100 years of memories: New exhibit celebrates a century of the Muny

ST. LOUIS, MO - When you think of St. Louis, what do you picture? The Arch? The Brewery? How about the Muny? It celebrates its centennial season this summer.

“For a lot of people, this is their first theatre experience,” says Laura Peters.

“ Absolutely, it is. And it’s so early that they don’t even remember what the show is,” adds Judith Newmark.

For ninety-nine seasons, the Muny has been entertaining audiences under the stars in Forest Park. As season 100 approaches, St. Louis Post Dispatch Theatre Critic Judith Newmark and Muny Director of Archives Laura Peters have been tasked with telling the century-old story.

Peters explains, “The Muny is the oldest theatre of any kind in the country who has always been in the same location for its entire lifetime and has never been anything but a legitimate, professional theatre, and has been in continuous operation.”

After a hugely successful celebration of the 150th anniversary of St. Louis’ founding on Art Hill in 1914, more shows were staged in the park. In 1916, a grassy area between two oak trees was chosen for a production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”. It was the site where the Muny now stands.

Inspired, Mayor Henry Kiel and other city leaders worked to create the first municipally owned open-air theatre in the united states.  On June 16, 1919, the St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre, or "The Muny," opened with a production of “Robin Hood,” and yes, there were free seats.

"People call this 'our theatre.' And I do think that people have a personal connection to the Muny that they don’t have for another theatre,” says Peters.

Over the decades, the Muny has produced musicals, operas, concerts, and ballets. Far from the Broadway lights, it’s at the Muny where many St. Louisans develop their love for musical theatre.

“It’s a place where children learn that theatre is fun. They don’t have to behave. It’s not like going to school.”

Families have been sitting in the same section, the same seats for generations.

Judith Newmark says, “There are families that don’t ever give their tickets away. They pass them down in wills. “

And those generations have been dazzled by the Muny’s grand scale.

“The skirts, the colorful skirts of the women who were dancing across the stage. It’s a very impressive sight when you are three years old,” says Newmark.

“Or 33 or 83,” Peters adds.

The story of the Muny is now headed to the Missouri History Museum. The upcoming "Muny Memories: 100 Seasons Onstage" exhibit will do much more than explain how the theatre was formed.

“For visitors who know and visitors who don’t know the Muny, take them backstage and really let them in on the secret of what we see for seven weeks a summer,” explains curator Sharon Smith.

Smith and her team have been working closely with Peters and her volunteers, creating the right mix of history, interaction, and access to bring the Muny’s impressive history to life.

“We really want them to understand that the Muny isn’t just an outdoor theatre. It is the oldest, the grandest, the biggest.”

There will be memories from stars and staff and chances to learn dance routines, design costumes, and create scenery. It’s a lot to cram into 6,000 square feet.

“If you are a Muny goer, we probably won’t have told every story that you want us to tell. If you’re not a Muny goer, I hope it makes you become a Muny-goer,” says Smith.

With an eye to its past, the Muny now heads to season 100 and beyond.

“We’ve been looking forward to 2018 for so long. Don’t forget, there’s going to be a 2019. So, the story continues,” says Peters.

Muny Memories: 100 Seasons Onstage opens June 9 at the Missouri History Museum, just two days before the Muny begins its season with “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway”, in its first major staging since 1990.