Arts & Culture | St. Louis Public Radio

Arts & Culture

Joshua Phelps

Bike retailers around the St. Louis region have reduced capacity for in-person visits due to the COVID-19 crisis. But even with less foot traffic, some shops are seeing an uptick in sales. 

According to Big Shark Bicycle Company owner Mike Weiss, the Richmond Heights location has gone from an average of 60 sales per week to nearly 140 a week since about mid-March. 

Eric Strand on the trail
Eric Strand

Longtime St. Louisan Eric Strand has worked in the hospitality industry for nearly 40 years, doing many different jobs before becoming the chief operating officer for Drury Hotels. And when the COVID-19 crisis left many frontline hospitality workers in the lurch, Strand wanted to do something to help them out.

Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio

Church bells will be ringing on Sunday more than usual in communities throughout Missouri.

Several faith groups have called on churches to ring their bells for two minutes at noon to recognize essential workers and memorialize those who have died of COVID-19.

The Rev. Deon Johnson, bishop-elect of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, said that in addition to prayer, ringing bells is one way he hopes people can show their support for people in their own communities. 

Andrea Purnell will host the event from an otherwise empty Powell Hall. [5/17/20]
Regional Arts Commission

When was the last time you saw the St. Louis metro’s most prestigious arts organizations all sharing the same bill? If you can’t remember, you may want to tune in Sunday. 

That evening, more than a dozen local organizations including the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Muny and Repertory Theatre St. Louis will perform a telethon-style benefit concert under some very unusual circumstances — not limited to the event’s host, actress Andrea Purnell, performing her role from a near-empty Powell Hall. Other participants stitched together their pieces virtually, editing submissions by individual performers to create ensemble pieces. 

Tents at the encampment off Market Street, where about 50 unhoused individuals have lived for weeks. 5/1/20
File photo | Lindsay Toler | St. Louis Public Radio

An online concert to benefit artists and communities affected by the coronavirus around the world will also raise money for Tent Mission STL, which helps homeless people.

Justice Beats will feature performances by 14 musicians, poets and DJs from the U.S. and other countries, all performing from their homes. 

The livestreamed performances will benefit advocacy groups and causes across the globe, including New York City, Palestine, Miami and St. Louis, and will feature local artists from each region. St. Louis-based artists scheduled to perform include poet and rapper Tef Poe, DJ Agile One and poet Pacia Elaine.

Scouts Demonstrate Chess Knowledge: An Online Journey

May 28, 2020
St. Louis Chess Instructor Dan Todd sits down with a scout during the Cairns Cup rest day last year to review chess merit badge requirements.
Austin Fuller | St. Louis Chess Club

There are more than 135 merits badges that members of Scouts BSA can earn. And of those, the chess merit badge has quickly become one of the most, with more than 170,000 scouts earning the badge since it was introduced in September 2011.

The St. Louis Chess Club hosts six intensive workshops every year, and since 2015 has awarded over 1,000 chess merit badges to scouts. Scouts learn about the scope of chess in the world today, find resources to improve their game and find out how they can participate in chess competitions, classes and activities.

But what happens when the St. Louis Chess Club is forced to close its doors to scouts?

Rev. Darryl Gray distributes masks to St. Louis City churches on May 26, 2020.
Rev. Darryl Gray

As the region slowly returns to some semblance of normal, many churches are preparing to reopen in June.

In an effort to keep congregations healthy, the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition, the Baptist Minister’s Union, and 24:1 Clergy Coalition are distributing more than 125,000 masks to St. Louis city and County churches that plan to resume services next month.

The Rev. Darryl Gray, the political advisor for the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition, said the groups have been distributing masks since Tuesday, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. More than 150 churches throughout the region showed up to claim masks.

Online streaming is not a simple solution for theater makers devoted to the community formed by people gathered for an event in the same place. Metro Theater Company is experimenting with ways to make it work.  [5/27/20]
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio

When coronavirus-related restrictions went into effect in St. Louis and St. Louis County in March, they took a sledgehammer to Metro Theater Company’s immediate plans. 

With school districts closed, the company called off its planned residencies in three school buildings. Company leaders pushed its May gala to next fall. Its usual fall tour of schools seemed imperilled. And coronavirus complications make it hard to sell tickets to an October show at the Grandel Theatre. 

Troupe members turned to the internet as a way to keep connecting with audiences. But they say their artform is based on building community among people gathered in the same space at the same time. 

Many aren’t sure if that sense of community will translate to a computer screen. But they’re giving it a shot. 

