STL 150
10:08 pm
Wed July 2, 2014

Forget About The 250th Birthday. Historical Photos Show St. Louis Celebrating Its 150th

Forest Park is expecting to have just under 50,000 visitors this July 4th weekend for Fair St. Louis. Officials and St. Louisans have been worried about crowds, parking and congestion. But 100 years ago, the park saw much bigger crowds for the city's 150th birthday celebration. Perhaps the planners of Fair St. Louis can learn a lot from the Pageant and Masque St. Louis held for its sesquicentennial birthday. 

Architectural historian Michael Allen answered my questions about the party St. Louis threw 100 years ago. 

Allen explained that the celebration was gigantic. The cast for the show consisted of about 7,500 people.

What did the stage look like?

"The Grand Basin was covered over with temporary platforms for the stage. On the stage were gigantic stage sets the size of multiple city blocks with big groups of people coming to the stage to depict famous events. The first mayor of St. Louis, William Carr Lane, was depicted with actual gunfire. Also, they dropped out part of the platform and used the water in the basin to recreate everything from flatboats to steamboats. At one point, there was a chorus of male singers on a flatboat arriving at the Port of St. Louis. And the actors were not only rowing the boat, but singing the choral score at the same time."

Can you describe the crowd?

"Really, what photos show the most are the giant crowds of St. Louisans who came to see [the performance]. So, every picture taken from the back shows they had 54,000 seats on Art Hill that were full. Nobody knew how big it would grow or how many people it would attract for the four nights that it ran here on Art Hill. One thing noted after the Pageant and Masque was how quiet people were. Fifty-four thousand people showed up, but they paid attention. Visitors wouldn't have been able to hear very much if they were all talking; they could not afford 7,500 microphones. So, [they had] really great, active listening and attentiveness. Something I don't know crowds today could pull off."

What is a pageant and masque?

"A pageant is traditionally a historical play that depicts some narrative with a plot. A masque is simply a theatrical in which actors would wear masks. Today, we might associate this type of entertainment with the Municipal Opera (aka the Muny). That wouldn't be an accident, because actually the Pageant and Masque inspired a group of theatrical producer, actors, musicians to start the Municipal Opera. This beloved institution still brings thousands of people together today."

So many things sprinkled out of this!

"Right, the Pageant and Masque is one of the most important things that happened in St. Louis that nobody knows about anymore. It's not part of the story we get handed down about St. Louis. Why would someone know about this? There's no plaque. There's no marker. The Pageant and Masque is this singular event that vanished as quickly and mysteriously as it arose in the first place."

(The above Q&A was edited for length and clarity.)

Follow Jess Jiang on Twitter: @JiangJess