Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Muny

Even though rain threatened, we set out for Forest Park this last Thursday evening to attend our first ever performance at the St. Louis Municipal Theatre, lovingly referred to as “The Muny.” We knew we could not claim to know anything about this place until we had a dose of America's oldest and largest outdoor theatre.,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/ Merry got the tickets, scoped out the best place to park and prepared a picnic supper. We went early so we could appreciate it all.

Forest Park is to St. Louis as Central Park is to New York City, only Forest Park is bigger. For an overview of the park and its history take a look at my very first blog from way back on 09/07/08. The Muny is set on a steep hillside close to the center of the park. The backstage and auxiliary buildings are constructed of light tan brick fronted by a grand colonnade. The theatre has an astounding 11,000 seats. Ticket prices are pretty reasonable ranging from $9 - $46 and 1500 seats at the top of the hill are free, first come, first served. When we arrived at the picnic area around 6 pm only half the picnic tables were taken but soon they all filled. A line formed for the free seats that are given out at 7 pm for the 8:15 curtain. All around the theatre people set up picnics, bought box suppers or sat down to eat at the open air pavilion serving a $19 buffet, reservations only.

The season typically consists of seven musicals, each running a week. This year the lineup is 42nd Street, Annie, Godspell, Meet Me In St. Louis, The Music Man, Camelot, and Hairspray. We chose the 76 trombones. Each show features actors equity performers in the leads drawn from Broadway and traveling professional productions mixed with a large number of local performers and a full orchestra.

We were just finishing our picnic when a serious thunderstorm hit. Everyone calmly took cover under the colonnade, spread out their table cloths again and resumed picnicking. Thunder crashed and torrents of water ran off the roof. The rain let up in about half an hour. More and more people arrived, wiped off the picnic tables, filled the pavilion and prepared for the show. The free seats were completely taken.

We explored while we waited. In front of the Muny is a pond with an elegant pagoda on a island. A white egret with a hurt leg stalked frogs on one side of the pond. On a bridge a young man was throwing bread crumbs in the water. We walked over to find he was feeding the many turtles that live under the bridge, pond sliders and one pretty big snapper.

Finally the gates opened. The theatre quickly filled. It was not a sellout, but at least 9,000 people arrived from all sides. Most brought all the necessities: seat cushions, towels to dry the seats and rain gear. Those who were unprepared could rent seat cushions or have the friendly ushers wipe off the wet seats. The lights dimmed. The music started. Bats danced overhead seeking insects drawn to the stage lights. From the first note I knew this was a top quality show; terrific singers in all lead roles, great dancing and fabulous sets.

About an hour after the show started a second rainstorm hit. Out came a sea of umbrellas and rain ponchos. Vendors immediately appeared hawking cheap rain gear. The show continued for a few minutes until the rain really started to come down. A rain delay was called. The show would resume, we were told, in 15 minutes to half an hour. We decided to leave even though we were having a good time. It's a long show and I needed to get to work early the next morning.

To understand how the Muny managed to gain such a substantial following you have to look to its beginnings during the First World War. In 1916 the site was first used to present “As You Like It” put together by the Parks Commission and the Civic League to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. This show turned out to be such a success that by early 1917 a decision was made to erect a permanent stage at the site. That summer the city was hosting the 13th Annual Convention of the Advertising Clubs of the World. The opening of the new outdoor theatre would be the highlight event of the convention. Construction began April 16 funded with $5000 provided by the Convention board and $5000 from the city. In 46 days the massive stage was constructed, an orchestra pit built to hold up to 200 musicians, all the concrete was poured and dressing rooms built behind the stage. On June 5, 1917 the Muny opened with an audience of 12,000 in attendance. A full production of Verdi's “Aida” featured world famous opera stars and a local chorus of 250 plus 30 local dancers.

After three weeks of performances with about 10,000 people in attendance nightly the theatre had lost nearly $60,000. Nonetheless the city was determined to make a first rate summer theatre in the park a permanent reality. During 1918 Mayor Henry Keil spearheaded a fundraising campaign that raised the necessary money to plan another season.

By March 1919 the organizing committee announced they would present six operas the coming summer. In April, St. Louisans went to the polls to vote on the repertory. As soon as the results were tabulated, stars were engaged from New York, musicians auditioned, sets built and choruses assembled.

Ticket prices ranged from 25 cents to a top price of one dollar. 1,620 of the 9,000 seats were set aside as free, beginning a tradition that continues to this day. On June 10, 1919, the Municipal Theatre Association was formally incorporated. Six days later the curtain rose on “Robin Hood,” with a full house and Mayor Kiel himself proudly appearing in the production as King Richard.

Ninety seasons later, the Muny is still going strong.

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