If you know much about Denny Reagan, president and CEO of The Muny, then you may know the well-told story of how he started at the bottom and worked his way to the top. As a teenager Reagan got his start picking up trash after shows. As Bill Murray in Caddyshack might put it, “It’s a Cinderella story…Denny Reagan, the kid from South St. Louis…the rest is history.”
The part of the story you probably never heard until now is that Denny Reagan says he still picks up the trash at The Muny! “I’m just a compulsive guy so I have to go out there and do it. It’s pretty weird, actually.” Each year, after the last show, Reagan picks up trash. He explains that it keeps him in touch with his Muny roots. “It’s so corny, so trite, some people will say that’s bull. That what I’d say if I read it, but it’s true!”
This is a milestone year for Reagan. Twenty seasons ago, in 1991, he was named president and CEO of one of our region’s most cherished civic treasures. For many of us, it just wouldn’t be summer in St. Louis without strolling through Forest Park, past the bandstand, settling in among that vast sea of theater seats and waiting in anticipation for the orchestra to begin the overture. Just after those giant fans stop whirring, the music starts, the lights come up and the show begins. It’s another night of Muny magic under the stars.
The tradition that has endured for generations is never lost on Reagan. “We still have grandmothers taking their grandkids to the show. We still have teens coming here for date night. We still have parents bringing young kids to the children’s show and then those parents and kids come back later in life and become season ticket holders.”
Even though he started as a ‘picker’ in 1968, Reagan himself didn’t experience the theater-going tradition of The Muny until a few years later. “I was a South Side kid—we played baseball in the summer,” he says. “I didn’t actually see a show until about 1971. I brought a girlfriend and wore a purple leisure suit.” He says he doesn’t even remember the show, only the spilled popcorn and food wrappers that were piling up on the ground, and thinking about the work that would be waiting for him and the rest of the clean-up crew the next morning. At some point though, it all started to sink in: He realized that The Muny was—and is—a very special place.
Reagan jumped at opportunities to move up the ranks (as stagehand, doorman, costume dresser, payroll clerk—even a driver for the stars) while working on his college degree at University of Missouri-St. Louis. He remembers driving Sonny and Cher around town in a Rolls-Royce; and one night, driving and escorting Liza Minelli to an elite party in her honor.
These days, Reagan spends his time making sure that The Muny maintains the standards that make it a beloved St. Louis institution. He has to make it all work without the help of tax dollars. That’s right—The Muny is not taxpayer-funded, it doesn’t even accept grants from the various arts foundations, instead, it runs on ticket sales, concessions and private donations. You might think that with the deluge of entertainment options and ever-consuming e-diversions, something as old-fashioned as The Muny would be on the decline, but it’s not: It sells about 30,000 season tickets a year. With seating for 11,000 people, it’s the largest outdoor venue dedicated strictly to musical theater in America.
“Everybody in the business knows about The Muny,” Reagan beams. “No one—I mean, no one—would think about producing seven shows in eight weeks. Most theaters take a minimum of two to three weeks to rehearse a show.”
Denny Reagan continues to move The Muny forward, getting newer shows like Legally Blonde on the schedule as soon as the performance rights become available. At the same time, he keeps classic shows like Singin’ in the Rain alive and well. Each week, you’ll see him standing just off stage making sure everything is working just as it should. “It makes me really proud to look out there on any evening in the summer, knowing that I’ve played some small part in ensuring that many people have an enjoyable evening.”
For 20 years, Reagan has made it happen. If you want to make it big in showbiz, he sets a pretty good example to follow. Just remember, though, you still have to clean up the trash. LN