Opera House Historical Summary
Recently marking the 75th anniversary of its inaugural performance on April 21, 2009, the newly christened Peabody Opera House owns a vivid history with its next chapter about to be written.
The Opera House and its 3,500-seat main theater were completed in 1934 as part of the Municipal Auditorium complex that included the 9,300-seat Convention Hall that later became known as Kiel Auditorium. Construction on the Convention Hall was not completed until 1936. Designed by architects Louis LaBeaume and Eugene S. Klein, construction on the Municipal Auditorium began in 1932. The Opera House is all that remains of the original complex and extends south approximately 250 feet, where it meets Enterprise Center, the arena completed in 1994 that replaced Kiel Auditorium. Its facade extends 322 feet along Market Street frontage on the Memorial Plaza as part of St. Louis' most significant grouping of civic buildings.
The Opera House features six to seven venues, including an ornate main theatre with approximately 3,500 seats and a two-story front lobby (constructed entirely of Tennessee and Ste. Genevieve marble), four small side theaters or halls (with a capacity of up to 700 seats each), an exposition hall, basement restaurant/bar space, offices, dressing rooms and other support spaces for the facility. During its height of activity, the Opera House attracted the world's finest performers, including concert artists, Broadway shows, plays, dance companies, symphonies, blues, jazz, country-western, rock, grand opera and light opera. It also presented several Veiled Prophet balls, choral pageants, civic events and traveling exhibits.
Origin of Design
Inspiration for the design of the Municipal Auditorium was born out of the City Beautiful movement that reached its height of popularity in America with the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The City Beautiful movement sought to use beautification and monumental grandeur in cities to create moral and civic virtue among urban populations. With the entrance to the Opera House as its focal point, St. Louis’ Municipal Auditorium was the perfect embodiment of that movement. The glorious classic architecture of the Opera House features eight Corinthian columns adorning the front of the building, flanked on either side by sculptured panels entitled “Discussion” and “Recreation,” with inscriptions by Carl Schurz and Woodrow Wilson, respectively. The building’s signature is the two 10-ton limestone Missouri bears which crouch on pedestals guarding either side of the entrance.
It was during the period of civic optimism brought on by the construction of the World’s Fair grounds that a trio of prominent architects convened in 1904 for the formation of the St. Louis Public Buildings Commission. They were tasked with developing a plan to replace the city’s aging civic buildings and produced a report that became the model for future designs to reshape the urban fabric of downtown St. Louis.
The model for St. Louis’ Public Building Group Plan first incorporated the construction of a Municipal Auditorium in 1919 when the City Plan Commission stated the need for a versatile town hall able to be utilized as a city hall, theater, offices or arena. St. Louis voters cleared the way for this plan in 1923 when they passed what was the nation’s largest bond issue to date, generating $87.4 million for the project that included $5 million for the Municipal Auditorium.
While the City Plan Commission continued to develop the design and layout of its new public building group, the city did not purchase its first parcel of land on the two blocks dedicated to the auditorium until 1927, a deliberate process that lasted until February 1932. The total cost of the site was more than $1 million dollars for 25 separate land purchases. Construction of the Municipal Auditorium officially began in August 1932.
An Instant Classic
The Municipal Auditorium was inaugurated on April 21, 1934, with a production of Aida in the Opera House. Giovanni Martinelli and Elizabeth Rethberg of The New York Metropolitan Opera (The Met) starred in the performance conducted by Gennaro Papi. The Opera House would become a regular stop for the touring company from The Met. A production of Aida had previously inaugurated another St. Louis performance venue, the outdoor Municipal Theater (The Muny) in 1918.
The performance of Aida was the seminal event of a two-week celebration to dedicate the facility in April of 1934. The fanfare surrounding the opening of the Municipal Auditorium helped the venue gain immediate recognition as the undisputed center of performing arts in St. Louis. The celebration included a Festival of Nations presented by the International Institute and concluded with the first annual National Folk Festival at the end of April. The National Folk Festival would return to the Opera House in 1947 and 1948. All told, more than 100 performances, festivals, parades and celebrations from April through June marked the opening of the Municipal Auditorium.
While the Convention Hall side of the venue staged the largest productions, it was the Opera House that saw the predominant use in the early days of the Municipal Auditorium. One historical record indicates that 16 of its first 21 productions took place in the Opera House.
The first year of the Opera House also featured a fall season of elaborate grand opera performances in October followed by a visit by the famed Ziegfeld Follies in November.
The Opera House welcomed its first primary tenant in its first year when it became the home of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) in the 1934-35 season. SLSO was founded in 1880 and today is considered the second oldest in the nation. Prior to moving to the Opera House, SLSO previously called the Odeon home. With a seating capacity of only 2,000, the venue was insufficient for accommodating the large concerts with celebrity soloists that were common during this time of prominence for the symphony. At the time of its completion, the Opera House was larger than New York’s famed Carnegie Hall and other known renowned halls in major American cities. The Opera House is the Symphony’s only home from its first 80 years still standing today.
SLSO called the Opera House home from 1934 until moving to its current space, Powell Symphony Hall, in 1968. During that time the symphony experienced a rise to national fame under the direction of conductor Vladimir Golschmann. SLSO performed for a national radio audience on NBC several times during its inaugural season at the Opera House. A 1951 Human Rights Day celebration involving SLSO, and including celebrities like Rex Harrison and Jose Ferrer, was also broadcast nationally from the Opera House.
