Interview: Dennis Reagan, CEO Of The Muny In St. Louis
The current CEO of St. Louis’ outdoor theatre, the Muny, began his time at the iconic institution as a trash picker back in 1968, at the age of 16. Next year will be the theatre’s 100th season and Reagan’s 50th year at the Muny. “This time of year is always exciting,” he says. The team is gearing up for opening night of the season, which this year will include productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “The Little Mermaid,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “All Shook Up,” “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” “A Chorus Line” and “Newsies.”
This morning, Reagan walks to a nearby refrigerator and gathers four chilled bottles of water, pulling them from the plastic adjoining them and setting them on a table in the Muny’s conference room, where a large window overlooks the greenery of Forest Park. He has only missed one show in nearly 50 years, and it was for his brother’s wedding. “One night, ever. Not a whole production,” says Kwofe Coleman, the Muny’s director of marketing and communications. Coleman is in his 19th season, and also started at age 16, as an usher.
Reagan nearly missed opening night one year for elbow surgery, but was back at his post mere days afterwards. “That’s a funny story,” he says. “I was having severe pains in my elbow, six days before opening. I went to the orthopedic doctor, who prescribed some medication and told me I’d probably need surgery the following Monday if it didn’t improve in a few days. I said, ‘That’s not going to work, that’s opening night.’ The next Thursday, I said it wasn’t any better, and the doctor asked if I’d had anything to eat that day. It was 11am, and I typically don’t eat breakfast—just black coffee. We did surgery that night, I stayed in the hospital until Sunday and I made it to opening night Monday. Didn’t miss a show.”
“He was out there on opening night in a sling, with one good arm. Actually, he didn’t wear the sling, but he was supposed to,” says Coleman, laughing. “Denny really leads by example. I’m fortunate enough to know him outside of here, and professionally he’s the same way he is as a human being. We all take our cues from the culture, to care about people. He leads by caring about the people here. When your leader cares about your life, you will do anything for that person or institution. He won’t say it, but that’s the answer.”
Keep reading for our conversation with Reagan as he discusses his leadership style and tenure at the Muny that has lasted nearly 50 years.
Tell me about your first experiences with the Muny.
I started here when I was 16 years old. That’s the first payroll record we could find, from 1968. I started here as a trash picker. I didn’t know what that was at the time. They still do it today—the time-honored tradition continues. We’d go into the theatre early in the morning, around 6am, before the sun came up. And we would pick up all the trash from the night before, hose down the theatre and get ready for the next night. That was my first job here. I did that for about three years. Then, I remember I got a promotion—I was the boss of the cleanup crew. Then someone in the office asked me to clean out a closet, and I never went back to the cleanup crew after that. I worked in the office as the runner, the utility player. Whatever they needed, I’d do it. I drove around performers and picked them up at the airport. I drove people like Jim Nabors, Sunny and Cher and Liza Minnelli. Sunny and Cher was an interesting one—their rider insisted I drive them around in a Rolls Royce. I grew up in South St. Louis, and I got to take the car home for one night. It was pretty cool, and I got a lot of strange looks.
What led you to initially take that job?
It was a job. A friend of mine came to me and said, ‘Hey, we need another picker at the Muny.’ I said, ‘I don’t know what that is, but I’ll do it.’ I couldn’t even drive yet. He picked me up, and that was it. The world was a lot different when I started back then. People smoked in the theatre. They smoked everywhere back then. Cigarette butts were everywhere; it was incredible. I remember a guy who smoked an entire pack of cigarettes during one show. It was crazy. We never had to trim our fingernails, because we were on the concrete picking up the butts. But it was a blast. You’d find a $5 bill, or a $10 bill sometimes, and think you were rich. I never considered not doing it.
How did you work your way up to your current position?
I graduated from Bishop DuBourg High School and went on to the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL). That allowed me to continue working here, and that’s how I paid for college. I worked in the payroll department and sometimes as a dresser or stagehand at night. As a dresser, you make sure the actors have their costumes on properly, and you’re there with the correct costume when they need to do quick changes.
After I graduated from college, I did take a break from the Muny. I figured it was time to get a grown-up job. I was a purchasing agent for a company Downtown called The Essmueller Company. It’s not there anymore, but they were a manufacturing company. I did also work that summer as a dresser, so I didn’t break my string of years here. I was a purchasing agent for 18 months, then came back to the Muny in 1976 as the assistant to the general manager at the time. I did that for a couple of years, and then was made assistant general manager in 1978. Then director of facilities and operations. And then, in 1991, I was named president, the position I have today. It’ll be my 26th season as the role I’m in now. I was 39 years old when that first happened, and it was like … whoa! But it’s been so wonderful to work here.
