Clang, clang, clang!
That sound you hear is anniversary chimes. “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the movie that taught the world about our town (and how to mispronounce its name), turns 70 this year.
And another landmark in local cinema turns 90. That’s the Tivoli Theatre. The restored movie palace in University City will mark both of those round-number milestones with a screening of “Meet Me in St. Louis” at 4 p.m. Sunday. Yours truly will host the event.
In the unlikely event you haven’t seen the movie, it’s more than a musical flashback to the 1904 World’s Fair. In fact, the fair occupies only the last few minutes of the film. The preceding 100 minutes are a colorized picture of domestic life at the turn of the 20th century. The movie is also a glimpse of the golden age of Hollywood, a period of mass-produced illusions that World War II was rendering obsolete. Our affection for both of those bygone eras has kept the film alive in our hearts for seven decades, especially in its namesake city.
Ten years ago, when “Meet Me in St. Louis” was released on DVD, the Arts & Entertainment staff of the Post-Dispatch collaborated on a group project to analyze its meaning and legacy. I suggested, only half in jest, that the film was “a trolley ride into the dark heart of the American nightmare.” Consider that the World’s Fair — technically called “the Louisiana Purchase Exposition” — celebrated the vanquishing of the Native Americans from the American frontier. The movie takes place shortly after the assassination of President William McKinley and a worldwide flu epidemic. And the character of little Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) was practically the first goth girl, a neighborhood terror who throws flour in the face of a German immigrant and symbolically murders a snowman effigy of her father for threatening to move the family to New York.
On a more serious level, when “Meet Me in St. Louis” was filmed at MGM studios in 1944, America was in the midst of a devastating war. Judy Garland, the child star of “The Wizard of Oz” just five years earlier, didn’t want to make her umpteenth movie in which she was a teenager with a crush on the boy next door. But when she was coaxed into taking the role of lovestruck Esther, Garland gave one of her greatest performances. Her rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” with tearful Tootie at her side, hinted at the wartime “fates” that had torn so many families apart:
Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow.
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
(For the subsequent jukebox and radio release, the last line of that lyric would be changed to something more hopeful: “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”)
The movie was an instant sensation, starting with its world premiere in downtown St. Louis on Nov. 22, 1944. Locals turned out in record numbers to see their city through the eyes of Hollywood.
Now, as 1904 and 1944 fade like painted beer signs on a brick wall, we offer this trolley tour of places we associate with “Meet Me In St. Louis,” both on and off the screen.
THE TIVOLI THEATRE
￼If trolleys return to the Delmar Loop as planned, tourists are sure to marvel at the vintage marquee of the Tivoli (6350 Delmar Boulevard). The three-screen theater, beautifully restored by owner (and trolley buff) Joe Edwards in 1995, is not the oldest cinema on the St. Louis side of the river. That honor belongs to the single-screen Hi-Pointe, a mile south on Skinker Boulevard, which opened in 1922. The Lincoln Theater in Belleville opened in 1921. But the Tivoli has a unique grandeur and a rich history.
The theater opened May 10, 1924, after a ribbon-cutting ceremony by the mayors of St. Louis and University City. The 1,440 seats were packed for a program that included the silent film “The Confidence Man,” with live orchestral accompaniment, along with five vaudeville acts and Art Lee Utt on “The Kilgen Wonder Organ.”
In 1969, the theater was modernized and rechristened the Magic Lantern. Soon it changed names again, to the U-City Cinema. In 1977, an Albuquerque chain restored the Tivoli name and some of the original appearance. The repertory-style cinema showed classic, foreign and independent films on a rapidly rotating basis. That operation closed in 1994, when Joe and Linda Edwards bought the decaying, four-story structure. Their $2 million renovation subdivided the space into one large and two smaller theaters but retained the vaulted ceiling in the main auditorium. The Edwardses now lease the theater to the national Landmark chain of art-house cinemas.
