Life On the Curve
For President & CEO Denny Reagan, the Muny is “A Dream Come True”
Denny Reagan has a new favorite place in which to hang out. It’s not a trendy restaurant or nightspot. To the contrary, his locale of choice has been around for as long as there has been a Forest Park. It is a grassy hillside, unspoiled by monuments, walkways or traffic of any kind. The slope is pristine; surely it looks the same today as it did a century ago.
But here’s the payoff: This hill is directly west of the Muny, and it is eerily similar to the view the acclaimed actress Margaret Anglin must have seen on that wintry day in November 1915 when she came to town to choose the site for her June 1916 outdoor staging of As You Like It. Here is the gentle curvature that sweeps down into a ravine framed by large trees and through which meanders the River Des Peres. In 1919, three summers (and one world war) after Anglin’s sensational As You Like It, the Muny would be born in that same ravine where the Bard’s words had been spoken to audiences numbering in the tens of thousands.
Reagan delights in walking this grassy slope and allowing his imagination to run free as he considers how history unfolded on that adjacent hill. He does not stop to think about the extent to which he is a part of that history. But here are the facts: He drew his first Muny paycheck in 1968, the theater’s 50th season. He’s still here in the Muny’s 98th season. It doesn’t take a lot of math to figure out that Reagan has been part of the Muny story – often an integral part – for nearly 50% of its existence.
For 41 years – first as house manager, then as assistant general manager and now (for the last 25 years) as president and chief executive officer, Reagan has been the man on the curve at Gate One. He greets audiences as they enter the amphitheater, talks to people at intermission, bids them good night as they leave. For 41 years, from 1976 through tonight, the man standing on the curve has been a local landmark, constant and reassuring.
How constant? Think of it like this. Forty-one consecutive summers at Gate One equates to (thru last week) 2,234 nights. How many of those 2,234 nights has Reagan missed manning his post? One.
“In 1981 my brother Tim got married,” Reagan explains almost defensively. Then he counters: “But all three of my children were born in the off-season: John in February, Maggie in December and Amy in November.” Reagan married his wife Michele in November 1979 and declares that she “has been a Muny summer widow ever since.”
“By the way,” he clarifies, “I wouldn’t want to sound as if I stand at Gate One out of obligation. My job has been a dream come true. I have been privileged to watch families grow through the years. I have seen children who were introduced to theater at the Muny now introducing their children to theater. What a great way to end the day! I get to be the recipient of all the gratitude that people feel for the Muny.
“On opening night of The Wizard of Oz, a woman came up to me at intermission. I didn’t know her, but she said, ‘Boy, I had a rough day at work.’ She says, ‘I get to the Muny parking lot, and I get two e-mails. I have to deal with those. I get to my seat, I get another e-mail, and I’m just as mad as I can be. Then I see the first act of The Wizard of Oz, and I am in a really, really good place. So thank you.’
“I know that I only play a small part in the making of what happens on that stage, but I am on the receiving end of a lot of affection.”
Reagan’s story is pure Horatio Alger. He started at the Muny in 1968 while still in high school (Bishop DuBourg), collecting post-performance trash as a “picker.” “It was just a neighborhood thing,” Reagan explains.
“A friend of mine was on the picking crew. So I came out and helped part-time with his section. The next year I was put on the crew as a full-time employee.” Two summers later he was running the picking crew.
Then he moved into the office as a gofer, willing to do the most menial chores. If a closet needed cleaning, he cleaned it. He learned how to manage the payroll.
In January 1975, after he graduated from UMSL, Reagan took a full-time job with the Essmueller Company (though he continued to work evenings as a dresser). Meanwhile, Bill Culver had become Muny general manager and needed an assistant. Corine Maness, the comptroller, championed Reagan, who got the job. “The people at Essmueller were terrific to me,” he says, “but the truth is that I missed the Muny. I got to work at this unique theater in a position that required a lot of responsibility. I was 23 years old, making dozens of decisions every day. When should we take this delivery? How many ushers do we need for the box office opening? You’re the go-to guy, and you feel incredibly important because everybody’s coming to you to solve problems.”
He was promoted to assistant general manager in 1977. “That was the job I had aspired to,” he says. “I used to think that if I could reach that level, I would have arrived.” Instead of arriving, Reagan’s responsibilities were just beginning. “My time at the Muny has been a constant process of discovery,” he says. “You’re learning about labor negotiations, and you’re learning about construction. We did concerts, so there were those logistics. In 1982 we started booking musicals into the Fox, so all of a sudden we were doing year-round theater, dealing with road contracts and settling the contracts at the end of a run. You’re making sure that the company managers who pass through town have everything they need.”
In September 1991, Culver retired and passed the baton to Reagan. At age 39, he was now in charge of the largest, most historic outdoor theater in America. But it was also a theater that was playing defense. Over the years the Muny had become ever more dependent on booking shows. In short order, under Reagan’s leadership the Muny ended its winter season at the Fox, pulled out of the concert business and devoted all its energies to producing its own musicals, as the Muny had done so effectively during its first half-century.
“If you’re presenting tours, you’re at their mercy,” he says. “But if we’re producing our own shows, we can control the calendar. We can do the musicals we want, at the scale we want to do them, when we want to do them.”
Reagan always strives to see the long view. In the mid-1990s he negotiated the Muny’s lease with the city of St. Louis. “The Muny is the shorthand name for the Municipal Theatre Association,” he says, “which came into being in 1919 and is completely separate from the city. But because we are in Forest Park, obviously our structure sits on city property. Throughout its history the Muny operated on short-term leases with the city. Two years, five years. When I took over in 1991, the Muny was 72 years old. It was clear to me that we needed some major improvements. At the same time, if we were going to raise money to upgrade the infrastructure, we had to be able to tell people that we were going to be here. So I negotiated a 35-year lease, which the city was quite willing to do. With a lease that assures our existence through 2030, we then proceeded to make $25 million worth of improvements.”
Reagan’s 25-year tenure is not all bricks and mortar. Many a musical has stirred his soul. “Les Miz is probably my favorite show,” he says. “I think its message of redemption is amazing, and I think that both of our productions [2007, 2013] were beautifully done. I also have fond memories of when we staged South Pacific, and a vintage World War II bomber flew over the theater during the overture. In 1974, my first summer as house manager, I loved Mack & Mabel. It was on a pre-Broadway tryout and did not fare well when it got to New York, but I was crazy about it. That’s when I fell in love with Bernadette Peters.
“It’s a curious thing. Many of the stars who appear at the Muny have had incredible careers, so you might think that we’re dealing with huge egos. Not so. Almost everyone I have encountered – and it doesn’t make any difference whether I was a dresser or the CEO – has been really grounded. Vincent Price was such a good guy. Debbie Reynolds, the same. Phyllis Diller was fantastic. Ozzie Smith was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He took private tap lessons for one of our revue shows [The Muny Goes British, 1999]. He was always on time, always very respectful of the rehearsal process. Just a good guy.”
But the people Reagan remembers best are the unnamed viewers in the audience, those who come night after night, year after year, decade upon decade, to make the Muny the most unique theater in America. “Over at Gate One,” he says, “there is a low wall. From this wall I cannot see the stage, but I have a clear view of the amphitheater. The spotlights spill into the house, and I can see all these thousands of people, watching the show, engaged, involved, responsive. When you know that you had a small part in making that happen, it makes you feel pretty damn good. Pretty damn good.”