By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
By wrapping up its Centennial Season with a sweet nostalgic slice of Americana, the Muny has tugged at our hearts and reminded us to treasure our traditions.
This “Meet Me in St. Louis” makeover is a richly textured tapestry significant to St. Louis – one that you can see and feel. With a freshly revised book and new orchestrations, the Muny has connected the ordinary Smith Family’s quaint story to emotionally resonate through the ties that bind us.
A tight-knit cast and tip-top crew wore their hearts on their sleeves opening night, offering a gift to the region that spends its summers in the nation’s oldest and largest outdoor theater. You could sense the love for our town onstage, backstage and in the audience.

The Smiths’ upper-middle class life at 5135 in Kensington Avenue was not different than countless others, but through their typical goings-on, they faced change, and that impending family transition from their comfortable routine to the uncertainty of a big metropolis is what drives their 1903-1904 story through seasons along the Mississippi River.
Sally Benson’s memoirs, “The Kensington Stories.” eventually became the beloved classic movie musical “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Even with its MGM-Hollywood pedigree, that unique turn-of-the-century site-specific history makes it ours alone – not Kansas City, Chicago or Indianapolis.
That civic pride resulted in the Muny presenting stage versions in 1960, 1965 and 1977 – before Broadway adapted it in 1989, and a variation has been staged four more times, including a dull one its last time in 2009.
The stage adaptation wasn’t special enough, and not even close in comparison to the movie. When the film opened in 1944, it became the studio’s biggest hit next to “Gone with the Wind” and nominated for four Oscars, including Best Song (“The Trolley Song”). Margaret O’Brien won a Juvenile Academy Award as Tootie. The film is now preserved in the National Film Registry (Library of Congress) and 10th on American Film Institute’s Greatest Movie Musicals in History list.
It’s closing line, “Right here in St. Louis,” became the Muny’s tagline for their 100th anniversary, and the show’s inclusion inevitable.
But this production has some surprises in store. To make this one memorable, Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson called on Gordon Greenberg to revamp the book by Hugh Wheeler. Greenberg is a veteran Muny director whose writing work includes the “Holiday Inn” Broadway adaptation.
He has inserted many local references to heighten the hometown feel. He had us right away when Grandpa talks about the St. Louis Cardinals beating the Chicago Cubs. Other mentions of neighborhoods and long-distance phone calls to Clayton were big crowd-pleasers.
No matter how corny you think the romantic entanglements are, the Smith kids’ excitement about seeing their hometown prepare to become the center of the universe is contagious.
The simple framework of children growing up is secondary to the time and place, as our forefathers are honored for their vision that included the biggest World’s Fair yet, and the first Summer Olympics in the U.S. And we continue to enjoy the fruits of those labors.

The world was watching when the Louisiana Purchase Exposition celebrated the 100th anniversary of the U.S. expansion under Thomas Jefferson. More than 60 countries and 43 states participated from April 30 to Dec. 1 in Forest Park and nearby locations. So many contributions of long-lasting impact came from those seven months in 1904, and the work preceding it.
That’s what director Marcia Milgrom Dodge brings out as the characters express love for the city and family, friends and neighbors during daily routines and holiday rituals.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (real-life married couple Stephen R. Buntrock and Erin Dilly) have five children: Rose, Esther, Alonzo Jr. “Lon,” Agnes and Tootie (Liana Hunt, Emily Walton, Jonathan Burke, Elle Wesley and Elena Adams, all in Muny debuts). Anna Smith’s father, retired doctor Grandpa Prophater (local legend Ken Page) lives with them. Alonzo Sr. is a lawyer and they live comfortably enough to afford a housekeeper, Katie (Kathy Fitzgerald).
This cast injected individual pizzazz into a show that’s still boxed in by the period’s social mores. Let’s face it, the schmaltz factor is high, and the two oldest girls’ boy troubles are trivial.
There is the potential to view the characters as spoiled in the way the older daughters maneuver the guys and bratty Tootie causes mayhem while they all whine about moving to New York City, but if they didn’t gripe, we wouldn’t have any dramatic conflict, would we? And the performers are winsome.
Rose’s intended fellow, the earnest Warren Sheffield, is well-played by Michael Burrell, and Dan DeLuca, as the proverbial boy-next-door John Truitt, matches Emily Walton’s adventurous zest as Esther.
Jonathan Burke is an impressive Lon Jr., getting ready for Princeton and dating the worldly Lucille Ballard (St. Louis regular Madison Johnson, looking swell in a Gibson hairstyle). He is a marvel of movement in the dance number, “The Banjo,” innovatively staged by choreographer Josh Walden. Jeff Jordan is a good sport as a gangly uncoordinated dance partner, Pee Wee Drummond.
Music Director Charlie Alterman glides through old standards and the stand-out numbers written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane – “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which Walton beautifully delivers.
An earlier song list was trimmed to thankfully cut the bloat, and John McDaniel’s new orchestrations provide some zing. McDaniel, a St. Louis native, is a Grammy and Emmy-winning composer, conductor, pianist and producer. He was the band leader on Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show from 1996 to 2002 and has returned to conduct the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra five times and worked on “Pirates!” during the Muny’s 2012 season.
They included a dandy song Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote but cut from the movie, “Boys and Girls Like You and Me.”

