The Municipal Theatre
It took bold and decisive civic action in April of 1917 to give St. Louis and the world The Municipal Theatre. The Convention Board of the St. Louis Advertising Club decided to proceed with plans to host the 13th Annual Convention of Advertising Clubs of the World in June of 1917. At a time of recession and with war raging in Europe, that itself was a risky decision. But these promoters of St. Louis wanted to showcase our city to the 5,000 business people who would come from across the country and Europe.
The convention board provided $5,000 for the project. Mayor Henry Kiel endorsed the plan and obtained another $5,000 in city funds and construction of the theatre began on April 16th.
The Muny was built in 49 days, minus seven days lost to rain---from scratch. The massive stage was constructed, an orchestra pit built to hold up to 200 musicians, all the concrete was poured and dressing rooms built behind the stage for the principal performers. The theatre was completed on June 2nd. Verdi's AIDA would be the inaugural presentation.
The Opera Committee brought to St. Louis the opera world's finest: Manuel Salazar from the San Carlo Opera, known as Caruso's rival; The Met's Maria Rappold; the Boston National Grand Opera's Francesca Peralta; European contralto Margaret Jarman; and the Met's Cyrene Van Gordon. Young St. Louisan Elda Vettori would begin an illustrious grand opera career in AIDA in the Park.
Gulgenzio Guerrieri from The Metropolitan conducted. Ernst Knoch was brought from Europe to organize a St. Louis singing chorus of 250; Madame Ester Zanini Bonfiglio, premiere danseuse of The Metropolitan came to St. Louis to rehearse 30 St. Louis dancers. Some of the AIDA sets were shipped in from the Chicago Opera Company, and some sets were built here. Costumes came from New York.
On Sunday, June 3, 1917 a full dress rehearsal with costumes and orchestra was held while the Ad Convention opened at Washington University's Francis Field. On Tuesday, June 5, 12,000 visitors and St. Louisans filled The Municipal Theatre in Forest Park for its inaugural performance and were thrilled by "glorious grand opera." Unfortunately, rain shortened the opening night performance. The following night, 10,000 people attended the production with large crowds continuing throughout the week.