Peanuts Gallery

The stories of St. Louis resemble the motifs of the late Charles Schulz

Charles Schulz died, and no death was as notable, in the arts or otherwise, this year. The indelible images he left on the American consciousness -- the universe packed within those comic-strip panels -- were an ongoing display of the perpetual human conundrum. "What's wrong will always be wrong," is how the poet Richard Hugo put it. Lucy would always pull the football away before Charlie Brown could give it a kick. The tree would devour the kite. The little redheaded girl would send her secret admirer into paroxysms of anxiety. Schulz knew that, for the most part, most of us, confronted with the reality of our own desires, are little more than frightened children with brown paper bags over our heads. Charlie Brown, the American Sisyphus, will always lose the baseball game -- and will always take the mound again.

Seen in a sympathetic light, the St. Louis art scene can be viewed as being caught in the same eternal narratives of failure. From a less favorable perspective, these stories lack the drama or amusement contained in Peanuts' serials of folly. Performers hunting for space; arts organizations hunting for space; venerable old spaces slated for the wrecking ball; performers with space being warned, "No sex, please," in those spaces, or, more precisely, "No gay sex, please, we're St. Louis"; spaces kept closed for fear of -- who knows? success? All this in a city that, if it has anything, it has space. Good grief.

The fate of the Regional Arts Commission (RAC) fits in the Lucy/football scenario. RAC had outgrown its facility in Grand Center and began looking for new digs in March 1999. Not wanting to lose one of the organizations that, at least according to Grand Center Inc. PR, makes the area St. Louis' "premier arts, entertainment and education district," Grand Center operatives Jim Holtzman and Tom Turner gave RAC the not-so-grand tour of buildings that in no way figured to be available for use by the time RAC's lease ran out in the summer of 2000. They even offered, at just about the last minute, a renovation of the Medinah Temple, a building Grand Center Inc. owns that has been discussed as a performing-arts facility for years in another one of those perpetual discussions that comes around as sure as Charlie Brown is going to be knocked prone by a line drive.

But RAC didn't have the year it would take for the renovation of the Medinah to be completed and was prepared to select a space in the Washington Avenue loft district when Grand Center Inc. threw an absolute hissy fit. Just what sorts of leverage or coercion or pleading were employed, nobody is saying, but RAC didn't move. Grand Center Inc. then offered space in the KETC building for 18-36 months while RAC set out again for a new locale, presumably elsewhere in Grand Center. Then, oops, Grand Center Inc. got the dimensions all wrong, and it turned out the KETC space wasn't appropriate. RAC remains in limbo; Grand Center Inc. remains smug -- smug as, say, Lucy every time she pulled that ball away. RAC's executive director, Jill McGuire, is on a much-needed vacation and was unavailable for comment in reviewing this never-ending story, but she once praised Turner and Holtzman for the "real sense of urgency" they brought to Grand Center Inc. Others might say, in Peanuts-speak, "You blockheads!" Or, in language Schulz would never have employed, Turner and Holtzman couldn't pour pee out of a boot if the instructions were on the heel.

Because Grand Center's ineptitude lacks the sentimental value of a comic strip, isn't it time this whole concept of a central arts district be given up as a dream inappropriate to the character of the city? What does it matter if RAC is housed on Washington and Grand or a few blocks closer to downtown? The only reason it matters is that Grand Center Inc. exists, and the only way it can prove its legitimacy -- given that the organization has little to boast about other than improved sidewalks and lighting in more than 10 years of futility -- is to at the very least (which is the level at which Grand Center works) keep what it has and maintain the PR.

Risks are taken by entrepreneurs with capital at stake: Joe Edwards in the Loop, the investors in the Washington Avenue lofts, Bob Cassilly at the City Museum. The blockheads at Grand Center perpetually stall the district's own development through their dual nature: They're both Lucy taking the ball away and Charlie Brown making the wrong choice over and over again. In a comic strip, this is entertaining pathos. In city administration, it's just pathetic.

RAC's plight brings up other space issues. The Medinah was optioned to Metro Theater Company and Gash/Voigt Dance Theatre -- a consortium that calls itself City Arts -- for $1. Everyone knows the need for a midsize performance/rehearsal/education space, yet the Grand Center folk sit in their offices and call themselves facilitators. Meanwhile, City Arts finds itself with a dilapidated building and wonders whether that dollar was money well spent.

With the closing of the St. Marcus Theatre as a result of those aforementioned gay-sex issues, Scott Miller's New Line Theatre went a-wandering, first to the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre at Washington University for a celebratory revival of Hair. The company now finds itself sharing the ArtLoft space with the HotHouse Theatre Company. Joan Lipkin and That Uppity Theatre Company are still without a home, and those who made the regular visit to Lipkin's AC/DC Series are without the stories from people at the fringes of culture that the series generally provided.

Some spaces don't appear; others are threatened with destruction. Busch Stadium is probably as due for the wrecking ball as any not-even-40-year-old building can be. As Andrew Young once observed, when 100 businessmen decide something is going to happen, it happens. The blockhead Cardinal owners want to take a historic structure, the first of the truly modern stadiums, and make it into yet another replica of Camden Yards, which is just another replica of various older stadiums. Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum -- the wonderful folks who thrust the federal-courthouse phallus into the skyline, who gave us the Postmodernism 101 addition to the Missouri Historical Society, who propagate a desert of architectural blandness, not just in St. Louis but around the world -- will build a stadium absent of history. Think of how Busch Stadium, if it were renovated and remained standing, would stand counter to the new fancies pillaging the economies of cities everywhere. The very nostalgia Wrigley Field banks on could belong to Busch as well: the stadium that ushered in a new brand of baseball, where with modernity came integration, where people can still point to Willie McCovey's poke or any number of McGwire's. We endanger memory when the edifices where that memory resides are destroyed. Whatever the economic dreams (easily burst with any economic reason) the owners have for a new stadium, they're neglecting the value of the old, especially as it may contrast with the new.

No one should get all moony about how Busch binds a fractured city together -- it didn't in the '60s, and don't expect a new stadium (or a central arts-and-entertainment district) to do so at the start of the new century, either. One sure and yet constantly neglected gathering space for this fractured city is the river -- another one of those truths that everyone knows and everyone talks about and then does nothing to change. Coming in April is a lecture at the Missouri History Museum on "Reclaiming Our Riverfront." When this column began a year-and-a-half ago, the first topic was the neglect of the river and how this neglect stalled the progress, and precipitated the decline, of the city. Go into the Post-Dispatch archives and find editorials making the same obvious conclusion, year after year. Yet St. Louis sits on the banks of the river that defines America, a bag over its head.

Good grief. What blockheads. How did you know so much about St. Louis, Charles Schulz?

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