TOO GOOD TO LOSE
A Few Forgotten Factoids about St. Louis and the Muny
During the past year I have had the great pleasure of delving into the Muny’s storied history. Beginning in early August, a decade-by-decade chronicle of this grand old institution will be available on the official Muny website. The initial installment will recap the formative years that led to the inaugural season in 1919. Then through the coming fall, winter and spring, as the anticipation builds to next summer’s centennial season, each month will recount the happenings of another decade: 1920-29 in September, 1930-39 in October, etc.
Obviously, the more you research, the more data you accrue, with the result that I now possess more Muny-related information than can be wedged into a succinct history, even one that will extend over ten months. But some of this material is too intriguing and delightful to keep to one’s self. I want to share a few discoveries that might not receive their full due in the online history, but that merit being restored to the light of day.
For instance, I have learned much about the mischievous River des Peres. The grassy hill in Forest Park that became the site of the Municipal Theater was chosen in 1915 by actress-manager Margaret Anglin because the River des Peres flowed through this vale. Anglin, who had been invited to St. Louis to mount a spectacular outdoor production of As You Like It, fancied that Forest Park’s River des Peres would enhance her stage setting for Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden.
Which was well and good for Anglin’s eight performances in June 1916. However, three years later when the Municipal Opera came into being, few operettas required the presence of a river, and the des Peres became a noxious intrusion whose fumes sometimes made audiences gag; occasionally the river would overflow its banks and flood the dressing rooms.
Only the stock company comedians actually liked the river. Comic actor William J. McCarthy, who was a member of every Opera company from 1922-1929, later described the des Peres as “obnoxious.” However, McCarthy qualified, “Many’s the opening night when the river saved the show. If somebody muffed a line, or if a gag fell flat, or if we had to stall for a late entrance, we could always get a laugh with a crack at the creek. Something like, ‘Why, I ought to throw you in the des Peres.’ And the answer would be, ‘Shoot me, hang me – anything but that!’”
In 1922 the threat to be tossed into the river nearly became reality. Midway through an evening performance, musical director Charles Previn (the great-uncle of Andre Previn, who was still seven years from being born) became irritated by the quality of the sound emanating from the ingénue. At the conclusion of one of her songs, conductor Previn sat down in the orchestra pit and refused to allow her an encore. She opened her mouth to sing, but there was no music. The young men in the chorus were so mad that after the performance they picked Previn up and tried to throw him into the des Peres. (Without success, we should note.)
By 1930 the mighty des Peres had been tamed. A two-year project diverted the river through concrete cylinders that are buried under the stage. The river is still there. In all my Muny research, perhaps my single favorite discovery has been the
realization that, to this day, even as you read these words, “a river runs through it.”
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I want to tell you about Margaret Anglin. As the person who selected the site that became the Municipal Theater, Anglin deserves to be better remembered.
Born in Ottawa, Ontario, in 1876, Anglin’s father was Speaker of the House of Commons in Canada. As a young actress, she toured with the legendary James O’Neill. Audiences today know O’Neill as the inspiration for James Tyrone, the grasping, penny-pinching father in Long Day’s Journey into Night, which was penned by his son, Eugene O’Neill. But to Anglin, James O’Neill was the “delightful and lovable” mentor who introduced her to the plays of Shakespeare.
Then in 1898 Anglin became an overnight star when at age 22 she portrayed Roxane opposite Richard Mansfield in the American premiere of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. A reviewer in the New York Tribune wrote that Anglin “flashed upon [the Broadway theater] like a newly discovered gem.” In time she began to mount her own productions. By the time Anglin was invited to produce As You Like It in St. Louis, she was a major figure in the American theater.
The acting company she brought to Forest Park was quite remarkable. The cast included Sidney Greenstreet, who would enjoy fame as Humphrey Bogart’s overweight nemesis in such Warner Bros. classics as The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Louis Calhern was selected because he was a St. Louis actor. Calhern also found success in Hollywood, where his patrician bearing led to his casting in scores of films, ranging from The Asphalt Jungle to Julius Caesar to High Society.
Then there was young Alfred Lunt, whose stage career was still in its infancy.
“Miss Anglin put me through hours and hours of rehearsal,” Lunt recalled. “Although she was a major star, she did not exactly frighten me as much as exhaust me. She was determined that she would make a better actor of me, and for that I shall be everlastingly grateful.” After Lunt became one of America’s foremost stage luminaries, he always invited Anglin to the productions in which he co-starred with his wife, Lynn Fontanne.
Howard Lindsay was not an actor. Although the As You Like It playbill credits him as “Director for Miss Anglin,” he was akin to a stage manager. Lindsay spent many years working for Anglin before entering into a writing partnership with Russell Crouse that led to such musicals as The Sound of Music, Call Me Madam and Happy Hunting, all of which have been performed at the Muny. Their comedy, Life with Father, remains the longest-running non-musical in Broadway history. Like Alfred Lunt, even after Lindsay became a success in the American theater, he continued to address his former employer as “Miss Anglin.” According to Lindsay’s wife, actress Dorothy Stickney, “Howard’s respect and awe for her were too great. She never ceased to be a great lady.”
