In celebration of the centennial of The Muny, the renowned outdoor theater in Forest Park, the Missouri History Museum has created a captivating new exhibit, Muny Memories: 100 Seasons Onstage, showing how the theater progressed from a grassy spot between two oak trees to the 11,000-seat St. Louis monument it is today.
The Muny was born out of a civic connection among St. Louisans, according to Sharon Smith, curator of civic and personal identity for the Missouri History Museum.
“The outdoor theater was an undertaking brought about through a group of interested city officials,” Smith explains. “The Muny never asked for money from the city; they secured operation through guarantors, which were civic-minded businessmen and businesses in the city. They were called upon to guarantee it wouldn’t run out of money.
“What The Muny has done is not an easy accomplishment. It never closed for anything, including the Depression and World War II.”
Through the exhibit, the museum has an opportunity to show the iconic theater’s history in a way it’s never been seen.
“We did the premiere moment with a lot of Muny people who have worked there many years who came out and said to me, ‘I didn’t know everything that I saw in there,’” Smith says. “It’s fun to watch them come through and be amazed at their own history. And, hopefully, people who don’t even know about The Muny will become interested after seeing it.”
Smith has been a part-time, evening staff person at The Muny for more than 10 years.
“When I started in 2007, it was fun side job for summer, but it got me to be at The Muny more,” she says. “When they did their 90th season, I started thinking about doing a 100th season exhibit.”
The 6,000-square-foot space provides an opportunity for a range of generations to share their memories of the theater. “It’s neat to watch as people go through and remember moments or stars or shows they saw,” Smith says. “People have come in and said they were part of the show and still have a costume. Our role is to bring that memory-sharing out in people.”
Although the exhibit features many scenes through the theater’s history, highlights include the Hello, Dolly! dress, a scene from The Wizard of Oz and the 1914 “Pageant and Masque” story.
“The ‘Dolly’ dress story is paramount because The Muny had such standing 50 years ago in New York that the all-African American production of Hello, Dolly! starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway, closed on Broadway for a week and brought the production to St. Louis for The Muny’s 50th season,” Smith says. “That was the first time St. Louisans saw Hello, Dolly! on the Muny stage.
“What’s cool about the scarecrow scene of The Wizard of Oz is that The Muny would not necessarily keep those things — they get repurposed and reused — so to have the fortune of having that is pretty important.”
“As for the ‘Pageant and Masque,’ it was the first grand moment in Forest Park where there’s huge audiences clamoring to see musical theater. Over four nights, about 400,000 people filled the park to see the production.”
For some who have visited the exhibit, “it was moving to the point of some of them being choked up,” Smith says. “So many people hold this place dear to their hearts. It’s not a St. Louis summer if you haven’t been to The Muny.”