 o’clock news to find theater critic Arch Campbell saying, “I just saw a great show at Arena Stage. It left me full of belly laughs.” Curt felt validated.
More recently, he has been drawn to thought-provoking plays like The Originalist, about Justice Antonin Scalia, and Roe, about the Supreme Court case. “These are timely plays that reflect the genius of Molly Smith,” he says. “The quality of the productions is far superior to anything else I’ve seen – and I see a lot of theater. I say that as humbly as I possibly can.”
“We’ve just come out of a riveting presidential campaign,” he adds, “one that woke up everyone in the country about presidential elections – even those who had no interest before. Through its Power Plays, Arena is ensuring that people who live here know the political figures and the stories that have shaped this powerful city. Through Presidential Voices, Arena is ensuring that we understand where powerful figures come from – and what they do once they get into office,” Curt said. “For Arena, it’s the role of a lifetime. I’m honored to play a small part in giving back to an organization that has given so much to me.”