In downtown St. Joseph, Mo., you will find the Café Pony Espresso. This quaint coffee shop is a short distance from the Missouri Theater, an original movie palace built in 1926, which still exhibits the charm of old downtown. There is a door next to the entrance of my familiar coffee shop, but one that I have never entered…until tonight. I’m slowly and cautiously creeping up the steep stairs to the Robidoux Resident Theater rehearsal hall, with the script of “A Streetcar Named Desire” under my arm and a camera bag slung across my body as if I had just rushed from work. I hadn’t. The truth is the camera in its tote holster at my side makes me feel more comfortable in this unknown world of performance arts that I was about to embark into.
A few years ago, after serving as a combat photographer for five years in the Marine Corps, I moved back to St. Joseph to attend a local university. I free-lanced for the local music magazine Tuning Fork. I also started taking photos for the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Both of these opportunities gave me an amazing appreciation for the unique identity and culture of the town. From music, to history, to an array of local events, to performance arts, and specifically the amazing people that have the passion and ambition to conduct this tapestry of art for the enrichment and enjoyment of the community.
There are two things that would attract people to St. Joseph: the glory that once made it the hub of transit into the unknown west, and the arising passionate energy that it’s experiencing now. I love imagining what past lives were being lived in the exact footsteps that I walk and how the decisions which were made a hundred and fifty years ago brought us to where we are today.
The slogan that I’ve seen to describe St. Joseph many times is, “Where the Pony Express started and Jesse James ended.” As clever as that is, I think it limits how St. Joseph should be seen. Let’s put this in perspective. A mere 20 years after Joseph Robidoux founded the town as a fur-trading outpost in 1943 the town had grown by nearly 10,000. Every decade afterwards the population doubled until the early 20th century. This was the town where the quintessential American dream was alive and where thousands of people from the east congregated to take their last breath before they ventured into the unknown and untamed wild of the west.
The railroads of the nation at that time only went as far as St. Joseph. In order to continue communications with California, a 2,000-mile route on horseback, comprised of 80 riders and 100 stations was devised to deliver mail. Imagine the logistics of that endeavor. Isn’t that ingenuity the same substance that we always are told that America is infused with? St. Joe is not only about the Pony Express, it’s about people overcoming struggle and moving forward.
And the list goes on. St. Joseph is the home of Aunt Jemina pancake mix, saltine crackers, Big Chief Tablets and Cherry Mash. It was one of the earliest cities in the nation to have electric streetcars, electric telephone service, and 26-miles of a beautiful parkway system that people still run and ride bikes along to escape the stressful image of urban life.
The attraction to St. Joseph from as far away as Eastern Europe, made this town explode in the early 20th century as a major manufacturing center of the nation. This economic boom launched the creation of some of the most impressive pieces of architectural beauty found in the entire country. An impressive 17 historic districts include over 1700 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
That’s precisely what attracted Jim Pallone and Jeff Keyasko to St. Joe from New York City after 2001. Jim and Jeff both had a successful career working in some of the nicest restaurants in New York where Jim managed and Jeff cooked. However they always wanted to own a Victorian-style house. When they came across St. Joe they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be in the middle of such an architecturally rich city. They are now proud owners of the JC Wyatt House, a pristinely restored Victorian home built in 1891, and have made it into a fine-dining by reservation experience ranked #1 on TripAdvisor.
“It’s an outdoor museum of Victorian architecture”, explained Jeff. “Very few places can you find a Queen Anne next to a Georgian, next to a Victorian. It really is an interesting place.”
“You look at things like the Missouri Theater. How many buildings like that are left in this country,” added Jim. He described discovering this town like “a diamond in the rough” seeing much potential in the reemerging historic district.
Jim and Jeff aren’t the only ones that have passion for the culture of St. Joe. Spend 10-minutes at Café Pony Espresso with a latte and you are bound to run into a local musician heading to practice or community members planning a First Saturday event where bands, artists, street performers and food vendors gather to show off downtown.
Local artist, coffee lover and owner of the organic food market, Goode Food-Delivered, Json Myers studied sculpting at Kansas City Institute of Art. He experienced first-hand the renaissance of the West Bottoms Business District in Kansas City, in the 1990’s. One of the reasons he is excited to be involved in the downtown community of St. Joe is because he sees the same passion here that he saw at the beginning phases of the KC cultural transformation.
It was another person’s passions for theater that inspired me to wander into the “A Streetcar Named Desire” audition with absolutely no experience. Lindsay Prawitz is the service manager for the Robidoux Resident Theater, which puts on a myriad of productions at not only the historic Missouri Theater, but also the Robidoux Landing Playhouse, a smaller dinner theatre venue. Lindsay, having graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a BFA in Theatre Acting and Directing, can’t help but have a charming smile when talking about theater and how the quality of local performance arts has increased in the past few years.
“The most beautiful thing about RRT and what we give to St. Joe, is something that without us, they wouldn’t have,” Lindsay says. “Live theater that their community can be a part of.”
“Instead of artists and productions being brought in from the outside, everything we do is in house.” Lindsay described how the local theater community has such strong camaraderie with everyone involved from beginning to end. She said that it isn’t so much about the performance, but the entire process that is constructed piece-by-piece and cumulates into the actual performance.
Walking up those stairs I felt like an outsider. Sitting in the rehearsal hall on those long wooden benches, surrounded by seasoned performers who took that audition stage with conviction, I felt like a stranger. However, when it was my turn to audition, I was utterly surprised by the welcoming reassurance they showed me. The “community” that Lindsay spoke clicked with me at that moment.
There was a reason all of these people smiled when describing St. Joseph. Whether they are from here, or moved here, they are all excited about what they do for the community. They are happy that people in the community are getting excited with them. They are excited because they feel they are at the beginning creating something special in St. Joseph. And they welcome you along for the ride.