An Analogy for The Muny
By: Denny Reagan, President and CEO of the Muny
Someone once offered an analogy for The Muny. “The Muny,” she said, “is like a mighty ship, streaming through the ocean. Crews are hired on, and crews leave, each in their turn keeping the ship afloat, then moving on; and the ship just keeps on its way.”
I’ve been lucky enough to be a crewmember on that ship for 50 years next summer.
I started working at The Muny while I was in high school, in 1968. How could I know when a buddy told me there was an opening for a picker at The Muny that I’d be there fifty years later, celebrating the 100th Season? I didn’t even know what a picker was. I soon learned.
Pickers went into the Muny auditorium the morning after a show, early, to avoid the heat. We picked up trash from the night before, then hosed down the cement so it would be ready for that night’s audience. There’s a stalwart crew of young men who carry on the proud tradition.
1968 marked the 50th anniversary, and the year that Hello, Dolly! with Pearl Bailey closed in New York and came to St. Louis. I was a kid at the time, and didn’t realize what a huge deal it was, but I do remember Pearl Bailey.
Ethel Merman was there that summer in Call Me Madam; Eddie Albert and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. starred in My Fair Lady. Our Show Boat was captained by Arthur Godfrey, and The Sound of Music made its Muny debut with newcomer Florence Henderson.
I returned to The Muny the following season, and worked every summer after that. I held several Muny jobs between high school and college: a dresser for the costume department, a runner, a driver for the performers.
As a driver I met some interesting people. Jim Nabors, aka Gomer Pyle was one. It was my job to meet him at the airport and then take him wherever he might want to go. He wanted to see the theatre. I drove the car up onto the stage, and held the door open. Nabors stepped out, took a look around at the 11,000 seats and said, “Golll-lee!” I’ll never forget it.
And my mother never forgot when I volunteered her for Sunday laundry duty for a pair of young parents scheduled to perform at The Muny. She indulged my somewhat misplaced generosity, and Sonny and Cher’s whites were never whiter.
Disney produced its first stage musical at The Muny in 1969, with Snow White and Seven Dwarfs. That same year, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson starred in the world premiere stage production of State Fair. I remember sitting backstage, talking with Harriet, who was as nice in person as she was on TV.
Shortly after I graduated from UMSL with a degree in business, I accepted a job as the purchasing agent at Essmueller Manufacturing. I continued working nights at The Muny as a dresser, and when Bill Culver, the manager of The Muny, offered me a job as his assistant, I left the manufacture of conveyors behind me forever and never looked back.
The Muny in those days was headed by Culver, and Ed Greenberg served as artistic director. Those were the years of “package” shows, when stars would take a musical on the road during the summer season. Vincent Price toured with Damn Yankees, Donald O’Connor and Eve Arden starred in Little Me, and St. Louis was treated to Chita Rivera in Anything Goes.
Pre-Broadway tryouts were fairly common throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, and before it hit New York, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers played The Muny. It starred Howard Keel and Jane Powell, the originals from the MGM movie. I fell in love with Bernadette Peters, when she and Robert Preston tried out Mack and Mabel in Forest Park in 1974.
The Muny experimented with concerts for several years, and many St. Louisans still have memories of Glen Campbell, Sting, and Whitney Houston performing here. Not naming names, but I’ll say that some of us old-timers have memories of strict guidelines for dealing with the rock stars. Backstage access was sometimes curtailed, and rules were clear as to whom we could speak to and when.
As the ‘80s drew to a close, I had advanced to director of theatre operations, and in 1991 I became the general manager and CEO of The Muny.
It was right about then that Paul Blake became the executive producer, and together we took the theatre in a new direction. We returned to our original status as a “producing theatre,” and since then virtually every show that has played our stage has been “home-grown,” built in St. Louis from the ground up. The touring star system that had brought so many names to The Muny in the ‘70s and ‘80s began to crumble. In the ‘90s, talented Broadway performers populated the Muny stage, much as they had in The Muny’s earliest days.
Mike Isaacson took the Executive Producer/Artistic Director position in 2013, and despite the rapidly changing face of entertainment, has made The Muny a relevant option for the 21st century while loving and respecting the theatre’s tradition and history.
We’re looking ahead now to “what comes next.” Plans are in the works for major upgrades to the stage, and technical aspects are being advanced to match modern theatrical tastes. Everything’s still in the planning stages, and the changes will roll out within the next several years. Just as we were the first outdoor theatre to employ state-of-the-art sound and light equipment, we will keep up with what’s new in New York. After all, if it’s good enough for Broadway, it’s good enough for The Muny. Only bigger!
Now, as we face our second century, the great ship Muny continues its voyage through the currents, as polished as it’s ever been. For those of us who work there, it’s one heck of a job. And for those of you who are our guests…welcome aboard. Enjoy the journey!