The Springfield Muni Opera’s earliest ancestor was a play named “Good News,” performed by the Springfield Municipal Choir at Lanphier Park on July 28, 1938. But today’s outdoor community musical theater more accurately dates from a presentation of “Bye Bye Birdie” at Douglas Park in 1964.
Music educator E. Carl Lundgren (1898-1974) directed the newly organized choir in “Good News,” the first performance of which drew 1,200 people to the baseball field on North Grand Avenue. But even then, Lundgren and others were planning for outdoor musicales to become a permanent feature of Springfield’s cultural life. The Illinois State Journal’s Bertha Pabst outlined one plan after the first night’s show.
Out of door opera and pageantry is the present trend in the thought of music leaders throughout the country and Springfield has made a most worthy entry into such a field. However before progress along this line can come, it is very evident that a permanent and more attractive setting must be provided. …
(I)t is confidently hoped that the park board will undertake to render this service to the young people and the citizens of Springfield by completing the natural stage setting which has been partially undertaken at the Washington Park hillside.
The Washington Park site never came to pass. Lundgren went on to direct two more plays the next two years – “Sweethearts” in 1939 and “Firefly” in 1940 – but both were presented at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. And with the onset of World War II, expansion plans fell by the wayside.
In 1950, however, Lundgren convinced Springfield Utilities Com. John Hunter to give the Springfield Municipal Opera Association a lease (at $1 per year) on 55 acres of wheat fields off East Lake Drive. The lease, however, required that at least one play be presented each year and included a forfeit provision if three years when by without a performance.
A crash construction program set the stage, literally, for “The Merry Widow,” the organization’s first production at the lake site. More than 3,000 people sat on folding chairs to view the operetta’s opening on July 19, 1950.
In the early years, although Muni actors were amateurs, behind-the-scenes crews, including directors and choreographers, were paid. In addition to ticket revenue (tickets were $1.50) the Muni was supported by guarantors, people and businesses who promised to make up any losses, up to a maximum of $100 each. (The first guarantor was Gov. Adlai Stevenson.)
No guarantor lost money the first few years, but the Muni was giving away too many free passes, and paying the professionals ate into the theater’s income, former board chairman Dennis O’Brien told a Sangamon County Historical Society tour in August 2015.
It was wildly successful if you looked at the numbers. It was wildly unsuccessful if you looked at the revenue, considering how much they were spending. After three or so years, they were asking the guarantors for the hundred bucks, and nobody would be a guarantor again.
“They were over,” O’Brien said of the Municipal Opera. “They were done.”
The Muni went dark in the 1956 season, and 1957’s sole production, “It’s an Art,” was billed as a “revival test” for the organization.
The results were middling, so opera supporters then tried partnerships to avoid defaulting on the lease. Students from Decatur’s Millikin University put on shows on the Muni’s parking lot in 1958. Two years later, the Muni gave over the parking lot site to Tent at the Lake, a troupe of professional actors that put on non-musical plays from 1960 through 1962. (Promoters pledged that the tent was “completely waterproofed against inclement weather” and the area would undergo a “daily program of bug control.”)
The opera site’s only production in 1963 apparently was an original, Lincoln-themed ballet, “Shadows of Glory,” performed by Springfield’s Copper Coin Ballet.
But fires and vandals wrecked the opera’s stage. The Springfield Rotary Club voted to lead a reactivation project, but a couple of months later dropped the idea.
“It was a derelict property,” O’Brien said. “We were about to turn it back over to the city when Tom Shrewsbury, who was a young actor at the time, said, ‘We gotta do something.’”
Shrewsbury (1930-2012), who had returned to his home town after working in professional theater with such stars as Lucille Ball and Vincent Price, led a last-ditch effort to revive the Muni.
Shrewsbury and a new board of managers chose the Lou Hahn Bandshell in Douglas Park as the venue where the Muni would demonstrate its potential. The opera’s survival depended on the success of a single, five-night production, “Bye Bye Birdie,” in July 1964.
Margaret Boswell proclaimed the show’s success in her review of the premiere in the July 18, 1964, Illinois State Journal.
“If the opening production is any criterion, Municipal Opera has come back to stay in Springfield,” Boswell wrote. “The production of “Bye Bye Birdie” cannot be faulted and is a joy to watch.”
The show marked the opera’s turnaround. With a nest egg provided by the take from “Birdie” and a fundraising drive, the revived opera built a stage, audience benches, lights and a fence, and the Muni was back in operation at the lake site.
The Muni put on two productions in 1965, expanded to three in 1967 and has done four musicals annually since 1972.
“A big crowd back then would be 500,” O’Brien said. “We’ve worked our way up from that.” (The troupe counted its one millionth patron in 2006.)
But the big difference was we’re a volunteer operation now. We don’t pay our directors, we don’t pay our choreographers. Everybody who builds our sets, paints them, works the props, collects everything — the actors, our box office staff, the concessionaires. They’re all volunteers.
A single production may need 200 volunteers, not counting the cast, according to Genevieve Kaplan, a historical society board member whose father was Muni board chairman for 2015.
The Muni learned other financial lessons from its 1950s problems, O’Brien said, noting that, while the organization accepts donations, it does not solicit them or depend on them, and it also is not supported by government grants.
We are successful enough with hard work and volunteers that we can survive on our ticket revenue and what is given to us, graciously, by what we call our backstagers. And we have an endowment that allows us to know that we can start next year if this year was a total disaster because it rained every night. We’d be able to have a season next year because we have a savings account for that purpose.
We’re thinking of putting in a new building backstage that will cost us at least a quarter of a million dollars. We’ll pay for it in cash. We never, ever borrow anything. Going down that road is destruction.
The Muni, O’Brien said, “is a work of love.”
Four Muni leaders have buildings named after them on the site: Lundgren, Shrewsbury, and Florence Berchtold (1914-94)and Alice Payne (1911-2006); both women were close associates of Shrewsbury in the 1960s’ revival effort.
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