Supporting player Ben Nordstrom’s spotlight moment was delightful, as he sang “Under the Anheuser Bush” as the Christmas Ball band singer.
(Fun fact: That is a popular beer garden song commissioned by the brewery in 1903, and an instrumental version was used in the 1944 movie).
The vibrant vintage look sharpened the focus, with outstanding work by scenic designer Michael Schweikardt and video designer Matthew Young, who highlighted the bygone era with beautiful vistas.
Costume designer Tristan Raines and wig designer Leah J. Loukas immersed the players in exquisite detail. The youth ensemble’s Halloween costumes provided merriment as they scampered through the crowd.
Lighting designer Rob Denton spectacularly illuminated the World’s Fair, which elicited audible appreciation. Sound designers John Shivers and David Patridge captured the old-timey feel.
In two extraordinary moments, “Meet Me in St. Louis” crystallized the past, present and future of our crown jewels — Forest Park and The Muny, all in the shadow of our treasured landmarks.
The “Skinker’s Swamp” picnic scene, where video projection showed The Palace of Fine Art (now the St. Louis Art Museum) under construction, along with the Ferris Wheel, in a muddy field. Awestruck Esther and John rode that famous trolley to his baseball practice first.
The grand finale was breathtaking – as the anticipation of the World’s Fair built, to reveal the Smith Family standing on a bridge overlooking the Grand Basin, with thousands of festive lights. It was a vivid tableau that continued in a fireworks-festooned curtain call.
Sometimes, we see magic happen under the stars in Forest Park, just as our ancestors did in the 20th century. Hope about the future has been a running theme in all seven shows this season, and “Meet Me in St. Louis” became the cherry on top.
After the fireworks light up the sky for the last time Aug. 12, we move onto the second century.
Look around the park now – majestic remnants mark our heritage. It’s a stunning sight, recalling happy golden days of yore, as is the Muny’s love letter to the community we cherish.
This unabashedly sentimental production conjured up many personal memories and feelings about what Forest Park, the Muny and St. Louis mean to me. I don’t think I was alone in this regard, judging the audience’s reaction
“Meet Me in St. Louis” is presented from Aug. 4 to Aug. 12 nightly at 8:15 p.m. at The Muny in Forest Park. For more information or for tickets, visit www.muny.org.
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Photos by Phillip Hamer
 

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
RISING STARS: Seeing talented teenagers passionately follow their dreams is such a thrill. The Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation is ahead of the game, for it fosters, promotes, and encourages young people in the St. Louis region to discover and participate in the joy and wonder of live performances.
Besides the St. Louis Teen Talent Competition, the Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation also produces a variety of other performing arts programs that focus on youth including Kids’ Night at the Fabulous Fox, Broadway Master Classes, Educational Encores, and is a producing partner of the 2nd Annual St. Louis High School Musical Theatre Awards.
This Sunday, they are sponsoring a free event that will feature 25 entertainment acts, including finalists from the 8th Annual St. Louis Teen Talent Competition and nomineees from the 2nd Annual St. Louis High School Musical Theatre Awards:

