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A St. Louis Gem For Over A Century, The Muny Is America's Oldest And Largest Non-Profit Outdoor Musical Theater

Posted by 
Jeryl Brunner
Jeryl Brunner
 2021-05-06

What do Cary Grant, Carol Burnett, Sarah Jessica Parker, Florence Henderson, Leslie Uggams, Bob Hope, Rock Hudson, Betty White, Gene Kelly, Bernadette Peters, Joel Grey, Angela Lansbury, Debbie Reynolds and Joe Namath have in common? They and countless other stars have all performed at the the Muny in St. Louis.

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The Muny in St. LouisCourtesy The Muny

Located in Forrest Park the theater has hosted just about every major musical theatre star over the last 100 years, In 2018 North America’s oldest and largest outdoor theater celebrated its 100th anniversary.

Not only does The Muny showcase monster talent, the theater is literally monster sized — to the tune of 11,000 seats! Add to that a theater with a monster-sized heart. The Muny gives away 1,500 free seats to every performance.

Plus, an additional block of 1,500 or so seats are donated each week to charitable organizations. Over the last century an estimated 10 million tickets have been given away. ”I remember coming back after intermission. It would be dark and you would be under the stars,” explains St. Louis native Andy Cohen who saw Hello Dolly about 18 times and has visited the Muny many times since childhood. “The experience that was so great… It was so magical.”

In March The Muny announced today that season tickets for the 2021 summer season will be available beginning at March 22. Tickets can be purchased online at muny.org or by phone by calling (314) 361-1900.

The 103rd 2021 season includes "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" (July 5 – 11), "Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins" (July 14 – 22), "Smokey Joe’s Cafe" (July 25 – 31), "The Sound of Music" (August 3 – 9), "Sweeney Todd" (August 12 – 18)," On Your Feet!" (August 21 – 27) and "Chicago" (August 30 – September 5).

For many actors who have performed on this historic stage, the Muny holds a special place in their hearts. “I love doing great work with great artists in a community that loves you,” says Beth Leavel,who played Rose in Gypsy at the theater this summer.

Emily Skinner agrees. “It’s unlike any other theater I’ve worked at. The Muny is just surrounded by love,” says Skinner, who starred as Ursula in the Muny’s production of "The Little Mermaid." “And because it’s so big, it requires a heightened playing style that is really fun and rare for an actor to get asked to do in this day and age.” Heather Headley is also a Muny fan, in any weather. “Looking out and seeing all those people who come to that magical space night after night, even in the heat and/or rain, always spurs me on to give the best show to them,” adds Headley.

The actors on the Muny stage are such pros, even the sheer size of the place doesn’t deter them. Just ask Rob McClure about his devoted pre-show ritual. Before every performance, no matter where in the world, he runs past every seat in the entire theater. “I start by the stage and run horizontally through every row touching every seat all the way up to the top,” says the actor who performed in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway this past season.

“More than anything, it’s a vocal warm-up to get my body going so that my voice wakes up in time to sing. For the last seven years, I’ve done this at every show. I fully admit it’s also become superstitious.” And that includes the 11,000-seat Muny. Says McClure, “It took an hour and 10 minutes to run.”

Check out this timeline of 100 years of history of this beloved St. Louis theater.

1916 New York actress and producer, Margaret Walsh Anglin, produced an al fresco presentation of As You Like it in Forest Park, St. Louis. Forest Park was then on the outskirts of the city. The show was well-attended and well received, and this space became the home of today’s Muny.

At this very first production on the site of The Muny, free seats were offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Nearly 1,500 seats are available every night of the Muny season to anyone who cares to avail themselves of this perk. An additional block of roughly 1,500 seats are donated each week to charitable organizations. An estimated 10,000,000 tickets have been distributed in this way over the last 100 seasons.

1917 The natural amphitheater in Forest Park was used for an out-of-doors production of Verdi’s Aida. Alfred Lunt and Sydney Greenstreet were in the cast.

1919 The Municipal Theatre Association of St. Louis was incorporated. Beginning with the operetta Robin Hood, a total of 6 light operas were presented that season. The Muny has been in continuous operation in the same location ever since.

1930 The Muny declared itself “Depression proof,” and promised to bring in shows that were more extravagant and timely than ever. The Shubert family, represented by Milton Shubert, took over the artistic production at The Muny. That year they produced The Muny’s first Show Boat, starring W.C. Fields as Cap’n Andy. Under Milton’s direction, the world’s largest outdoor turntable, measuring 48’ in diameter, was installed. It is still in use.