It is not known whether Judy Garland ever visited the Tivoli, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. But the memorabilia in the lobby includes priceless collectibles from her signature film, “The Wizard of Oz.” By Joe Williams
LOEW'S STATE THEATRE
￼Fittingly, “Meet Me in St. Louis” had its world premiere in our fair city. But the gala event on Nov. 22, 1944, was not at the fabulous Fox Theatre, as some might assume, or any of the other movie houses clustered on Grand Boulevard. The venue was the Loew’s State Theatre (715 Washington Avenue) in downtown St. Louis. That theater, which opened in 1924, was owned by the parent company of MGM studios.
Although a quirk of zoning forced the owners to incorporate an L-shaped alley into the lobby, the upstairs auditorium was lavish, with crystal chandeliers and 3,417 seats. (It also had a resident parrot — until someone taught it to swear.)
Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien and the other stars of the film did not attend the premiere. (Garland completed work on her film “The Clock” in Hollywood just one day earlier.) The star attraction at the sold-out event was author and native St. Louisan Sally Benson.
But two days later, Garland did attend the opening at the Loew’s State Theater in New York. While there, the 22-year-old actress announced her engagement to the 41-year-old director of the film, Vincente Minnelli.
The Loew’s State in St. Louis continued to show movies until August 1977. The building was demolished in 1983 to make way for the America’s Center convention hall. By Joe Williams
SALLY BENSON'S HOME
￼In real life, Tootie’s father did move the family to New York.
When “Tootie” grew up, she wrote about the Smith family for the New Yorker magazine with a series of stories labeled “5135 Kensington.”
Sally Benson (born Sara Smith at that very address) used most of her family’s real names. Alonzo, Anna, Rose, Lon, Esther, Agnes and Grandpa Prophater starred in the series of warm, nostalgic stories set in St. Louis.
But her father and the family left Missouri when Sally was either 11 or 14, according to “Literary St. Louis,” edited by Lorin Cuoco and William H. Gass. Sally graduated from Horace Mann School and soon married Reynolds Benson. They would have a daughter and later divorce.
In 1942, Benson added a few new pieces to her Kensington stories and published them as a novel called “Meet Me in St. Louis” (ahead of the film that was in the works). Although she did work on the screenplay for the movie, her version wasn’t used. Benson would, however, get screenwriting credits for “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943), “Anna and the King of Siam” (1946), “Come to the Stable” (1949), “Summer Magic” (1963), “Viva Las Vegas” (1964) and “The Singing Nun” (1966). A play, “Junior Miss,” was based on other stories she did for the New Yorker.
Apparently, only John O’Hara would end up publishing more stories than Benson in the New Yorker. In “About Town,” Ben Yagoda wrote: “Sally Benson sold so many sharp and merciless short stories to the New Yorker over a 25-year period that she had to publish some under a pen name, Esther Evarts.”
Yagoda says Benson was born in 1900, but other sources cite 1897, which would put her at age 6, like Tootie in the movie. Benson died in 1972.
Benson’s “Meet Me in St. Louis” varies from the movie in several ways: That boy next door is named Barton Wagner, not John Truett. Esther has dark hair and Agnes is the one who “kills” the “Waughops” with flour at Halloween.
But precocious Tootie is every bit the ghoul she is in the movie, saying, “Maude Rockefeller died this morning, and Bunchie and I buried her. She was one of the richest dolls, so we put her by herself nearest the little pond. Her leg came off and she bled to death.”
“Meet Me in St. Louis” went out of print, but the St. Louis County Library and Virginia Publishing reprinted a few thousand copies in 2004 for the centennial of the World’s Fair, so the book can be checked out from libraries.
It has outlasted 5135 Kensington Avenue, which was razed in the 1994. By Jane Henderson
1904 WORLD'S FAIR
￼At Christmas 1903, when the Smith family was packing for a move from their beloved St. Louis to New York, construction on the St. Louis World’s Fair was rushing toward the finish line. The fair would open just four months later, on April 30, with 1,500 buildings covering 1,200 acres of what is now Forest Park and Washington University.