The High Schooll Musical Theatre Awards representatives include: Outstanding Lead Actress winner Maggie Kuntz and nominees Paige Terch. Meg Gorton and  Sydney Jones
Outstanding Lead Actor nominees Tony Merritt and Jared Goudsmit.
Outstanding Supporting Actress nominees Annelise Laakko, Natalie Brown and Haley Driver.
The Teen Talent Showcase representatives include pianists John Yanev and Robyne Sieh, singers Morgan Taylor, Josh Royal, Bennett English and Jennifer Ferry; dancers Arielle Adams, De’Jai Walker, Madison Alexander, Megan Mayer, Brooke Reese, Hillary Zgonina, Kelsey Carnes and DessaRae Lampkins; alto sax player Kameron Huff and TBD (Lilliana Matthews, Aaron Moore, Everett Remstedt, Allan Stacy and Jalen Thompson.
The Rising Stars Showcase featuring the Stars of Tomorrow will take place on Sunday, Aug. 5, at 2 p.m. at The Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Blvd., St. Louis. Admission is free and it is open to the public. For more information, visit: www.foxpacf.org.
 
Photo Maggie Kuntz, Dolly Levi in Cor Jesu’s “Hello,Dolly!” She went on to compete in the National Jimmy Awards.
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EXPLORE ST. LOUIS:  St. Louis will be rolling out the red carpet when throngs come to the city for the 100th PGA Championship Aug. 6 – 12 at the Bellerive Country Club.
Have you seen the four commercials that award-winning actor and St. Louis native Sterling K. Brown has done for the St. Louis Visitors and Convention Bureau? The 30-second segments are “Arch,” “Blues,” “Family Fun” and “Neighborhoods.”

Local actor, playwright and theater booster Stephen Peirick played Merriwether to Matt Lindhardt’s Lewis in the “Arch” commercial. He said Sterling was kind and introduced himself before they started working on the spot.
If you want to see the commercials or find out more about what’s happening here in August, check out www.explorestl.com.
 
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GO SEE A PLAY POLL: Meet at the Muny for “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the finale of the Muny’s Centennial Season! Those who send in their choice in the poll will be placed in a drawing for two tickets to any performance of “Meet Me in St. Louis” from Aug. 4 – 12 at the Muny in Forest Park.
“Meet Me in St. Louis” was a 1944 MGM movie before it was adapted as a stage musical in 1989, although the Muny presented it before that.in the 1960s and ’70s.
This 2018 production will feature a revised book by Gordon Greenberg and new orchestrations by John McDaniel is the first since 2009, and the eighth overall.
McDaniel, a Grammy, Tony and Emmy-winning producer, composer, conductor and pianist is from St. Louis. He was Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show bandleader from 1996 to 2002, and has worked with the Muny before, on the 2012 “Pirates!”
Poll Question for Ticket Drawing: What is your favorite movie that either takes place in St. Louis or was shot in St. Louis?
“The Game of Their Lives”“The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery”“King of the Hill”“Meet Me in St. Louis”“Up in the Air”“White Palace”
Send your selection by email to: [email protected] by 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3. Please include your phone number. The winner will be notified, and arrangements will be made with the Muny for the night you choose.
Our July 28 poll winner was Robert Kapeller of St. Louis. He won two tickets to “Evita” at The Rep on Sept. 7. As for the favorite girlfriends musical, “Wicked” won in a landslide.
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DOWN MEMORY LANE: The first time I saw the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis” was at a free showing at the downtown Famous Barr department store the summer of 1974. They had special events and exhibits in honor of the 70th anniversary of the World’s Fair in St. Louis and showed the movie for free in their ninth floor exhibition hall. (That’s what was transformed into the holiday world extravaganza at Christmastime.) At the movie, they sold specially-priced iced tea and hot dogs, two refreshments who made their debut in 1904.
Sally Benson’s “Kensington Stories” was the basis for the movie, and her family lived at 5135 Kensington in north St. Louis city. The house is long-gone but this is what it once looked like, pictured at left.
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TRIVIA TIME-OUT: Forty years ago, the first National Lampoon movie, “Animal House” premiered. This groundbreaking movie first shown on July 28, 1978 spawned many knockoffs and launched the careers of many young stars, including the first film by SNL breakthrough John Belushi. (And is very helpful in the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game).
Question: Who are the two people associated with the movie that have a local connection?
Answer: Writer Harold Ramis attended Washington University, Class of 1966, and used his college days as a member of Zeta Beta Tau for inspiration. He would go on to fame as a writer, actor (“Ghostbusters”) and director (“Groundhog Day”), and returned to his roots here. He served two terms on the Washington University board of trustees and was master of ceremonies for Homecoming in 1984. Here is a 1979 photo of him back in a Wash U frathouse.