The War Years
In 1943, the Municipal Auditorium complex was re-named in honor of former St. Louis Mayor Henry W. Kiel after his passing. Kiel had championed the passage of the $87 million bond issue in 1923 during his tenure as Mayor that lasted from 1913 to 1925. Construction on many of the projects made possible by the bond issue did not begin until near the end of his term and, like the Municipal Auditorium, most were not completed until after he left office.
Kiel Opera House had an active life during World War II, hosting shows, concerts, and U.S.O. dances. In the 1942-43 season, the Opera House hosted 272 events while the convention hall received little use. And while grand opera was absent from the local entertainment scene during the war, the St. Louis Light Opera Guild staged regular performances in the Opera House. The Student Prince, starring New York tenor Donald Gage, on May 7-8, 1946, was one such performance. The St. Louis Light Opera Guild presented a second season in 1947.
Perhaps the most historically significant event to ever take place at the Municipal Auditorium was a speech by President Harry S. Truman on October 30, 1948. The nationally-broadcast speech was the last on his whistle-stop campaign tour to win re-election of the Presidency. Truman’s speech holds a special place in the history of the Opera House as the venue’s most famous event to take advantage of the shared stage of the Opera House and Convention Hall, allowing him to speak directly to audiences in both venues at the same time.
Out with the Old, In with the New
Beginning in the 1950s, rock concerts and touring stage shows joined the regular rotation of performances at Kiel Opera House. Grand Opera returned to the Opera House in 1952 with The Met’s traveling presentations of Aida, Carmen, La Boheme, and La Traviata. The Opera House and The Muny in Forest Park are St. Louis’ only remaining theaters associated with grand opera during its period of prominence before World War II.
One of the most unique and star-studded performances in the history of the Opera House took place June 20, 1965, when Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. organized a benefit concert for Dismas House, a national halfway home for convicts. The event was held in the main theater of the Opera House, but the overflow audience also filled a dozen halls nearby where tickets had been sold for viewing rooms where the concert was broadcast on closed circuit television. It was the only time the Rat Pack’s famous Sands show was televised. For the final number of this concert, Johnny Carson – the event’s master of ceremonies – joined the group on stage. Backing the Rat Pack for the performance was Count Basie’s Orchestra, under the direction of Quincy Jones.
Beyond the Rat Pack, dozens of world-renowned performers played shows at the Opera House between the 1950s and 1980s. The luminaries of American music and comedy included: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Armstrong, Bob Hope, Carol Channing, Katherine Hepburn, Johnny Cash, Danny Thomas, Guy Lombardo, Red Foxx, Paul Anka, Mary Martin, Tony Bennett, Eddie Arnold, Bette Midler, Perry Como, Jack Benny, Judy Garland, Benny Goodman and his orchestra, Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme, Fred Waring Chorale, Liberace and Hank Williams, both Sr. and Jr.
During that time period, several Broadway touring shows passed through the Opera House as well, including: South Pacific, King and I with Yul Brenner, Coco, Unsinkable Molly Brown, Best Little Whorehouse, My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison, Hello, Dolly with Carol Channing, The Wiz, A Chorus Line, and Hair.
The Opera House became a home for popular music during the second half of the century. Rock n’ Roll, R&B and pop artists such as Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Neil Diamond, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Bob Dylan, The Doors, Jimmy Buffett, Peter Gabriel, Angel, Billy Joel, The Eagles, and Bruce Springsteen took their turns headlining the venue for sold-out shows in the intimate Opera House. Rock concerts ended up being banned from the Opera House for a period of time following a 1972 performance by Emerson, Lake and Palmer that resulted in several thousand dollars worth of damage to the theater by unruly fans.
The most famous rock show ever staged at Kiel Opera House ranks as possibly the most anticipated concert in St. Louis history. On July 6, 1978, the Rolling Stones sold-out the 3,557 seats in the Opera House in 75 minutes after a one-time radio announcement on two St. Louis radio stations at 11 a.m. The concert held on July 11 was not a money-maker, producing a little more than $35,000 in ticket revenue, but the fervor created by the sudden announcement and small venue created an pandemonium around the event unparalleled in St. Louis history.
During the venue’s later years of activity, renowned dance troupes were brought to the Opera House by Dance St. Louis. Performances by the Joffrey Ballet, Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor, Kansas City Ballet and Merce Cunningham were just some of the world’s greatest dancers who graced the Opera House stage.
One of the most common uses of the Opera House was the graduation ceremonies of local high schools, colleges, and professional organizations. Historical records have estimated that more than 400,000 high school, college and professional students graduated from the stages at the Opera House and Convention Hall.
End of one Era, Start of Another
On May 4, 1991, a performance by the St. Louis Philharmonic marked the final event held in the Opera House to date. The Opera House was closed on May 7, 1991. After numerous attempts by various parties over nearly two decades to reopen the building, financing was completed in June 2010 to pave the way to renovate and reopen the Opera House. Today, it is known as the Peabody Opera House, thanks to a naming rights partnership with Peabody Energy, and an entire community looks forward to its reopening in the fall of 2011. On October 1, 2011, Peabody Opera House reopened its doors with a Grand Opening Gala worthy of the building's rich history featuring headliners Aretha Franklin and Jay Leno.
Photos courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Photo Archives