Last Wednesday night’s Whitaker Music Festival in the Missouri Botanical Garden was the most recent in The Lou’s long history of large-scale, open-air, summer-musical events – many of which originate in 19th century band concerts in the city’s parks.
The Muny “Opera” in Forest Park however (The Lou’s outdoor summer theater) grew out of The Pageant & Masque of St. Louis (1914), (http://stlouis.missouri.org/citygov//parks/forestpark/history/pageant.html), a musical theater extravaganza inspired by the scope, setting and success of the World’s Fair of 1904.*
Mounted on a huge stage constructed in Forest Park’s Grand Basin, The Pageant & Masque of St. Louis still holds the record for the largest cast ever assembled (over five thousand) for a local musical production; a number unlikely to be topped. Celebrating the Sesquicentennial of the Founding of St. Louis, it proved a roaring success. Over the four consecutive nights of its run, the show drew four hundred thousand people, who spread out over Art Hill to view the spectacle below.
Three years later, in 1917, the Muny Opera (http://muny.org/) was launched when the Municipal Theater Association of St. Louis opened an amphitheater on a neighboring hill in Forest Park. It was the first, and it is today, the largest outdoor musical theater in the U.S.* * Four generations of St. Louisans have been introduced to the wonders of musical theater on summer nights that became unforgettably thrilling as the stars of Broadway (and many of Hollywood) performed on the Muny stage. Since the seats in the last section of the amphitheater are free, such experiences became accessible to the entire community.
This was accomplished in a spirit that makes St. Louis somewhat unique. Tourists from around the nation and the world are amazed to find that they can visit the St. Louis Art Museum, Science Center, History Museum and Zoo – free of charge – as can residents all year round; which contributed to Parenting Magazine’s listing St. Louis, the 11th Best City in the U.S. to Raise a Family.***
After opening on Broadway in 1937, Rodgers’ & Hart’s “Babes in Arms” was made into a motion picture starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. A celebration of youthful talent and determination, “Babes in Arms” had its Muny debut in 1940. By the time I was growing up in the 1950’s local kids were putting on small-scale neighborhood “productions” inspired by Mickey Rooney’s exuberant, “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!”
I don’t know about other cities but in and around St. Louis, kids’ shows popped up in garages, on patios, front porches and sidewalks. A generation later the Murdoch Street Players in south city produced a one-night show for ten consecutive summers. Seen in the photo to the left are Tim Cuneo as the Tin Man, Pat Noonan as the Cowardly Lion, Amy Lewis as Dorothy and Heidi Kuster as the Scarecrow in “Kids on Broadway 1989”. Performances began at dusk, with lights coming up as the sun went down. The porch at 5348 Murdoch, the front steps leading up to it and the sidewalk in front became center stage for dozens of neighborhood kids who sang, danced and acted for hundreds of their neighbors.
The interior of the house became wings and dressing rooms where kids got made up, older kids got the littler kids into costume and lined up for their entrances, and where life-long friendships were formed and memories made on starry, summer nights. Parents pitched in with refreshments, costumes, music, and lights. Admission was by donation only to local children’s charities.
In 1975 Mae Meissner Whitaker, who had made St. Louis her home for many years and been an ardent supporter of the arts, bestowed upon the St. Louis community a final gift. At ninety-two years of age, with no heirs, she endowed a foundation to support the work of local artists, in perpetuity.
Upon her death, the foundation Mae created to honor her husband Lyndon began to enrich the lives of St. Louisans. Numerous concerts supported by the Whitaker Foundation are held in urban parks, helping to preserve their viability, but the foundation has also underwritten exhibits at the Contemporary Art Museum and St. Louis Classical Guitar Society Concerts**** in the Ethical Society Auditorium.
2011 marks the 18th summer that a Whitaker Music Festival has taken place inside the Missouri Botanical Garden (http://mobot.org/). A place of enchantment throughout the year, the Missouri Botanical Garden is particularly splendid in summer when the many individual gardens of which it is composed – Chinese, Japanese, English Woodland, Bavarian, rose, herb and lily – flourish. The gardens in daylight are gorgeous, at night they become almost hauntingly, surrealistic.
Every Wednesday evening over ten weeks, from the beginning of June to the beginning of August, at 5:00 in the evening, one of the most magnificent botanical gardens in the world opens free to the public, through the munificence of Mae Whitaker.
Singles, couples, families, groups of friends come in the thousands with picnic baskets, lanterns, lawn chairs and blankets to kick back and relax against a background of wonderful music – bluegrass, jazz, western, swing, rock, country, folk, classical. As twilight dims to darkness music fills the air and lantern glow pales beneath moonlight and starlight. Last Wednesday over 7, 500 people heard the Jenny Kavanaugh Band (most of whose members romped in Henry Shaw’s Missouri Botanical Garden as children).*****
While they alternately rocked and lulled listeners, another generation of children danced or fell to sleep to music composed mostly, right here in The Lou; this stellar night made possible by an English immigrant and an Illinois native, who having no children of their own, endowed St. Louis with their foresight and their fortunes.
But with an altogether different kind of magic than that which Henry Shaw’s garden provides on soft summer nights, to music made possible by Mae Whitaker, in a setting as close to paradise as St. Louis gets.
References: *website of the City of St. Louis (http://stlouis.missouri.org/citygov//parks/forestpark/history/pageant.html); **website of the Muny in Forest Park (http://muny.org/); ***Parenting Magazine, June 2011 – http://www.parenting.com; **** Christie Gray of the Whitaker Foundation;*****http://www.jennykavanaugh.com/.
Photo Credits: “The Muny in Forest Park” – captured by Tom Kavanaugh, Jr., “Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms” – in the public domain at wikipedia.com; “Aquarium Tunnel at the St. Louis Zoo” and “Murdoch Street Players” – Thomas Kavanaugh; black & white photo of “The Jenny Kavanaugh Band in Concert at the Whitaker Music Festival in the Missouri Botanical Garden, 2011” – used with the kind permission of Dr. Colleen Seematter, the photographer; all other photos – Maureen O’Connor Kavanaugh, the author of this blog.