When “Miss Saigon” debuted at the Muny in 2001, a real helicopter hovered over the big open-air stage.
As far as anyone at the Muny could tell, it was the first time that the evacuation of Saigon was performed that way. It certainly hadn’t happened in London or New York, where indoor houses relied on stage effects. The Muny’s helicopter took off from Forest Park’s Cricket Field, made its way over the stage and flew on to land in Cahokia.
Two years later, the Muny concocted a similarly impressive moment for “South Pacific,” which opened with a vintage B-25 roaring over the audience.
“When you’re at the biggest outdoor theater in America,” I wrote in my review at the time, “the possibilities tend to widen.”
The theater seats 11,000 people with approximately 1,500 free seats in the last nine rows that are available on a first come, first served basis.
The St. Louis Muny just completed marking its 100th season. Its final show of the summer was "Meet Me in St. Louis."
When “Grease” debuted at the Muny in 1999, executive officer Paul Blake called it a coup. No other professional theater in the country had been able to obtain rights for the show, which was still touring. But thanks to its size and stature, the Muny was in a class by itself.
The connection between the Muny and the wider community remained strong. “If Midwest Floor is good enough for the Muny, isn’t it good enough for you?” asked the company in a 2006 advertisement, illustrated with a photo that revealed the handsome walkway to the box office.
In November 2002, the Muny put 90 pieces of show memorabilia on the block in a web auction. Fans got a chance to bid on everything from Potiphar’s bedazzled chair from “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” to paintings from the Darling nursery in “Peter Pan” to the moon from “The Fantasticks.”
The best item, chief executive officer Dennis Reagan said, was the pair of paint-splattered jeans that scenic artist Andy Cross wore to work and decorated with the names of every show from the previous season.
The auction, Reagan said, was “another way to connect with people who are fans of the Muny. It also gives us a presence after our season is over."
For a new millennium and a new era, the Muny freshened up. New seats, wider and more comfortable, replaced seats that dated to the Coolidge administration. Spaces to accommodate wheelchairs were added, along with improvements to the concrete stairs, to the terraces and to the entire concrete base.
New lighting went in as well. In 2003, Lichtenstein Plaza opened at the top of the theater, dramatically increasing the options for preshow events and entertainment. The cost of all this, $4.5 million, was covered by a fund drive.
The Muny improvements coordinated with other projects to update Forest Park, and people noticed. “In the past four years I have visited the History Museum, Art Museum, Zoo, Boat House, Muny and now the new golf course,” Jim Doerr of Concord Village wrote in a 2005 Post-Dispatch letter to the editor. “Everything seems so fresh and new in Forest Park, it belies its age.
“I realize all of these improvements required a great deal of cooperation by many entities combining their efforts, but it was worth it. Forest Park continues to be a St. Louis treasure.”
When the first Kevin Kline Awards were presented, in 2006, the Muny’s production of “West Side Story” led the way, winning five of the K-shaped statuettes. It was a moment that counted, the first awards given for professional theater here.
Around the same time, arts organizations detected a wispy gray cloud on the horizon: the Great Recession.
“Very, very roughly, our audience is 50-50 subscribers and single-ticket buyers,” explained the Muny’s Laura Peters, now head of the theater’s archives. “Walk-up (business) depends on the show and on word-of-mouth.” Weather is a factor, she acknowledged, “but it’s still title-driven.”
But if social habits were in flux, what would tomorrow bring? In or out of the theater, there’s only one answer to that.
“Let the squealing begin,” I wrote in 2008, reporting that a stage version the hit Disney Channel movie “High School Musical” was headed to Forest Park. It was aimed straight at the tween audience.
That audience (along with those a few years younger or older) was, as usual, a Muny goal. At the Muny, the annual kids’ show usually draws the biggest audience of the season. And why not? The presence of children at most Muny productions creates a decidedly unstuffy atmosphere, just the thing for an outdoor theater.
In 1999, Brad Hofeditz of Edwardsville, a Muny subscriber of 30 years, expressed that point of view. He told the Post-Dispatch that over the summers, he had become friendly with the couple in the pair of seats next to his. One year, he gave them his second ticket so they could bring their little girl to see “Peter Pan,” her first Muny visit. “I enjoyed watching her as much as I enjoyed watching the show,” he said.