Last year, The Muny debuted its new, reconstructed stage, orchestra pit, light bridge and stage towers. The makeover was hailed as a monumental success and fans gave it a standing ovation. All were delighted, except for one thing. The trees were missing.
“It’s been the No. 1 question asked since the stage improvements were made,” Sean Smith, director of operations for The Muny, said. “We’re now happy to report the trees are back. Two new oak trees along with other filler trees have been replanted.”
Good news, because frankly, The Muny wouldn’t be The Muny without the trees. After all, the massive Burr oaks that had flanked the stage defined the theater’s location since 1916 when the site was chosen for a production of “As You Like It.” Staged in commemoration of the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
The site that became The Muny had the prefect topography – a gentle slope and a flat area for a stage that was flanked by two massive oaks. The location chosen by Mayor Henry Kiel, park commissioner Nelson Cunliff, and New York theatrical producer, director and actress, Margaret Anglin. However, Muny lore gives Anglin the majority of the credit, with his pronouncement, “This shall be the place.”
“As the story goes, I can almost see Anglin striking a pose and proclaiming, ‘This shall be the place,’” Laura Peters, Muny archivist, said. “And it was the perfect place. A natural amphitheater with good acoustics and a proscenium formed by those majestic oaks.”
It’s no surprise that The Muny’s oaks were considered the most pampered trees in St. Louis. Yet, with all the TLC an arborist could give them, they were drying of disease and old age. The first lost was the oak located stage right. When it was removed in 2010, its rings revealed that it was 310 years old. Making is more than 60 years older than St. Louis. The city was founded in 1764. When stage renovation began, the remaining oak, located behind the stage left light tower, plans mandated the tree would be preserved.
“When we were planning the stage renovation one of the mandates on the project was to keep the look and feel of The Muny. Part of that experience was the trees on stage. Our plan was simple. Don’t touch the tree,” Smith said. “We had a design that worked around the tree. But once we got in the project, we saw there wasn’t any root structure left. The stage had been holding the tree in place.”
Over the years, the oak became a casualty of The Muny’s success. As The Muny grew and expanded over the years, it built around the trees. At the time, no one imagined the concrete and stage expansion would compromised the roots, which proved the oaks harbinger of death. When stage renovations began, the remaining oak was near death, making its removal unavoidable. After a few tears, plans were immediately set into motion to replace the both oaks, along with the other trees that were lost during the renovation. This time, working with an arborist to development a plan that would sustain the trees.
“To accommodate the needs of the trees, the scope of the project was expanded. Underneath the stage is a soil system that allows the roots to grow. We’ve also added irrigation and aeration that will allow the trees to survive and thrive for The Muny’s next 100 years,” Smith said.
Swamp white oaks, a native to Missouri, were selected to replace the original Burr oaks. Of course, these trees don’t have the stature as the old ones, yet. Just give them time.
“We looked for trees that were a little more up and down and wouldn’t grow so wide. That’s why we choose the swamp white oaks,” Smith said, explaining how the new trees had been selected two and half years go from Kaneville Tree Farm in Illinois, a nursery that specializes in large trees. “We didn’t plant a 70-foot oak. These are more in the range of 30 feet.”
The new Muny oaks will be visible by the audience. They’re located off to the sides of the LED scenery wall. And while the trees look a little bare now, by the time the season opens in July, Smith said they will leaf out and will be ready for their Muny debut.
“While last year was exciting to have the new stage in place, without the trees, it didn’t feel like home until now,” Smith said. “We really want to show them off. Our team is hopeful we’ll be able to so this season.”