Coming away with a new favorite song is part of the Muny tradition for thousands of St. Louis families. But some families are taking home more than a catchy tune — they’re also leaving with paychecks.
Five members of the Heet family have worked at the Muny as ushers. Two are still on the job. Alex Heet, 21, is a college student in her fifth summer at the Muny. Her sister, Sarah, 18, is ushering for a third year.
Their dad, Mike Heet, was the first in the family to work as an usher at the Muny. He started at the age of 16 and stayed through his 20s, working summer nights even after beginning his career in franchise management. But unlike Peter Pan, Mike did grow up and start a family, which ended his 14-year Muny run.
“I really enjoyed it. Where else do you get to see the shows for free?” Mike said.
Bow Ties and Bosses
The job has changed some since Mike began ushering. For one thing, there are more usher captains, who oversee other ushers and take care of emergencies. For another, uniforms are more comfortable. Back in 1976, the times called for a dressed-up look.
“Cropped tuxedo jackets — very heavy material with long sleeves — and bow ties,” Mike remembered.
All that fabric and formality became almost unbearable as temperatures climbed up to typical St. Louis-summer highs, and ushers navigated wheelchairs up 30-degree inclines.
“You always had to bring a change of clothes because you were just soaked before the show even started,” Mike said.
Mike’s daughters Alex and Sarah now sport much cooler attire: polo shirts and cotton pants. Sarah’s shirt is greenish-blue like the other ushers. As an usher captain, Alex wears white.
One of Alex’s employees is Sarah. When Sarah’s had a tough night, no one understands like Alex. But Sarah admitted that having her sister as a boss can also be a pain.
“There are times when she can be really annoying and sisterly,” Sarah said. “She’ll give me a job where she doesn’t want to have to be mean to somebody else and say, ‘Go do this, take care of it,’ and I’m like, ‘Fine, I’ll do it.’”
In between Mike Heet and his daughters, two other Heets ushered at The Muny: Matthew and Rachel Heet, the children of Mike’s older brother Jim Jr.
Even though Jim Jr., never worked at The Muny, he was instrumental in launching the long line of Heet ushers. His childhood pal and family friend Denny Reagan was then working his way up to his current position of Muny president and CEO when Mike was first looking for a summer job.
“I’ve known the Heet family since I was 7 or 8 years old,” Reagan said. “Jim and I went to grade school together at Our Lady of Sorrows in South St. Louis.”
One of Jim Jr.’s first dates with his wife Christine was to The Muny’s “Fiddler on the Roof” in the 1970s.
“It was the first time she had gone, I believe, and that’s what got her hooked,” Jim Jr. Said. “She goes all the time now she’s got her whole family going.”
Jim Jr. is the oldest child of Irene and Jim Heet Sr., who raised six children in their South County home. They didn’t go to The Muny much in the early days of starting their family. But back before they had kids, they each went to the Muny with their own parents, beginning in the 1930s.
Irene became a Muny regular when she was in nursing school at St. John’s near Forest Park in the early 1950s. As a student, she often had access to free tickets.
“The most fabulous thing I saw was Pearl Bailey doing ‘Hello, Dolly!” Irene said. “I didn’t think she was ever going to get off the stage that night because she had so many curtain calls and she kept performing — it was just fantastic.”
After her own kids were grown, Irene took her granddaughters to The Muny. When she retired from her job as a credit manager at a local company, her going-away present was orchestra-seat tickets: “That spoiled us; it was really great,” she said.
No one’s seen more shows (or at least partial shows) than the Heet kids who’ve worked at The Muny. But ushering has given the family more than just access to musicals.
Although no one’s ended up working in theater as an adult, they’ve learned critical job skills and life lessons including how to deal with people and the importance of taking responsibility for their actions. Jim Sr. said it’s been an invaluable experience for his family.
“It was something important to them growing up,” Jim Sr. said. “I don’t think any of them would trade their time there for anything.”
Listen to a Pearl Bailey rendition of "Hello, Dolly!"
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL
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