A Surge In Online Chess Fans Leads To A Game-Changing Tournament

May 26, 2020
Clutch Chess Tournament Participants, GM Leinier Dominguez playing GM Fabiano Caruana in 2019 Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz
Crystal Fuller | St. Louis Chess Club

With the world of online chess suddenly experiencing a boom in viewership during the coronavirus lockdown, organizers from the St. Louis Chess Club are rushing to grab a piece of the increased audience with a brand-new tournament format that may upend the staid tradition for which the game is known. The idea, called Clutch Chess, promises to attract new fans who would normally be watching baseball or basketball but instead are now gravitating to online chess tournaments in record numbers.

Flags mark veterans graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery on a past Memorial Day.

Memorial Day this year will be a time of recognizing all who are serving or have served on the front lines, even if observing the day will take place at a distance.

Scott Air Force Base will honor health care workers with a flyover on Monday. 

The 932nd Airlift Wing will fly over six hospitals in the region, including Belleville Memorial Hospital, Barnes-Jewish Hospital, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Memorial East Hospital, St. Joseph’s Hospital and the VA Medical Center at Jefferson Barracks.

An employee at the Wapelhorst Aquatic Center in St. Charles sanitizes waterslide inner tubes between uses on Saturday. 05/23/20
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

Instead of diving headlong into the summer pool season, several swimming facilities in the St. Louis area are merely dipping a toe and opening with extra restrictions because of the pandemic. 

More still are sitting out entirely for Memorial Day weekend, which traditionally marks the opening of swimming pools in the region. And some pools could remain empty for the rest of the summer. 

Brian McKinley, left, and Drummond Crenshaw rehearse a scene from 'Spell #7' at the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre at Washington University.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Leaders at fewer than half the arts organizations in the St. Louis area say they are confident their organizations will survive the impact of COVID-19. 

That uncertainty is revealed in a survey by the national advocacy group Americans for the Arts. 

Only 38 of 79 arts organization leaders in St. Louis and in St. Louis, St. Charles, Franklin and Jefferson counties who responded reported that they will likely survive the economic disruptions of the pandemic. Nationwide, 58% of arts organizations who responded to the survey expressed confidence.

St. Louis-area arts organizations lost more than $2.5 million during the coronavirus crisis, according to the survey’s calculations.

Barr branch library
File photo | Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Mere months ago, the two largest library systems in the St. Louis region kicked off the year 2020 with a major announcement: that their libraries, moving forward, were officially fine-free.

“We’re not about fines,” St. Louis Public Library’s CEO Waller McGuire said at the time. “We’re not about rules. We’re about helping people learn. Helping people enjoy themselves. Helping people gain access to information, which is vital to their lives.”

Weeks later, the change proved to be an unusually prescient one. As both the city and county library facilities closed their doors indefinitely amid the COVID-19 shutdown, both systems were quick to assure patrons that they needn’t worry about returning overdue items during the crisis.

Vikki Siddell (bottom right corner) on St. Charles performed in from of the "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" cast for the live singing contest: "Kimmy vs. the Music: A Live Singing Contest That's Live."

These days, Zoom calls are more likely to inspire grousing than gratitude. Who wants to make uncomfortable eye contact with their boss or professor — and themselves? But Vikki Siddell of St. Charles recently joined a very different Zoom call, one where she got to talk — and perform — in front of celebrities including Daniel Radcliffe, Tina Fey and St. Louis’ own Ellie Kemper. 

The occasion was a live singing contest: “Kimmy vs. the Music: A Live Singing Contest That's Live.” It celebrated the launch of the new interactive Netflix special "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. the Reverend.” During the YouTube stream, the cast and creators raised awareness and funds for Crisis Text Line, which provides 24/7 mental health support to people in crisis.

May 20, 2020 John O'Leary
Courtesy of John O'Leary

As a 9-year-old, John O’Leary nearly died. He was playing in his garage in St. Louis when he accidentally set off an explosion. He was left with third-degree burns covering his entire body — and even had to have his fingers amputated.

O’Leary recounted the story of his near-death and ultimate survival in his book “On Fire,” which became a national bestseller. And now he’s back with another book: “In Awe: Rediscover Your Childlike Wonder to Unleash Inspiration, Meaning, and Joy.” 

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, O’Leary explained his thesis: that we start life with all the right tools for happiness, only to have childlike senses such as “wonder” and “expectancy” drilled out of us. 