In April 1919, two months before the Municipal Opera’s maiden season premiered with Robin Hood, Anglin was back in St. Louis, headlining downtown at the American Theater. She returned to Forest Park to help plant two commemorative trees at the main entrance. A tulip was named “The Margaret Anglin Tree;” a sycamore, “The Site Discovery Tree.”
So why isn’t Margaret Anglin better remembered? Perhaps one reason is
because, as a theater manager, she actively opposed the formation of Actors Equity.
The creation of that theater union was a bruising endeavor. Her opposition was not forgotten; in retaliation, according to the Associated Press, “New York theaters locked their doors against her.” When, in 1958, Margaret Anglin died in a Toronto nursing home at age 81, she had not acted in many years.
Nevertheless, there is satisfaction in knowing that the roots of the Municipal Theater were planted by an actress who was esteemed by “the divine Sarah” Bernhardt as “one of the few dramatic geniuses of her day.”
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Speaking of genius, perhaps the most unexpected discovery I have made is that in April 1922, the American premiere of Anton Chekhov’s masterwork, Uncle Vanya, occurred in St. Louis – a full 19 months before the Moscow Art Theatre introduced New York audiences to Chekhov with their productions of Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters. The sparkplug behind this momentous event was a 33-year-old Russian expatriate named Dr. Gregory Zilboorg. After the Russian Revolution in early 1917, Zilboorg worked in the Kerensky government. But when that regime was toppled by the Lenin-led Bolsheviks in the October Revolution, Zilboorg made a hasty retreat, apparently with a copy of Uncle Vanya in hand.
Somehow Zilboorg made his way to St. Louis, where he was invited by a thriving theater group, the Artists’ Guild, to direct the American premiere of Chekhov’s masterwork. Zilboorg charmed the local literati. The following summer the St. Louis Post-Dispatch invited him to write a critique of the four-year-old Municipal Opera. After attending a performance of the Viennese operetta Sari, Zilboorg described “A throng of humanity like a strange multi-colored ant-hill, in a frame of green grass and trees, and covered by the dark blue cupola of a summer night sky.” What most impressed this recent refugee from the Russian Revolution? The fact that “all races, nationalities and professions were there.” He liked “those 25-cent seats, those bottles of root beer and the ‘free of charge’ crowds at the top. Those bottles looked to me like a variant of the oranges and apples of the old Elizabethan theater.”
As the years passed, Zilboorg’s theater career did not pan out, so he re-invented himself. He obtained a degree in psychoanalysis and developed a successful practice. His celebrated clients included George Gershwin, Moss Hart and Lillian Hellman. Hart based his musical, Lady in the Dark, which he co-wrote with Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, on his experiences of having undergone analysis with Zilboorg.
Lady in the Dark entered the Municipal Opera repertory in July 1950. Sandwiched between two operettas – the sixth staging of Robin Hood and the eighth rendition of the ever-popular Desert Song – the complicated and subtle Lady in the Dark was not typical Muny fare. But Post-Dispatch reviewer Myles Standish praised the daring production as “a ringing success…it had snap and crackle, the electric impulse of the really live show.”
1950 was the Muny’s 32nd season. At the second performance of Lady in the Dark, the Muny played host to its 20,000,000th patron. The lucky beneficiary, Mrs. Otto Predock, had subscribed to the same seat for 24 years.
The stories keep on coming, and eventually they all seem to tie together. Perhaps no surprise, when you’re nearly 100 years old.
Dennis Brown (Biography)
Dennis Brown was a theater critic for The Riverfront Times newspaper from 2001-2014. His articles and interviews have appeared in The New York Times,Los Angeles Times, Hollywood Reporter and, most recently, the Village Voice, among many others.
His book, Actors Talk: Profiles and Stories from the Acting Trade, was praised by Playbill magazine as “one of the finest interview collections ever published.” A companion volume, Shoptalk: Conversations about Theater and Film with Twelve Writers, One Producer—and Tennessee Williams’ Mother, also was well-received.
His stage adaptation of William Inge’s novel, My Son is a Splendid Driver, starring Mary Beth Hurt, William Atherton, Conchata Ferrell and Lane Smith, was performed to great acclaim at the prestigious William Inge Festival in Independence, Ks. He is also the author of the stage adaptation of the biography The Fabulous Lunts, about theater legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, which was performed in New York City in both 2009 and 2010.
He assisted Gregory Peck in developing his one-man show A Conversation with Gregory Peck. During the mid-1990s, he toured with Peck to 55 engagements throughout the United States and Canada.
He wrote the award-winning television-movie The Perfect Tribute, which starred Jason Robards as Abraham Lincoln. While on staff at CBS Entertainment, Brown was Angela Lansbury’s publicist for the final seasons of Murder, She Wrote.
Since returning to his hometown of St. Louis, in 2001, he has been an adjunct professor at Webster University, teaching classes in film.