The Urban League and the Municipal Theatre Association, 1931-36
Although business correspondence rarely transcends a tone of dry formality, a close reading often reveals the personal motivations and frustrations of the correspondents. Letters exchanged between 1931 and 1936 by John T. Clark, Executive Secretary of the St. Louis Urban League, and Paul J. Wielandy, Chairman of the Welfare Committee of the Municipal Theater Association and co-owner of the Blackwell-Wielandy Book and Stationery Company, record a series of insistent requests and hedging replies that never seemed to solve the persistent problem of discriminatory seating at one of St. Louis’s most important music venues.1
Voucher for Welfare Committee tickets presented to John T. Clark, Urban League of St. Louis, 1930.
The Municipal Theatre Association of St. Louis, better known as the Muny, has presented summer musical theater productions at its enormous Forest Park amphitheatre since 1919. The municipal facility has long aspired to make live performances available to all St. Louisans. In 2017, the Muny’s Community Access program has as its mission “to make musical theatre accessible to all members of the community, regardless of age, ability status or economic status by partnering with community service organizations and providing free seats at every show.”2 In earlier years, the Muny’s Welfare Committee served a similar function. In 1958, for example, the Welfare Committee distributed 2000 tickets among 110 “Welfare Organizations” every week during the Muny season.3 The Urban League’s records reveal that as early as 1928 the League was given free tickets for distribution to what the Welfare Committee called “the music-loving worthy poor, who are financially unable to buy their own tickets.”4
Left: Letter from Paul J. Wielandy to John T. Clark, May 9, 1931.
Right: Letter from John T. Clark to Paul J. Wielandy, April 17, 1931. Although the Urban League appreciated the opportunity to direct Muny tickets to those African American St. Louisans who could not afford them, the organization was repeatedly frustrated by the assignment of seats. The earliest letter on the subject in the Urban League collection was written by Clark to Wielandy in 1931. Clark thanked the committee chair for the 25 tickets allocated to the Urban League but requested “that the seats given the League not be so consistently the fartherest from the stage and the furtherest to the side.” He observed that “other groups, even other colored groups,” sometimes received good seats, while the Urban League was reliably seated “behind the inmates from the City Sanitarium or behind large groups of young children from some Neighborhood House.” Clark did not blame Wielandy or his committee, but rather “the personal bias of those who have charge of distributing tickets.”5 Wielandy responded sympathetically while shirking responsibility, explaining that “the selection of the seats is entirely in the hands of the Ticket Office, over which we have no jurisdiction. However, we feel confident there is no one connected with the Municipal Theatre Association who would discriminate against any Welfare Organization, and we shall bring this matter to the attention of the Ticket Office, and hope in the future you will have no reason to register any complaint.”6
A year later, however, Clark found it necessary to write to Wielandy again to report that “the location of tickets, given out by the man having charge of these seats, was in no way improved during the whole of last season.” Clark insisted that the conduct of black ticketholders was beyond reproach, asserting that while “we thoroughly realize that you will have individuals who will complain against the presence of Negroes anywhere…we offer a continuous record of quiet, dignified appreciation on the part of Negroes as evidence that there is no need for our group occupying the most unfavorable seats at each of these performances.” He asked that Wielandy “instruct your ticket representative to give out tickets without exercising any of his personal opinions since our seats are all together wherever they are located.”7 Wielandy’s response, if any, is not preserved in the archive.
In 1936, Clark wrote Wielandy once again “to relay…a criticism which Miss Walker, who has been the League representative in charge of our tickets for the last seven years, has made. She resents the fact that the person in ticket office who distributes these tickets insists upon his prerogative to distribute the tickets on a basis of race.” Supposedly, the best tickets were to be given to whomever arrived first at the box office, but Miss Walker had noted that all black organizations were given seats in a single block “along the sides” regardless of their place in the line. Clark pointedly noted that he had already raised this issue with Wielandy.8 A letter that Clark sent on the same day to Josephine Briscoe of the St. Louis Colored Orphan Home suggests that he was interested in organizing “representative groups” to protest the issue together.9 Wielandy responded, in language that by then Clark probably found unpersuasive, that “there should be no discrimination as to race or creed and I shall refer this part of your letter to the box office for their attention. I am sorry that Miss Walker has found grounds to register this complaint.”10 Left: Letter from John T. Clark to Paul J. Wielandy, April 10, 1936.
Center: Letter from John T. Clark to Josephine Briscoe, April 10, 1936.
Right: Letter from Paul J. Wielandy to John T. Clark, April 13, 1936.
“Constitution and By-Laws of the Municipal Theatre Association of St. Louis,” September 1942. It is unclear when the Muny stopped assigning segregated Welfare Committee seats to African Americans, as the policy was never overtly acknowledged to begin with. The archives reveal, however, more official manifestations of racism at the Muny during the mid twentieth century. As late as 1956, the by-laws of the Municipal Theatre Association specified that membership in the Association was limited to “any white person of good moral character, living or doing business in the City of St. Louis, who is a subscriber to the Guaranty Fund.”11 The Muny did not begin employing African American ushers until 1959, a policy change forced in large part by Urban League activism.12 Although its promoters touted the Muny as a cultural resource for all St. Louisans, for African Americans this ideal was far from realized.