Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The Muny at 100: Tempers Erupt, Tastes Evolve in Theater's Second Decade

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The Muny at 100: Tempers Erupt, Tastes Evolve in Theater's Second Decade

Article excerpt

In its second decade, 1929-1938, the Muny acquired a glamorous panache that Mayor Henry Kiel couldn't have imagined when he led the campaign for a musical theater in Forest Park.

Give credit where it's due: to the Shuberts.

The famed family of Broadway producers left a legacy that includes the Shubert Theater on West 44th Street which opened in 1914 and remains home to hit shows as well as to Shubert Organization offices and Shubert Alley, the narrow pedestrian walkway considered the heart of the Manhattan theater district.

It also includes the Muny, which the Shuberts ran for part of the 1930s.

They set the '30s pace with bigger shows, newer shows some of them brand new and bigger stars. And those performers were real St. Louis celebrities. Every summer, their portraits and their profiles filled the Post-Dispatch.

At the same time, other pages in the newspaper delivered grim economic news: widespread unemployment, reports of bankruptcies, even ads seeking well-bred women in financial straits to sell dresses to those who could still afford them.

In international news, things were even worse. The Nazis took power in Germany, Italy invaded Ethiopia, Japan attacked China; the stage for World War II was set before the wounds of the Great War had even begun to heal.

But the entertainment pages sported ads for lavish movie musicals, hilarious screwball comedies and thrilling gangster pictures.

Plus ads for the Muny.

Escapist entertainment was a welcome tonic and only the Muny could deliver, as one ad promised, "a Great All-Star Cast, 96 singers and marvelous dancers ... the mighty orchestra of 50 ... the magnificent stage productions. In all the world there is nothing to compare with the eye-filling pageantry. ... Tremendous, colossal, superb ... St. Louis' one outstanding entertainment bargain."

And you could take it all in from the free seats.

THE OTHER CRASH OF '29

In June, just after "The Love Call" opened its season, the Muny took out a large (and amazingly wordy) ad, quoting the critics from all four St. Louis papers at length.

Over dense columns of praise, the ad noted that the "1929 Cast, Chorus and Orchestra [are] the finest ever assembled at the Municipal Theater." Surely a season of triumphs lay ahead.

Before July was out, they were singing a different tune.

First, prima donna Alice MacKenzie resigned, giving two weeks' notice in accord with union rules. Then - apparently in a matter of hours - conductor and music director Vittorio Verse quit on the spot.

MacKenzie said she had not been given her fair share of leading roles and had been subjected to "a number of intentional humiliations."

Verse, a conductor at New York's Metropolitan Opera, refused to explain himself. But everybody knew he had demanded more rehearsal time with the full orchestra and resented the director, Fred E. Bishop. Verse thought Bishop overstepped himself, the Post-Dispatch said at the time.

A few days later, baritone Pierre White also quit. In 1929, the Muny used a stock company, signing on actors for the season. Principals got to play some leads, though not all of them. Like MacKenzie, he felt cheated; like Verse, he was fed up with Bishop, the newspaper said.

It was a disaster. Henry Kiel, no longer the mayor but still president of the Municipal Opera Association, pointed out that the Muny's supercharged schedule of rehearsals and performances could be exhausting.

"It is my personal belief," he offered, "that some of our players have snapped under the strain." The Post-Dispatch observed that Verse, an Italian, had "an ardent Latin temperament."

Fulfilling her contract, MacKenzie was onstage the day after she quit. According to a letter to the editor, signed "Theater-Goer," "the tremendous applause that greeted Miss MacKenzie each time she appeared onstage expressed more eloquently than words how deeply she had endeared herself to her audience. …

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