How do you choose the people you work with?
I would say I have a decent eye for picking talent. Kwofe came here as a 16-year-old usher, and I watched him. You could see he was just special. As soon as he graduated from college, I called him to see if he’d be willing to come work here full time, even though I didn’t have a job for him at the time. He said yes. Same thing with Sean Smith, our director of operations who started as an usher, and our house manager.
You look for a personality, a caring. There’s that terrible old saying that nice guys finish last. I have not found that to be true. One of my sayings is—and I say it to young people all the time—is nice guys finish first. Nice is such a simple but important word. To be nice to people, to truly care about them, is what I look for. I want someone around who I want to sit down and hang out with. You can teach people a lot of things. You can teach them development and marketing to some degree. With Kwofe, first we put him in accounting, and then we had an opening in our marketing department, where I immediately moved him to and made him director of marketing. He had no basically no marketing experience when I did that. But he’s one of the smartest people I know. I knew he’d be able to tackle that, and he’s done it brilliantly.
How would you describe your style of leadership?
I find that positive reinforcement is really the way to go, instead of disciplining people—although that does happen sometimes. If you have to get mad, it’s really important that you’ve already established the kind of person you are. If you establish yourself as a good and fair person, that’s how everyone will look at you. So, if you do have to be more rigid, what’s going to bother them the most is that they probably knew they had it coming, because you have been good and fair. My wife Michelle and I raised our children, now 31, 29 and 27 years old, the same way. Two of my three kids grounded themselves at one point when they were growing up, because they said, ‘I screwed up.’ They came up with their own punishments. It’s a crazy thing.
I don’t want to sound boastful. I’m just a steward of this institution. I was given this job, and what I’m supposed to do is make sure that we leave it a little bit better than when we found it. The Muny isn’t me or anyone else. It’s here for the people of St. Louis. It’s for everybody in this community.
How would you say that style of leadership manifests in individual interactions?
I’ll ask, ‘What’s going on? What’s the problem?’ Meaning if someone’s got a problem, let’s fix it.
Sometimes they’ll ask, ‘Can we discuss this later?’ And I’ll say, ‘No, let’s talk about this right now,’ so we can come up with a solution. It’ll likely be a compromise of some sort, but it’s very seldom a solution they can’t live with.
But you’ve also got to listen really closely, because the actual issue might be different than what they’re willing to tell you. Maybe they say it’s about their salary, or something like that—I’m just throwing this out there—but it’s actually about the hours they’re working, or the title they have.
I try to make sure we figure out exactly what the issue is, so we can try to fix it. It’s not always what they’re willing to share with you or what they immediately think it is.
I’ll give you an example: We were negotiating a contract with an actor and we couldn’t get it settled with him. Finally, we said, ‘What if we fly your wife and child in with you to do the show?’ And boom, the deal was done. He didn’t want to ask for that, for whatever reason. But it was clear he didn’t want to leave his family. That was the underlying barrier—the money wasn’t that important. You just have to ask questions.
What was the Muny like when you first worked here?
What’s funny is that so much of it was really the same, and that’s what’s so wonderful. It’s always been generations of St. Louis families enjoying each other’s company and a show. In 1968, when I first started working here, there were people coming with their whole families to see the shows. They were dressed a little differently. The men wore coats and ties, while girls and women had on their nicest dresses. Some even had white gloves on back then. The wardrobe has certainly changed, and the show titles have changed. But what hasn’t changed is that tradition of generations attending the Muny week after week, which is what makes us, in my opinion, very special.
We produce all of our own shows, which a lot of people don’t realize. We don’t present touring shows. From casting to design sets, building costumes, rehearsing, everything—we do the whole thing from start to finish for every show. We can make them as a large as we want, so sometimes we’ll have as many as 80 people on stage. The way we can do shows gives you a chill. When you see 80 people on that stage in unison doing their dance routine and singing “Oklahoma,” you’ll get a chill. It’s wonderful.
What have you learned over your tenure?
Oh, wow—I’m searching for something meaningful to say. It has really been an evolution. I love this institution and what it does for this community. I’ve learned it’s fun to come to work. Really, what you learn is how to treat people, how to make the most of their skills. When you treat someone fairly in a positive way, they’re going to work so much harder for you, because they don’t want you giving them that look—the “you-let-me-down on-that-one” look. They hate it. But it’s also a wonderful thing when you’re high-fiving them and telling them they’re brilliant. I love all that stuff. My feeling is to hire a lot of people smarter than you and let them do their job. Nice guys finish first. At least, I feel like I did.
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