The Muny Opera
As the year of 1916 marked the tercentenary of the death of William Shakespeare, the Pageant Drama Association decided to mark the occasion with an appropriate observance. An outdoor presentation of his "As You Like It" was chosen to be given at a then undesignated site in Forest Park.
Margaret Anglin, a popular stage favorite of the day, was selected to produce the play and to choose the site for its presentation. After a tour of several possible sites in the park, she chose the present site of the Municipal Opera Theater. There, the hillside sloped gradually downward to a level stage-like area with a huge oak tree on either side and a fine arboreal backdrop of forest trees. "As You Like It" played a short, but successful stand there from June 5 through 11, 1916.
In the following year, St. Louis was to play host to the international convention of Associated Advertising Clubs. For entertainment it was proposed to bring famous opera stars here for a presentation of the grand opera "Aida".
In preparing a site for the opera, the St. Louis Advertising Club approached Mayor Henry W. Kiel with the idea of making the open air theater into a permanent installation. They offered $5,000, which was matched by the city, to build a stepped concrete auditorium floor and stage at the new al fresco theater.
On June 5, 1917, the opera was given there before an appreciative audience of national and international business leaders attending the convention. During the ensuing war time years, the new theater was used for a succession of patriotic rallies and fashion pageants. After the end of World War I, the question arose as to what regular and beneficial use could be made of the open air theater in the park.
After some consideration, a committee appointed by Mayor Kiel decided to attempt the presentation of a season of light opera there during the summer of 1919.
A Municipal Theatre Association was organized and pledges were secured from sixty public spirited citizens to guarantee against a possible deficit. As s a public project, a policy of setting aside a portion of the seating capacity for free use was adopted and has since been maintained.
A cast of professional talent was assembled and a chorus of singers and dancers from St. Louis was trained. Opening night on June 15, 1919, with the presentation of "Robin Hood", proved to be a debacle. A heavy rainstorm of unusually heavy proportions flooded the theater and stage during the performance, washing away scenery and band instruments in overflow from the nearby River des Peres. However, the persistent management refused to concede defeat and went on to present a season of six weekly productions.
Subsequently, the deficit was reduced through the personal sale of tickets by the mayor and the association's directors. Success of the 1920 season was assured through the help of civic organizations purchasing large blocks of seats. Due to public demand, the association opened a downtown ticket office in 1921 and the opera's success became a certainty.
Also in that year, pergola shelters were built at the rear and sides of the theater affording protection from sudden showers. By 1923, a sound amplification system was installed, followed by a revolving stage in 1930 and new lighting facilities in 1935.
Since that time, the "Muny Opera" has become entrenched in the entertainment fabric of St. Louis and has gained international fame for the quality of its productions. Large parking lots were built and direct service by bus was established to provide access to all parts of the city.
Burial of the River des Peres eliminated the problem of flooding, which plagued the venture in its early days.
The original use of a stock company has been abandoned in favor of the presentation of famous theatrical personalities in currently popular productions from Broadway and Hollywood.
Municipal Opera's theatrical plant has been continually enlarged and improved and millions of spectators have viewed its varied performances during the years since its founding in 1919. For more information, call 361-1900.
For information about The Muny and its 2000 season, tickets and other information call 314 361-1900 or visit their website.