After closing during Illinois' COVID-19 response, the Skyview Drive-In in Belleville reopened for the weekend of May 8-9 with two classic double-features.
Brent Jones | St. Louis Public Radio

BELLEVILLE — Drive-in movie theaters have become a nostalgic throwback.

But in the midst of this global pandemic, the built-in social distancing of watching a movie from your car is one of the few ways people can enjoy entertainment outside their homes.

Belleville’s Skyview Drive-In, the region’s only outdoor movie theater, reopened on May 8, and cars were lined up at the gate two hours before the box office even opened. Opening weekend featured fan favorites “The Goonies” and “Beetlejuice” on one screen and “Grease” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” over on the second.

The mysterious Fiddle Assassin has been playing music on the streets of Alton during the pandemic.
Courtesy of the Fiddle Assassin

A masked violinist has been making music while strolling the streets of Alton. Local rumor has it that she last played during the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic and that she lives on an island in the Mississippi River.

She calls herself the Fiddle Assassin and claims her only enemy is the coronavirus.

“[I’m] trying to assassinate these bad vibes,” she said Tuesday on St. Louis on the Air.

The Fiddle Assassin has been playing an electric violin for several weeks, walking through downtown Alton and playing on street corners with a tiny, battery-powered amplifier attached to her hip.

Members of Big Muddy Dance Company are seen in a promotional image for the Arts United STL benefit concert. [5/17/20]
Opera Theatre of St. Louis

Performers from across the creative spectrum in St. Louis will hold a telethon-style benefit concert to help artists who have suffered a financial blow during the coronavirus crisis.

Organizers hope Arts United STL will raise $250,000 from 1,000 individual contributors. Funds raised during the May 31 concert will support the Regional Arts Commission’s Artist Relief Fund for creative professionals who lost work because of cancellations.

RAC established the fund in late March and has already run through its initial pot of about $140,000. It has closed applications, pending additional fundraising.

St. Louis-native Dajae Williams is a quality engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Los Angeles, California.
Dajae Williams

Dajae Williams boasts that she’s “the dopest person to ever work at NASA.” 

A quality engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Los Angeles, Williams is also one of the youngest people to work at the research facility. The St. Louis native started her career at NASA at such a young age through the company’s Early Career Initiative

She said the program allows engineers to kick off their profession without the pressure of being “geniuses” already. Not only is she one of the youngest people there, but she’s one of the few women of color. That sets her apart in some big ways. 

Dr. Mahrukh Khan (far left) and Malik Sims (far right) volunteering at the free, mobile COVID-19 testing spot in north Ferguson.
Provided by Malik Sims

Muslims observing Ramadan are now halfway into the holy month marked by daily fasting, increased religious observance, alms giving and self-reflection. Leading up to the month, which started April 24, the coronavirus dampened the spirits of many looking forward to all the festivities people usually have planned to help keep the momentum going throughout this period.

Pokey LaFarge's concerts this weekend at Off Broadway were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. LaFarge is now out with his eighth studio album. | 5/14/20
Larry Niehues

Musician Pokey LaFarge was set to perform two shows this weekend at Off Broadway. But the coronavirus pandemic has put a stop to concerts, plays and sporting events.

“I’m making the best of it,” LaFarge said on St. Louis on the Air. “You wish you could do more. You wish you could help people. I wish people weren’t suffering.”

LaFarge, whose real name is Andrew Heissler, grew up in central Illinois and made St. Louis his home in 2008. It was in the Gateway City that he first teamed up with musicians Ryan Koenig, Joey Glynn and Adam Hoskins — forming Pokey LaFarge & the South City Three.

Chris Hansen of Kranzberg Arts Foundation stands on the stage of The Grandel Theatre.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

More than half of people who frequently visit performing arts venues operated by the Kranzberg Arts Foundation said they'll feel comfortable returning once there is a COVID-19 vaccine, according to a recent survey.

The foundation created the survey to gauge when its patrons would be comfortable returning. The organization, which operates the Kranzberg, .ZACK, the Dark Room and other spaces, sent the survey out last week and posted it to social media, receiving 915 responses.

The Hyatt Regency in downtown St. Louis sits dormant, as travel restrictions and an economic downturn related to the coronavirus pandemic wreak havoc on the tourism industry. Funds from local occupancy taxes fund Regional Arts Commission [5/10/20]
Jeremy D. Goodwin | St. Louis Public Radio

More than 100 St. Louis-area arts organizations already struggling with the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic are about to lose a chunk of their grant funding.

