Up Close and Behind the Scenes with the Kennedy Center’s Mickey Berra

Now in its 41st year, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts presents itself in a rush of contradictions operating in the same time and space. It’s a national center for the arts that feels at once elevated and eclectic, performance art for the high brow and the populist center, tuxedos and blue jeans. At once expensive and expansively free, it is a cultural shrine for all, and a place where education is as important as edification of the cultural palate.

It’s where you find Mickey Berra, the Kennedy Center’s vice president for production, who is in charge of everything that gets put on the center’s numerous stages and venues.

When “Cosi Fan Tutte” kicks off the Washington National Opera’s spring season Feb. 25, he will be the one that makes sure the acoustics work and the costumes are in place.

When the performance troupes from Eastern Europe come in for the “Music of Budapest, Prague & Vienna” festival on that very same day, Berra will make sure they all have what they need when it starts.

Berra, on the operations level and in his own way, keeps the place running smoothly. As much as anybody, he is the face of the Kennedy Center, having been present since its foundation in 1971. From stagehand at the Opera House to his current standing, Berra is a walking, talking collective memory of the Kennedy Center.

If cops bleed blue, Berra bleeds the deep red of the Kennedy Center’s carpets. Get him going, and he doesn’t stop. “There’s no performing arts hall like it anywhere in the world, not in terms of everything we do here,” he says. He rattles off the names of all the venues: the Opera House, the Eisenhower, the Concert Hall, the Theater Lab, the relatively new Children’s Theater, the Millennium Stage spaces, the Concert Hall, the Terrace Theater and the Jazz Club.

“It’s like a big city,” he says. “And the venues, they’re the neighborhoods.”

He came to Washington in the 1960s with his brother Tommy — who would eventually run operations at the Ford’s Theatre before retiring — from a family that worked in carnivals.

Berra, 66, has two grown children and has been married for 35 years to the love of his life, Marcy. “I hit the lotto jackpot, there, let me tell you”, he says. He has met many of the people who have passed through the Kennedy Center over the years: the actors, the dancers, the musicians the opera singers, the international figures, the writers and directors.

“Sometimes you look at all this, and it’s still hard to imagine where I am,” he says.

We’re all sitting around backstage talking, pointing at the haunting, memento-filled walls at the Opera House, where Berra rose from regular stagehand to head stagehand, where I played ping-pong with stagehands and spoke with Berra years ago when “Les Miserables” first came to town.

Although Berra is in charge of all of the stages now, you can tell that the years spent at the Opera House remain dear to his heart.

He loves the dancers, the Barishnikovs, the ballerinas, the Russians. “I know we like football and all that stuff, and we love our ballplayers. But for my money, there are no better athletes than ballet dancers. And Barishnikov I think was the best. When the Russians — the Bolshoi, the Kirov, all of them — when they came, sometimes we’d have them over to the house and ply them with pizza. They loved pizza.”

Names roll out: Princess Margaret, Paul McCartney, Carol Channing, Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein, Cate Blanchett. But when Berra talks about big stars and artists, he never gives the appearance of dropping names to impress you. He’s sharing the richness of his life, still amazed after 40 years here. He often gives backstage tours to groups, he says. It’s all just part of his resume and life. There probably isn’t a person working in Washington who’s more experienced in terms of actual dealings with the performance arts and the artists and designers who occupy its world.

Mickey — he says no one calls him Michael — talks about looking forward to “Memphis,” the musical about Elvis, Johnny Cash and a ground-breaking recording at Sun Studios, and prepping for the upcoming music festival.

Berra is a pro. As a big part of the Kennedy Center’s heart and soul, he is thus the heart and soul of what we experience here as our cultural heritage. But Berra isn’t the type of guy to put on airs. He’d rather put on a show or tell you a story. “I’m older,” he says. “But this . . . this never gets old.”

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