1931 Milton Shubert was replaced by his uncle, J.J. This was the year that a young British baritone, Archie Leach, was brought in for the season. Instead of returning to New York, Leach moved to the west coast, where he made a name for himself as Cary Grant.

1935 The Shuberts and The Muny parted way, and New York writer and director Laurence Schwab took over as producing director.

1938 Gentlemen Unafraid, with a creative team that included Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Otto Harbach, starred a young up-and-comer, Richard “Red” Skelton.

It was this show that introduced Jacob Schwartzdorf to Hammerstein. When Oklahoma! was assembling its staff, Rodgers & Hammerstein enlisted Schwartzdorf, who changed his name to Jay Blackton and enjoyed a long career in New York and Hollywood.

1940 The American Way, a show with music and a book by Kaufman and Hart, starred a native St. Louisan Vincent Price. Also in the cast was Norma Terris, Ruth Urban and Gladys Baxter.

1941 America became enmeshed in the Second World War. The Muny sold war bonds, held fundraisers, rationed shoe leather, and incorporated women into their somewhat male-depleted ensembles. Instructions as to what to do in case of an air raid were incorporated into programs.

1950 The decade of Rodgers & Hammerstein began. A Rodgers & Hammerstein Musical Festival was held, and both men attended a banquet in their honor. Richard Rodgers conducted the opening night orchestra.

Other Rodgers & Hammerstein shows to debut that decade include Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific, and Allegro.

1958 Bob Hope recreated his Broadway role of Huckleberry Haines from Roberta. His daughter, Linda Hope, also performed.

1960 The world stage premiere of Meet Me In St. Louis debuted on The Muny stage.

1961 Betty White made her Muny debut as Lily in Take Me Along. She appeared two other times, as Mrs. Anna in The King and I (1963) and Ella, in Bells Are Ringing (1966).

1968 The Muny celebrated its 50th Anniversary Season. Shows and stars included Ethel Merman and Russell Nype in Call Me Madam, Arthur Godfrey and Mary Wickes in Show Boat, Cab Calloway and Pearl Bailey in an interrupted NY run of Hello, Dolly!, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Eddie Albert in My Fair Lady, and Florence Henderson in her Muny debut as Maria, in The Sound of Music.

1969 In its first stage incarnation of an animated film, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs debuted at The Muny. It was performed there again in 1971.

Ozzie and Harriet starred in the world stage premiere of Rogers and Hammerstein’s State Fair. Choreography was by the then-unknown Tommy Tune, who also played a featured dancer.

1970 The Muny began an annual series of dance concerts, beginning with Moiseyev Dance Company. This series continued through 1986, and principals included Rudolf Nureyev, Dame Margot Fonteyn and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Limited engagements of one-person shows began in 1970, and continued through 1976. Running for one or two nights each, headliners included Dinah Shore, the Carpenters, Burt Bachrach and Anthony Newley, and Sonny and Cher.

1973 Pre-Broadway productions were sporadically presented from 1973 through 1989. Musicals included Mack and Mabel with Bernadette Peters and Robert Preston (1974), a Gypsy revival starring Angela Lansbury (1974), and The King and I revival with Yul Brynner (1976).

1982 The Muny initiated a Winter Series at the Fox, presenting an eclectic slate of dramas, comedies, musicals, straight plays, and international dance companies. The final show of this series closed in 1992.

1984 The Summer Series in Forest Park incorporated the Starfest Series, a slate of one night concerts sandwiched between traditional musicals. The line-up was eclectic, featuring performers as diverse and Merle Haggard, Whitney Houston, and Barry Manilow.

1990 Paul Blake was named executive producer, and reinstated the practice of The Muny producing all of its own shows. Concerts were eliminated, and touring productions became a thing of the past.

An unprecedented upgrade of Muny facilities began, including refurbishing the turntable (1997), upgrading concession and rest room facilities (1998), reseating the theatre (2001), and refurbishing the area around the free seats and the picnic areas (2003).

2012 Executive producer Paul Blake retired, and Mike Isaacson was named as his successor. An LED wall was installed, allowing for dramatic and intricate stage pictures at the touch of a button.Outdoor fans, capable of running silently throughout a performance, were installed. They replaced fans originally installed in 1957, which helped with mid-West heat before the show and at intermission, but which were too noisy to run during performances.

2018 The Muny celebrated its 100th Anniversary Season. Plans were revealed for a full update and renovation of The Muny’s stage, orchestra pit, and supporting technical components.

2021 Kwofe Coleman was appointed the theater's next president and CEO, effective January 1, 2022. He will succeed Denny Reagan, who has been with The Muny since 1968 and has served as president and CEO since 1991.