Slay Kiel Opera House!: The mayor's push to rehab the downtown venue might doom the local theater community

Have you been downtown lately? It's taken three mayoral terms to beat the place into shape, but you've got to give credit to the perseverance of Francis Slay. Ballpark Village aside, the city center hasn't looked this good in our lifetime. But on the matter of restoring Kiel Opera House, one might wish Slay behaved more on the order of the basset hound Mayor Shinn in The Music Man. Somebody has sold this city a spurious bill of goods. Hizzoner should get that spellbinder's credentials. And we're not talking about band instruments here, or even uniforms; the future of the entire St. Louis theater community could be at risk.

I never heard so many uninformed comments from one body of elected officials as came out of the mouths of the city aldermen this summer when they voted almost unanimously to shovel more than $70 million into restoring Kiel. Suddenly our elected officials were experts on theater — and prophets, to boot.

"The Fox has nothing to worry about. Of course St. Louis can support two theaters."

No, it probably can't. Why do I think that? Let's put it this way: Name one city in America, similar in size to St. Louis, that supports two touring houses. Do you need more time? You don't, actually, because you can't.

It's not a question of which venue has better acoustics. If audiences really cared about acoustics, the Touhill would be the most popular theater in town. (How many times have you been to the Touhill in the past year?) Nor will loyalty and fond memories keep the Fox flush. History shows us that audiences — which tend to be infuriatingly fickle — will always gravitate to a newer venue.

Nor is it simply a matter of opening yet another theater. More to the point, it's a matter of opening yet another theater that is too big. St. Louis is already burdened by leviathan venues. The Muny is too big. The Fox is too big. Why do we need yet a third theater that's too big? Make no mistake about it: Kiel Opera House is a barn, and to spend a ton of money on a theater that cannot deliver an alternate experience to the Fox defies common sense.

We once had an alternate theater downtown. The plush American at Ninth and St. Charles was a gem. The reopening of the Fox in 1982 essentially killed the American, and there's a good chance that a restored Kiel will kill the Fox in kind.

Something else to consider: I don't think it has been announced yet who will be booking Kiel, but it's a safe bet that it won't be anyone local. By contrast, the Fox management is parochial in the most positive sense of the word. They keep ticket prices as low as possible, and because they are also Broadway producers, they have an inside track on getting national tours here while they're still fresh. Mike Isaacson, who is both the vice president of programming for the Fox Theatre and the associate producer of Fox Theatricals, is helpful to local theaters in behind-the-scenes ways that he wouldn't want publicized, so I won't embarrass him by revealing all the good he does. The point is that Isaacson cares deeply about all the theaters in St. Louis.

In the Fox-Kiel brouhaha, I heard no mention of the other theaters in St. Louis. But most of them have a direct stake in what's happening here because of their reliance on the Fox Foundation for financial support. If the Fox Theatre goes down, it only makes sense that foundation funding will be reduced. And if foundation funding is significantly reduced, the ripple effect could mortally wound theaters throughout the area.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus asks his disciples, "What profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" Mayor Slay seems willing to gain one new theater downtown at the risk of losing much of the surrounding theater community. That hardly sounds like a fair tradeoff.

 
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