Documenting a Century of The Muny

By Suzanne Vanderhoef

With a capacity crowd of 11,000 people, the St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre – better known as The Muny – covers six acres in the heart of Forest Park and is the oldest and largest outdoor municipal theater in the United States.

From the box seats to the free seats, St. Louisans have been packing into the Muny stands for generations, dating back to its very first production of Robin Hood, which premiered on June 16, 1919 and featured St. Louis’ own Mayor Henry Kiel as King Richard.

Now, as the Muny prepares to celebrate its 100th birthday next year, HEC-TV is hard at work pulling back the curtains and going behind the scenes with a new documentary set to premiere next spring to mark the theater’s centennial.

HEC crews have been working on this project for more than a year, poking around backstage, digging into the archives and talking with Muny performers. Among those actors, we’ve spoken with some who’ve gone on to national celebrity such as Julie Probst and Ken Page. We’ve also talked with others - like Berkley Going, Joe Grandy and Madison Johnson - who got their starts as Muny Kids and Muny Teens and are now making names for themselves as adult cast members. They’ve filled us in on some backstage tidbits - like giving us a sense of what it was like to step onto that huge stage the very first time, and how that compares to the feeling they get when they go in front of a similar capacity crowd now.

We’ve also met with some of the famous faces from Muny days past. Folks like the Munyettes – a group of former Muny showgirls, now in their 70s, 80s and 90s, who still get together once each season to attend a show and reminisce with one another – and us – about the good old days.

“For me, I feel like I grew up on The Muny stage,” explains former Munyette Suzanne Vitale. “It was so big and I thought, this is what all stages were…After that I went to New York and I saw the New York stages, and I did Broadway shows, and I thought, what is this Broadway thing, these little stages? I thought everything was supposed to be like The Muny.”

In addition to those on the stage, we’ve also had the chance to talk with some of the musicians, costume and set designers, and countless other behind-the-scenes folk who keep the whole process chugging along. They shared with us some only-at-the-Muny moments. Dresser/seamstress Kim Stone told us about when one uninvited performer got onstage right in the middle of a show:

“During Chorus Line one year we had a big possum that came back by the big change that we had to do, and we had guys climbing on chairs, ‘It’s a rat! It’s a rat! No, it’s just a possum!’ And you don’t get that in other theaters.”

No you don’t. You also don’t get B-25 bombers flying overhead during the overture of South Pacific, actual fireworks in the sky above the seats at the end of Meet Me In St. Louis, or a real helicopter coming in for the evacuation at the end of Miss Saigon, but that’s part of what makes the Muny so special.

We can’t wait to share all sorts of special Muny moments and behind-the-scenes secrets as we help them kick off their 100th birthday with our documentary on the Muny coming out next spring!

Christina Chastain