Blake House: Executive producer Paul Blake hasn't learned from the Muny's history. Nor, sadly, is he capable of repeating it.

Two weeks ago the New York Times reported on the challenges faced by the historic Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts, as that Cape Cod summer theater strives to survive in changing times. "How do you reinvent yourself, which every organization has to do on a regular basis?" artistic director Evans Haile asked. "It's very easy to take a [theater] like this for granted, because we've been here for 82 years."

Surely the Muny, which last week completed its ninetieth season, also is challenged by the delicate balancing act that wants to build on its illustrious past while at the same time navigating the shoals of the dicey competitive present. But this summer's anniversary revue 90 Years of Muny Magic, which longtime executive producer Paul Blake both wrote and directed, made a clear, if disturbing, statement: There is no past to build on, because the Muny has no past.

You might have thought that this revue would have had a mandate to tell the Muny's fascinating story. It did not. Blake instead focused almost solely on music. His assemblage of theater songs, none of which were exclusively identified with the Muny, was arbitrary. With some judicious trimming, 90 Years of Muny Magic might have been renamed 21 Years of Stages Magic, because a dozen of the represented shows (Good News, Anything Goes, Carousel, etc.) also have been produced at Stages St. Louis. Blake's revue did not deign to tell the audience how these disparate numbers were integral to the Muny's heritage. Instead the narrators would instruct the audience to watch for the counterpoint between musical lines. This birthday party had all the sentimental gaiety of a master class.

The Paul Blake bobblehead: even better than a statue.
Jeremy Eaton
The Paul Blake bobblehead: even better than a statue.

Location Info


The Muny

Forest Park
St. Louis, MO 63112

Category: Parks and Outdoors

Region: St. Louis - Forest Park

But the ascetic revue crystallized Blake's philosophy: The performer is expendable, the show is all. His approach to running the Muny can be summed up in the title of a story Time magazine published in 1948: "St. Louis Habit." As the Muny was marking its thirtieth anniversary, Time stated that the outdoor theater "has become a family habit for St. Louisans — from grandma to the kids." Sixty years later, rather than feel any need to reinvent the place, Blake relies on grandmas (My Fair Lady, My One and Only) and kids (High School Musical) to keep the operation afloat.

Although he has held his job for nineteen seasons, one senses (from Muny Magic, anyway) that Blake has not the remotest appreciation for the Muny's importance to the cultural history of this city. In writing last month about the current acclaimed Lincoln Center production of South Pacific, New York Times columnist Frank Rich, who from 1980 to 1993 was the Times' reviewer (and the most influential theater critic in the nation), revealed that he had never before seen this classic musical. His explanation for such a glaring omission? Simple: South Pacific has never before received a Broadway revival. Rich should have visited St. Louis. Over the past half-century, South Pacific has been staged nine times in Forest Park. The Muny has served as the great common denominator for generation upon generation of St. Louis theatergoers.

What a saga 90 Years of Muny Magic might have told, if its author had cared to tell it. And what a cast of characters. People like Milton Shubert, nephew of Broadway producer J.J. Shubert, who in 1930 transformed what had begun as a grandiose community theater into a professional operation, while at the same time providing summer work for Shubert contract players (up-and-comers like Cary Grant and Allan Jones). It was the brash Milton who, in the early days of the Depression, took a flyer and invested a whopping $10,000 in the largest revolving stage in America. (That revolving stage could have been very helpful last week in Fiddler on the Roof.)

People like Richard Rodgers, who first visited the Muny in 1938 for the world premiere of a new musical cowritten by composer Jerome Kern and the lyricist who a decade later would collaborate with Rodgers on South Pacific: Oscar Hammerstein II. Although that premiere musical, Gentlemen Unafraid (whose cast included 24-year-old comedian Richard [Red] Skelton), did not proceed to New York, Hammerstein was so impressed by the Muny operation that he got his son a job here as an assistant stage manager.

People like chorine Virginia Mayo, a local St. Louis girl who used the Muny as the first step on the long road to stardom. (When Mayo died three years ago, her family asked that bequests be made in her name to the Muny. Such fidelity was not enough to get her mentioned in Muny Magic.) And people like producer David Merrick, the former St. Louisan who in 1968 suspended the run of his Broadway hit Hello, Dolly! and sent it to Forest Park for a week, thus initiating an exciting new (if short-lived) tradition.

During the more recent Blake years, the story has still been about people. That story is mostly an ongoing chronicle about the diminution of the performers — a point that was visualized by the cover of this summer's playbill. The cover was filled with hundreds of production photos — all so tiny as to make every single actor nigh unrecognizable.

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