Most of the fair’s elegant-looking buildings were temporary, built of plaster of Paris and hemp fibers. Some barely lasted the seven months of the fair.
But you’ve been to some of those that Esther Smith and her family would have admired. The Palace of Fine Art, at the top of Art Hill, is just as glorious today as the St. Louis Art Museum. The Administration Building became Washington University’s majestic Brookings Hall.
And although the Jefferson Memorial Building, which now houses the Missouri History Museum, dates only to 1913, it was built with proceeds from the fair. So was the World’s Fair Pavilion, constructed on the site of the Missouri State Building, which burned in November 1904, just before the fair ended on Dec. 1.
The Flight Cage at the St. Louis Zoo was also a fixture at the fair, commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution, which intended to move it home to Washington afterward. But St. Louis raised money to buy it, and built a great zoo around it.
At the fair, 75 miles of walkways and roads connected the attractions, and visitors like the Smiths would have come back time after time to play games on “the Pike,” eat ice cream cones and drink iced tea (both of which may or may not have originated at the fair), and ogle oddities from around the world.
But nothing produced more gasps than the Palace of Electricity, an eight-acre building devoted to the miracle of electrical engineering. At the foot of the Grand Basin, the classical confection’s thousands of electric lightbulbs lit up the fair at night and reflected in the water, creating the scene the Smiths enjoy at the end of the movie, “right here in St. Louis.” By Gail Pennington
THE MUNY AND STAGES ST. LOUIS
￼“Meet Me in St. Louis” made its debut as a stage musical in the very place that the Smith family can’t wait to visit: Forest Park. The show premiered in 1960 at the Muny.
Since then, it’s had six more Muny runs — maybe in acknowledgment of a perfect combination of material and venue. Stages St. Louis has mounted it twice, as well.
The show has also played elsewhere, including a short but respectable Broadway run in 1989. But Stages executive producer Jack Lane says the show has never been or will be as popular anyplace else as it is here, and he knows why.
“It’s St. Louis pride,” he says. “And especially, St. Louis’ pride in its history.”
In particular, Lane says, “people still talk about the 1904 World’s Fair. I wish I could climb into a time capsule and go back to see what it was like.”
The musical, which more or less follows the plot of the 1944 movie, remains a lot of fun, especially for a family-friendly theater. There are lots of parts for adults and children, a fairly simple set (most of the show takes place at the Smith house) and a couple of appealing girls, sisters Rose and Esther, who want to marry their beaux.
Think “The Music Man.” Think “The Sound of Music,” “I Do! I Do!” or the musical adaptation of “Little Women.” A major current in the history of musical theater, these shows charm their audiences with a comforting, if not necessarily realistic, depiction of middle-class family life in an long-gone era. Full of stern but good-hearted papas, girls in lovely long dresses and evenings spent happily in song, they create nostalgia for things we don’t even remember.
“Meet Me in St. Louis” fits those criteria to a T.
Songs have come and gone from one production to the next. But as a rule, audiences can expect to hear the traditional and old-time numbers that Garland and company sang — such as “Under the Bamboo Tree” and the title song — as well as the three instant hits that Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane wrote for the movie: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Boy Next Door” and “The Trolley Song.”
“The Trolley Song,” of course, explores the romantic possibilities of public transportation, a rare theme in popular music. “Clang! Clang! Clang! went the trolley,” Esther Smith sings, noting that the bell went “Ding! Ding! Ding!” and her heartstrings went “Zing! Zing! Zing!” when a handsome young man climbed onboard.
But where is this trolley heading? According to the vamp that introduces the lyric, it’s going someplace called “Huntington” — variously Huntington Park, Huntington Dell and Huntington Lake.
Maybe at least when the musical is staged in St. Louis, that should be changed to a spot you could actually find on a local map. Forest Park might be the perfect choice. By Judith Newmark
What Screening of “Meet Me in St. Louis” • Where Tivoli Theatre, 6350 Delmar Boulevard • When 4 p.m. Sunday • How much $5 • More info 314-727-7271