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Movies add to music under the stars

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 12, 2009 - This summer three groups in the city and the county are among those offering a regular series of concerts and movies. On Friday nights in June, the Webster Groves Old Orchard Merchants Association hosts the Gazebo Series, while Laumeier Sculpture Park presents Music+Movies. Each offers a local band, followed by a movie screening after sunset. On Saturday evenings, Lafayette Square runs five concerts and three movies throughout the summer.

For Mike Venso, director of communications at Laumeier, Music+Movies is the latest manifestation of a long tradition. Precedent was established in 1978, when the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performed under famed American composer Aaron Copland.

“Ever since the founding of the park, there has been a performance component,” Venso explains.

While Lafayette Square’s series does not claim the same scope, Pete Snyder, former president of the Lafayette Square Restoration Committee, can also point to many years of successful shows. “The concerts have been going on quite a long time, since the arts council [of Lafayette Park] was first founded in 1981.”

Webster’s Gazebo Series is only five years old, but media liaison Cindy Underwood-Oleshak emphasizes its growing role in the neighborhood.

“A lot of families live here,” she says, “and it’s an event that celebrates that in the community.” As a result, Old Orchard “wants to make sure the bands reflect” that family-friendly atmosphere. Of course, not every family member can make it through both the concert and the movie. “Depending on their bedtimes, some of the kids do go home,” she laughs.

Lafayette Square also works to foster a sense of community. “These are very social events,” says Snyder. Last week, more than 1,800 people showed up to see Javier Mendoza, while Snyder expects a crowd of around 800 to attend Spider-Man this Saturday. He attributes the attendance to the venue itself. “Lafayette Park is the oldest public park west of the Mississippi, so it attracts a lot of attention.”

Beyond creating an opportunity to socialize, the Lafayette Square neighborhood also has developed its movie series into a form of community outreach. Last year, “we teamed up with the Ronald McDonald house and Edgewood,” Snyder says. This Saturday’s showing of "Spider-Man" is a project in conjunction with Big Brothers Big Sisters, while "The Sandlot," the baseball summer classic, will be shown with Basket of Hope, a charity that supports children diagnosed with cancer and other serious illnesses. For Snyder, the prospect of supporting those with needs adds to the series’ importance. “The more you can make this a regional outreach, I think the better the event is.”

At Laumeier, Music+Movies operates as an extension of the park’s central purpose. “Our mission is all about inspiring creativity,” Venso explains. Showcasing local musicians and well-known actors, the concerts and movies provide their audience with exposure to the performing arts. They occur within the recently renovated amphitheater, allowing the audience to appreciate as well the park’s sculptures and nature.

This Friday a visitor can listen to Arvell and Co., watch "Kung Fu Panda," and then, on the walk back to the car, check out Alexander Liberman’s The Way, a sculpture made of 18 salvaged steel oil tanks. “It’s providing a kaleidoscope view of cultural entertainment,” explains Venso. The result: “an incredibly diverse crowd.” While much of the audience comes from southern and southwestern St. Louis County, the areas closest to the park, last Friday’s event, which had an attendance of 1,600, also welcomed guests from the greater metropolitan area and from other states.

These outdoor series do have built-in disadvantages. “One of the blessings and curses of being an outdoor, open-air museum is that it’s an outdoor, open-air experience,” Venso says of Laumeier. In the event of rain, the sculpture park reschedules the concert and movie for the following day. Due to the difficulty of rescheduling bands, the Gazebo Series cancels its events entirely, while Lafayette tries to place its movies on another night.

Yet on the rainless nights — Underwood-Oleshak, Snyder, and Venso are crossing their fingers for this weekend—the shows promise to provide quality free entertainment. All St. Louisans have to bring are family, friends, a blanket … and maybe a bag of popcorn.

Joe Milner, who will be a junior at Brown University, is an intern with the St. Louis Beacon.