Phantom of the Opera House

The Cardinals' promises are worth as much as the Kiel Partners'

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Not far from where Mayor Francis Slay and his Aldermanic Band celebrated the casting away of a derelict city's millions for luxury boxes and the promise of HOK Village, Kiel Opera House looms in all its faded grandeur. The mere mention of its name conjures up ghosts of boondoggles past and dampens the festivities, tarnishes all those bright promises of future urban vitality.

For before the Cardinals' stadium deal, with the attendant virtues of Ballpark Village, there was the Kiel (now Savvis) Center deal, with the renovation of the storied Kiel Opera House as part of the glorious resurrection of downtown St. Louis. Kiel Partners, which is Civic Progress plus one, received city money and property to build the slope-domed venue for the Blues and the Billikens, for Reba and rodeo. In return, Kiel Partners would renovate Kiel Opera House, which had been the city's most stellar entertainment hall in the 20th century with the likes of Caruso and the Metropolitan Opera and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the Rolling Stones and Nureyev performing there. Its acoustics -- those who remember will argue -- rivaled those of Powell Hall. Steve Schankman, whose Contemporary Productions brought the Stones there, says, "It had the greatest sight lines in St. Louis."

But with the synchronistic timing that gives birth to conspiracy theories, Kiel Opera House closed and the Fox Theatre reopened, thereby lessening the competition for the late Leon Strauss, who had spent a bundle in getting that grand old hall glittering again. Now the Fox regularly delivers the best of Broadway, such as it is, and it's hard to even find the keys to Kiel Opera House.

What with rumors of a hole in the roof going unpatched, calls to City Hall requesting access to the opera house produce a telephone rerouting worthy of the name "government bureaucracy." One office directs you to another office, which in turn sends you back to the office you spoke with before. It needs to be noted, being that dealing with City Hall is regarded as such an onerous activity, that the secretaries and city officials bounce you back and forth among themselves with grace and good humor. They even wonder to themselves out loud, "Are you sure the city owns the opera house?"

Deputy Mayor Barb Geisman has the answer to that question. "The city officially owns it," she says in her raspy smoker's voice, "but the Lauries hold the lease."

The Lauries are Bill and Nancy, who with the purchase of the Blues got the Savvis Center and an old abandoned theater. Although Bill Laurie has made public his desire to get an NBA franchise into the Savvis Center, his concerns are not so well known about what he wants do with Kiel Opera House. A spokesman for the Lauries didn't return calls.

You can be sure that Mayor Slay isn't pressing him on it, nor is anyone on the Board of Aldermen or elsewhere in City Hall. They can't even find the keys to the place.

Kiel Opera House remains closed because for three administrations there has not been the political will to force those who promised to renovate it to keep that promise. In 1990, a press conference was held trumpeting the city's deal with Kiel Partners. They'd get money to build the new home of the Blues; we'd get the opera house renovated and reopened by Kiel Partners in return. The city was even willing to spend, and did, over $4 million in asbestos removal to get the renovation of the opera house on track. Vince Schoemehl was mayor back then, and confesses, "I really don't have a clear recollection of the deal." But Schoemehl admits "that deal ended up extremely different from what it looked like at the press conference."

At the beginning, the deal seemed plain enough. A project description reads: "The Kiel Center project also involves the renovation of the Kiel Opera House, allowing it to be reopened for music and civic events. The opera house seats 3,554 guests and has a capability to host theatrical events; in excess of 50 dressing rooms, a large stage, theatrical lighting and rigging facilities. The opera house will be available to be used for musical concerts, traveling Broadway productions, traveling and touring family shows and civic entertainment. Included within the opera house facility are four large ballrooms, approximately 50 feet by 80 feet in size, which can be used for receptions, and other activities in conjunction with (or independent from) opera house events."

Sounds like a pretty nice place. Notice the words "renovation" and "allowing it to be reopened for music and civic events." A few years later, when Kiel Partners reneged on the deal, they argued that in an amended agreement they were obligated for only "limited repair" with a cost ceiling of $2.5 million. It also became conveniently unclear what the opera house would be renovated for -- and there have been a host of consultants receiving hefty fees to come up with ideas that distract from the original intent.

In 1994, the late Larry Bushong, then executive director of the St. Louis Development Corp., signed a "certificate of completion" on the Kiel Center project on behalf of the city's Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority. In so doing -- according to Kiel Partners -- he let them off the hook.

A few aldermen got pissed off enough to look into the legality of all this. In 1995, former Alderman Dan McGuire called on the city counselor's office to read through the stacks of documents. Associate City Counselor Francis Oates came up with this assessment: "In response to your inquiry, I believe LCRA and Kiel Center have present obligations to the city to cause the renovation of the opera house to be completed.... Nothing in the master lease authorized LCRA to excuse Kiel Center from completion of the renovation of the opera house."

The Board of Aldermen called on Comptroller Darlene Green to press Kiel Partners into action, demanding a report from her every six months "until said restoration and opening is completed..."

Those reports haven't been filed in quite a while. Neither Green nor the Bosley and Harmon administrations were up for a legal battle -- certainly not against the city's most formidable corporate powers. In 1997, Green reported to the Board of Alderman about a chat she had with Maureen McAvey, who succeeded Bushong as SLDC executive director. In her memo Green writes that she and McAvey "believe that if restored, the opera house could become a wonderful venue for nonprofit performing arts groups and other community activities," and she proposes a commission look into "the highest and best use of this priceless community asset."

Green might as well have announced, "Bring on the consultants." The disease of consultancy brings about lethargy, inaction, despair and, ultimately, forgetfulness. Who owns Kiel Opera House? Beats me. What opera house?

A year ago, SFX Entertainment (now Clear Channel Entertainment), a subsidiary of the corporate giant Clear Channel Communications Inc., made it known that it was doing an analysis on the possible renovation of the opera house. Geisman says "We're still hopeful that they'll do it, but we haven't nailed anything down yet. They're still around. I owe them a phone call."

Schankman, who went to work for SFX in 1997 but left last year after the Clear Channel sale, is skeptical about the Texas-based company bringing back the opera house. "St. Louis doesn't mean much to them," says Schankman. Clear Channel Entertainment manages UMB Bank Pavilion (formerly Riverport) and the Pageant, as well as the American Theatre and Westport. "They're not going to open up an opera house. They don't do any shows at the American Theatre to speak of. They have a lease until 2004 and I don't see very much going on there. Westport, they let that lease run out, so that place is gone. I don't see them jumping into this deal."

So the opera house remains, an eyesore in the light of promise that is Ballpark Village. Cardinal owners get millions to build a new stadium, and in return? They already know they have to do only as much as the city is willing to force them to do.

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