Karen Allen, who played Katy, was born in Carrollton, Ill. Her mother was from Jerseyville and her father from Roodhouse, and she spent summers visiting her grandparents in Jersey County after his FBI work took them to other cities for her first 10 years. Her father went to Washington University after her parents married; they met at Illinois College in Jacksonville.
I interviewed the delightful and very active Allen two years ago when she was being honored by the St. Louis International Film Festival. She said she enjoys seeing cast members at film reunion events.

At left she is shown with Peter Riegert. “Animal House” was her first movie.
To read more about her life, here is my feature in the Belleville News-Democrat. https://www.bnd.com/living/magazine/article114225998.html
***WORD: Wise advice from the late great screenwriter, actor and director Harold Ramis:
“There’s a great rabbinical motto that says you start each day with a note in each pocket. One note says, “The world was created for you today,” and the other note says, “I’m a speck of dust in a meaningless universe,” and you have to balance both things.”
“No one will laugh at how great things are for somebody.”
“My only conclusion about structure is that nothing works if you don’t have interesting characters and a good story to tell.”
― Harold Ramis (1944 – 2014)
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WINNERS CIRCLE: Cinema St. Louis handed out awards for the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase on July 22. This year’s event featured 107 films, and some advanced to the 27th annual St. Louis International Film Festival Nov. 1 – 11. These are the juried award winners that were written, directed, edited, or produced by St. Louis residents or films with strong local ties.
DOCUMENTARIES
Best Use of Music: Busking on the Wagon, Randy Shinn and Drew Gowran
Best Sound: Such and Such, Cory Byers
Best Editing: Gateway Sound, Justin Fisher and Patrick Lawrence
Best Cinematography: Lingua Francas, David Christopher Pitt
Best Local Subject: The Man Behind the Merferds, Phil Berwick
Best Direction: Lisa Boyd, An American Tragedy
Best Documentary Short: For a Better Life, Yasmin Mistry
Best Documentary Feature: Gateway Sound, Justin Fisher
EXPERIMENTAL
Best Experimental Film: Passages in Revisiting: I Hear Someone Playing Urheen, Xinyue Deng
NARRATIVES
Best Costumes: Shutter, Nancy Eppert and Maude Vintage
Best Makeup/Hairstyling: East Plains: Get Out!, Jessica Dana
Best Use of Music: The Wedding Song, Ben Stanton, Thia Schuessler and Will Dickerson
Best Sound: Strings, Ross Mercer, Ryan Kneezle and Theo Lodato
Best Production Design/Art Direction: Parallel Chords, Gypsi Pate
Best Special/Visual Effects: Dawn of Man, Vlad Sarkisov
Best Editing: MLM, Benjamin Dewhurst
Best Cinematography: Parallel Chords, Kyle Krupinksi
Best Screenplay: Foxes, Tristan Taylor and Garrick BernardBest Actor: Ayinde Howell, Foxes
Best Actress: Jackie Kelly, Mother of Calamity
Best Direction: Richard Louis Ulrich, Steve
Best Animated Film: Tiffanys, Caitlin Chiusano, Sean Esser and Zhara Honore
Best Comedy: Cabin Killer, Michael Rich
Best Drama: Saint Sinner, Brian Cooksey
Best Narrative Short: Foxes, Tristan Taylor
Best Narrative Feature: Parallel Chords, Catherine Dudley-Rose
To see the list of films selected for SLIFF, visit www.cinemastlouis.org
Pictured are Best Actor Aynde Howell of “Foxes” and Best Actress Jackie Kelly of “Mother of Calamity” on the Showcase program.
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Have any tidbits for the column? Please contact Lynn Venhaus at: [email protected]
Featured photo of ‘Meet Me in St. Louis” from Tams-Witmark. Harold Ramis photos from Washington University archives.