Although homosexuality was celebrated in many cultures in the past, the LGBTQ community in our culture has been kept in the closet for much of modern times. When the gay rights movement took hold in the 1960s, however, this marginalized group began enjoying increasing acceptance.
In the Muny Memories exhibit on display now at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park, it is clear the Missouri Historical Society and The Muny have long been champions of the LGBTQ community, even when perhaps the bulk of society was not on board.
“What is always important for marginalized communities is that they can see themselves onstage, on television, whatever,” says Sharon Smith, curator of civic and personal identity for the Missouri Historical Society. “That is true here. The LGBTQ community found theater to be a safe place, and so that made it important for The Muny to be like every other theater and be a welcoming place for gay actors.”
Although the Muny Memories exhibit doesn’t focus on specific LGBTQ stories, the display is rife with nods to the LGBTQ actors who have been involved with the illustrious theater over the years.
“Unlike other exhibits where I can be very deliberate in pulling out a specific story related to the LGBTQ community, it is a little harder with Muny Memories, only because the theater is one of the places where the LGBTQ community is very visible,” explains Smith. “I looked for productions that were/are gay-themed to highlight and one, in particular, stood out for me. The Muny produced La Cage aux Folles only once. That was in 1986 and starred television personality Peter Marshall as Georges and Tony Award winner Keene Curtis as his partner, Albin. Other productions with a strong gay component, which incidentally also only played The Muny once: Cabaret (1971), The Producers (2008), Spamalot (2013), Billy Elliot (2014), and All Shook Up (2017).”
Smith says the exhibit doesn’t directly address the sexuality of various actors.
“In other exhibits, I looked for specifics so we would be sure we were being inclusive in our storytelling,” she says. “Talking about actors’ sexuality seemed less appropriate in this exhibit. We did, however, be sure to include all types of persons in the Stars Wall. This is my choice of the Top 10 Muny stars over time. I selected men and women, St. Louisans, gay and straight. So, on that wall we have Archie Leach, better known as Cary Grant, and we have St. Louis’s own Ken Page. Also on that wall in a guessing game of ‘Who played The Muny and who didn’t?’ is the answer that Carol Burnett did, and she played opposite Rock Hudson in the 1972 production of I Do! I Do!. Hudson played a straight man, but would contract AIDS in the 1980s and came out when he disclosed his illness publicly. Again, I don’t speak of Hudson’s sexuality, but he is seen.”
Early gay rights activists played a significant role in changing society’s mind about the LGBTQ community, Smith explains.
“In the earlier years, the LGBTQ community was mostly activists, fighting for their rights, or people were closeted, hiding for their lives,” Smith says. “Those activists worked very hard so today most LGBTQ persons are out and free to be themselves. One of the ways that has happened is to show straight people that LGBTQ persons are the same as they are. They might be in your family, they might be your neighbor or your co-worker, they might sit across from you in church, they go to Cardinals games and The Muny, and they want to contribute to society like everyone else.”
The AIDS epidemic and marriage equality were defining moments for this underrepresented group, according to Smith.
“Issues like those have the power to bring the LGBTQ community together to fight for their lives and their rights,” Smith says. “But, it also educates society, making the larger population realize how a community’s rights have been neglected. Issues force education. Equality is important so that everyone has a voice. … While most people feel differently today, not everyone believes there should be equality. So, the struggle must continue.”
In an effort to further the progress of acceptance, the Missouri Historical Society has launched an LGBTQ collecting initiative to gather materials from the community for the collections so those materials can be available for research and future exhibitions. If you have something that may be of interest for the collection, contact Sharon Smith at email@example.com or 314-746-4535.