Regional Arts Commission leaders have alerted organizations to expect that grants it awards in its upcoming 2020-2021 cycle will be reduced by at least 60% from typical levels, according to board chair Mont Levy. 

Previously announced grants that were due to be paid after June 30 will also be reduced.

Joanna Serenko sings the Bill Withers classic "Lean on Me" in her Kirkwood-home backyard during the Top 9 Performances on The Voice singing competition.

Around this time last year, Joanna Serenko won the St. Louis Teen Talent Competition at the Fabulous Fox Theatre. This year, she’s using her musical talents to win the hearts of a much larger audience. 

The 19-year-old Kirkwood native is representing St. Louis on NBC’s “The Voice” singing competition — and she’s made it to the top nine, having wowed viewers and the four celebrity coaches alike: Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, John Legend and Blake Shelton. 

But with that comes a series of complications. Like all of America, the TV show’s plans were upended by the coronavirus. Rather than go into its live portion in April as planned, the show went on hiatus. 

Alison Frank Johnson | Provided by the publisher

Walter Johnson’s new book reframes American history so that St. Louis sits at the center. No more looking at the nation as if it’s that New Yorker cartoon where everything important happened in New York City or Los Angeles, and the vast middle was mere flyover country. In Johnson’s telling, the St. Louis story is the American story — and it’s a messy, often ugly, one.

The book is titled “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States.” Discussing it on St. Louis on the Air, Johnson explained that he came to the topic almost by accident. 

The Winthrop Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, Johnson had written two well-regarded books on slavery in 19th-century America. Then he found himself at Washington University giving a keynote address in October 2014, two months after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. His visit coincided with a “Weekend of Resistance” — and plunged the historian, and Missouri native, into a far more recent history.   

A congregant pulls up a chair to St. Francis of Assisi's drive-thru confessional on May 11, 2020. Father Anthony Yates and George Staley take turns manning the window three days a week, to provide spiritual solace for parishioners during the pandemic.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

The Confession window at St. Francis of Assisi doesn’t look all that different from a fast food drive-thru, except for a tiny sign taped to a traffic cone that reads “The Priest Is In.”

The Archdiocese of St. Louis halted most in-person services in March, as part of an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Soon after, priests at St. Francis of Assisi in Oakville devised a creative way to stay connected with parishioners: a drive-thru Confession window. 

Curatorial assistant Ian Darnell carefully removes a trans pride flag from storage. February 21, 2020.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated May 11 with coronavirus-related schedule delays

The Missouri History Museum’s in-person shows have been delayed due to coronavirus. People still interested in learning more about St. Louis’ LGBTQ history can attend a live online event at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

The event will be held over a Zoom video conference and will cover key moments in the region’s LGBTQ history. The event also will discuss the Gateway to Pride collection, which is collecting donations for a large exhibit.

Provided | Monica Holmes

The last living child of a St. Louis couple who broke residential segregation barriers has died. Chatlee Williams died last Wednesday at the age of 88. 

Her parents, J.D. and Ethel Shelley, made history when they brought their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court’s decision put an end to legalized residential segregation in 1948.

Monica Holmes, Williams’ granddaughter, said her grandmother always took pride in the historical legacy her parents left behind.

May 7, 2020 Geoffrey Soyiantet
Courtesy of Geoffrey Soyiantet

In Swahili, the word “vitendo” means action. And taking action is what Geoffrey Soyiantet had in mind when he founded Vitendo4Africa in St. Louis 10 years ago: action to help connect and empower African immigrants in Missouri, action to preserve their culture.

A native of Kenya, Soyiantet moved to St. Louis 16 years ago after graduating from college in Nairobi. Now he works full time as Vitendo4Africa’s executive director, seeking to provide the support and community he wishes he had been able to find as a newcomer to the Midwest.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Soyiantet explained that he initially struggled. “It was a big challenge,” he said. Even language was a barrier, as Soyiantet was proficient in English, but had learned to speak in the British way.   

May 6, 2020 Yaqui's Covid Days
Nate Burrell | Courtesy of the photographer

For more than 10 years, Nate Burrell has trained his camera lens on musicians. The St. Louis-based photographer has produced indelible concert images and also shot album art for an array of rising stars in the scene, including Pokey LaFarge and Kevin Bowers.

But last month, with the coronavirus shutting bars and music venues, Burrell turned his eye to a different subject. Captured in a two-week dash around the city, his “Covid Days” project shows the city’s residents outside shuttered businesses or closed-up offices, their faces masked.