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The Muny And Other Cultural Events Make St. Louis. What Happens When They Go Away?

A drone photo of an empty Muny
Brent Jones
St. Louis Public Radio
The 11,000 seats at the Muny will sit idle this summer. The shape of summer life in St. Louis is changing because of the coronavirus.

Live cultural events are typically a big part of summer life for many in the St. Louis region. But this year, musicals at the Muny, free concerts and other events are called off, to prevent spread of the coronavirus in large crowds. 

This creates a void bigger than the hole in attendees’ social calendars. It upends family traditions. It removes gathering spaces where people make connections with neighbors and with strangers. 

It affects many people’s very relationship with the city.

Last Friday morning, the sidewalk in front of the Muny’s shuttered box office was dotted with people taking advantage of the fresh air to take a walk or a jog. 

The theater’s 102nd season had been due to start a few days earlier. Inside the amphitheater, the sound of birds chirping rang clearly through the air. There were no stagehands scurrying about, no distant rumble of rehearsal. Instead, 11,000 empty seats sat as silent witness. 

Managing Director Kwofe Coleman stood near a side entrance to the seating area, thinking of the people who would have been filing into the theater later that day and filling those seats, if not for the coronavirus. 

“If we talk about what’s difficult about not having a season this summer,” he said, “the hardest part is missing the people that come out to see the shows, and seeing how much it matters to them. And knowing that they don’t have that. That’s what’s hard.”

Muny Managing Director Kwofe Coleman stands in the empty theater. [6/25/20]
Credit Jeremy D. Goodwin | St. Louis Public Radio
Muny Managing Director Kwofe Coleman stands in the empty theater.

Among them is Lynn Phillips. She grew up going to the musicals at the Muny. It’s a family tradition, one that she would have been carrying on this summer by taking her 14-year-old daughter to shows. Now, the tradition is on hold. A place where she’s always felt comfortable is now a painful reminder of how the world is changing during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“There was actually a knot in my stomach,” Phillips said of a recent drive by the theater, “the kind that you get when you feel a deep loss. It’s palpable.”

"Essential to the city's understanding of itself"

That loss is shared by many in the region, whether or not they count themselves regular Muny attendees, said Henry Schvey, professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University.

“The idea of the musical here in Forest Park is something that is essential to the city’s understanding of itself,” he said. 

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival planned to stage "Much Ado About Nothing" at Forest Park's Shakespeare Glen this summer as part of its 20th anniversary season, and initially postponed the show from May to August. The organization announced Thursday that the production will be bumped to 2021. 

Schvey, a founding board member of the Shakespeare festival, said a visit there or to the Muny fulfills more than just the desire to have a fun night out. It provides a communal experience that people desperately need, as social animals.

“There’s more than just the play. There’s the socialization. There’s the mingling of gender, of ethnicity, of age. There’s everything involving the sort of connection with other people,” he said. “These things are baked into our communal origins as human beings, as social human beings. All of that is somewhat under duress, if not actually threatened, by the kind of isolation we need to practice with the COVID-19 epidemic.”

Schvey said that applies to any performance — including live music, which in a typical summer can be heard all over St. Louis.

Ron Edwards and Alonzo J. Townsend at Big Muddy Blues Festival, which grew out of the St. Louis Blues Heritage Festival and traditionally fills Laclede's Landing over Labor Day Weekend.

Music as a bridge

One of those places is Laclede’s Landing, which is host to Big Muddy Blues Festival over Labor Day weekend. The event grew out of the St. Louis Blues Heritage Festival and showcases local artists. It’s a celebration not just of the blues as an artform, but of St. Louis itself, said festival emcee Alonzo J. Townsend.

The son of blues great Henry Townsend, he grew up around legends of the music and manages local artists including Marquise Knox and Tonina. He said the festival creates a common space where people mix and mingle, making connections they may not make otherwise.

“That’s the bridge builder. That puts each other in each others’ faces. And you have no choice but to smile or talk. You have no choice but to sit next to each other. And it doesn’t matter what color you are. And that’s a great medicine,” Townsend said.

It’s medicine St. Louisans will have to go without this year; organizers said Wednesday they are canceling the festival.

A Facebook event post for Blues At The Arch, a free concert series that was due for its fifth season this summer, indicates that newer tradition also is on hold because of the coronavirus.

Fans gather for a concert in the Whitaker Music Festival at Missouri Botanical Garden. This is one of many events cancelled this summer because of the coronavirus.
Credit Sundos Schneider | Missouri Botanical Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden
Fans gather for a concert in the Whitaker Music Festival at the Missouri Botanical Garden. This is one of many events canceled this summer because of the coronavirus.

Things will also be quiet at the Missouri Botanical Garden, home to free concerts since 1996. 

Mandy Sullivan is typically a weekly visitor to the Whitaker Music Festival there. When she moved to St. Louis 10 years ago, the shows gave her a way to get to know people. Then they became a magnet for her growing group of local friends. Now, she’s got her routines down pat — where to lay her blanket out for her and her friends, where to go watch the garden’s bats fly around at sunset. 

With the series canceled, her whole social ritual is canceled, too.

“I think it’s just, it's going to be hard. I really love enjoying that, and it's going to be hard to fill that void,” Sullivan said.

For Phillips, a canceled Muny season leaves a void as well. She said the locked gates there are a reminder not just of a different-looking summer season, but of changes that may be yet to come.

“Part of it is a sense of so much that we have lost because of this,” she said of the virus, "and also, not knowing when it’s going to be back to normal and not knowing if it’s ever going to be back to what we used to have.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how many seasons the Muny has produced. This would have been its 102nd season.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @JeremyDGoodwin

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Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.