You Gotta Be There

A dozen things you just can't miss this summer

Summer always surprises us -- shocks us, even -- for no one is ever ready for that first humid day when you walk outside and collide with a wall of steam, then gasp as the unrelenting sun crisps your skin into onion paper. OK, so maybe it's not that bad, but it is a matter of civic pride for St. Louisans to complain about the humidity. Ask anyone.

Truth is, we greet summer with grudging admiration. We yearn for the chance to sweat again after slogging through another ice-clad winter. We're enchanted with Forest Park in bloom and delighted by the simple glory of ubiquitous sidewalk cafés. And of course, those festivals -- but just bear in mind that almost all of them aren't Fair St. Louis, and many are worth your time.

This is a city built for summer, a town rippling with beautiful spots that are far more fascinating than your air-conditioned room. This year is a grand reopening for St. Louis, and several groups -- Celebrate 2004, Downtown Now! and Metropolis, just to name a few -- have worked long and hard to show you how the city has awakened. That said, let us give you a heads-up on the big things you shouldn't miss. While this is not a comprehensive review of the summer's festivities, these are proven St. Louis cultural mainstays, pleasant diversions or 2004-only events worth experiencing. Let the list begin:

The play's the thing: Rashaad Ernesto Green (right) 
and Julie Evan Smith will star in the Shakespeare 
Festival of St. Louis' production of As You Like 
It.
J. David Levy
The play's the thing: Rashaad Ernesto Green (right) and Julie Evan Smith will star in the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis' production of As You Like It.
Arts 'n' flowers: Enjoy live jazz at the Botanical 
Garden's Whitaker Music Festival.
Arts 'n' flowers: Enjoy live jazz at the Botanical Garden's Whitaker Music Festival.

The Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis seems like it's been with us for decades, but the first performance was in the summer of 2001. This is a prime spot for a group or a date, right in the heart of St. Louis, where with food and drink you may "fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world" (those radiant words are from this year's production, As You Like It). Shows are nightly on the grassy slope just east of the Saint Louis Art Museum from May 28 to June 20, starting with the Green Show at 7 p.m. Visit www.sfstl.com for details.

You can check out the Whitaker Music Festival every Wednesday from June 2 to August 25. Looking for a picnic? Throw your spread down in the luscious grass of the Missouri Botanical Garden, then kick back and enjoy a nationally touring jazz act. Bands in years past have varied from jazz standards to swing to -- well, that's not too much variation. But it's fun, and it's a great date location. And it's best to get there early -- even though the event is on Wednesday nights, the place fills up quickly. Peruse www.mobot.org to see which band is playing on your Wednesday of choice.

Visiting Laumeier Sculpture Park makes for quite a nice afternoon. Wandering around the park (populated with all manner of contemporary sculpture, from giant wood playgrounds to enormous red pipes to six-foot pieces of iron that blend right into the trees) is an illuminating experience. The exhibits are arranged for you to discover on your own as you hike through the park. Laumeier's a favorite venue for dope-smoking teenagers who want to dodge park rangers after dark (the park closes a half-hour past sundown), but during the day, it is exquisite fun -- and mercifully rife with shade-giving trees.

The Central West End Art Fair and Taste springs up on Euclid between McPherson and Maryland the first weekend in June and is the finest of the neighborhood "taste-of" festivals, a distinction that owes as much to location as to the quality of the food. Clayton, Maplewood and other top restaurant districts throw their own "taste-of" parties and art fairs, but none is quite as relaxing as this one on that cool stretch of old Euclid: prime real estate under a canopy of trees, flanked by fine old homes -- and fine restaurants. The fair is June 5 and 6 from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., with live music in the evening. See www.cweba.com for details.

The Ferris wheel in Forest Parkwill spend the summer next to the greenhouses, a symbol of the 1904 World's Fair intended to draw visitors to the "new" Forest Park. The park's $90 million restoration has returned the jewel of St. Louis to a state of elegance it hasn't seen in perhaps a hundred years, and the top of the Ferris wheel provides a great vantage point from which to take in all its splendor. The Grand Basin at the bottom of Art Hill is especially gorgeous; watching visitors skitter about in rowboats amid the fountains is a nostalgic reminder of that wondrous time. The Ferris wheel is $2 a ride, and it's here through August 19.

Fair St. Louis dwarfs the competition. Though all of the festivals listed here are fairly big, none is as densely populated as this Independence Day behemoth, which fills the space under the Arch with air shows, bands and people for three days. It's a grass-trampling, ultra-organized, tickets-for-beer adventure, but the fireworks never fail to impress. You can see the show from the Hi-Pointe neighborhood (and beyond, probably), but nothing beats getting your ears blasted as the barges let loose over the river. If you haven't yet done this, give it a try. The firework displays begin at 9:45 p.m. on July 2, 3 and 4.

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