I was lucky enough to take a tour of about ten historic homes in St. Louis in the Lafayette Square neighborhood, an entire block filled with grand old homes like the ones from Meet Me in St. Louis. I thought I had died and gone to house heaven!
If you’re a long-time reader of my blog, you may remember that my original header was a photo I took there. Watching this movie is like going back in time and seeing how that neighborhood must have looked like in its heyday.
The story takes place at the turn of the century in St. Louis, Missouri, when the World’s Fair was right around the corner (1904). The Smith family lived in this grand Second Empire Victorian home on 5135 Kensington Avenue with their five children (and Grandpa!).
Kensington Avenue, lined with beautiful, stately homes, was constructed at great cost by MGM for the movie. Known as “St. Louis Street,” it can also be seen in films like Cheaper by the Dozen. Here’s how it looked in that movie:
Judy Garland was 21 years old when she played Esther Smith. She initially turned down the role because she was tired of playing the ingenue. She was finally talked into it by the screenwriter, Irving Brecher, who was a friend of hers.
The movie changed her life because she met and married the director, Vincente Minnelli. (His real name: Lester.)
Rose Smith was played by newcomer Lucille Bremer, who only spent four years in Hollywood before retiring from show business to start a family.
A lot of the action takes place around this beautiful staircase in the entry:
At the end of the movie, when they are packing up their belongings to move to New York, we get this view of the staircase looking kind of bleak and sad with the paintings removed:
The movie was based on Sally Benson’s collection of short stories for The New Yorker. Benson, whose maiden name was Smith, wrote about her life on Kensington Avenue where her family lived from 1891-1910. She helped the filmmakers get all of the period details right, from the clothes to the sets.
Benson’s home in St. Louis was demolished in 1994 after standing empty for years. Here’s a sketch of what it looked like when she lived there:
Here’s where it used to stand, on what is now an empty lot (sent to me by Holly):
Here is a house that’s still standing that just sold on the real Kensington Avenue, a few doors down from where Benson lived. It was built in 1903, and you can see similarities to the illustration above (asking price in 2009: only $24,000):
Back to the movie, which is so much prettier than reality…
In this scene, the family gathers to discuss the move to New York City. The dad, played by Leon Ames, has decided not to take the job in New York after all because he realizes how important home is to his family.
In reality, Sally Benson’s dad had no such revelation, and her family did move to New York, leaving their beloved Kensington Avenue house behind. They didn’t return for the World’s Fair.
A sequel called Meet Me in Manhattan was talked about, but it never came about.
Rose gets a long-distance phone call during dinner, which is a big deal (I love how they shouted into the phone at each other). The family listens in:
The movie’s costume designer reportedly created many of the movies costumes right out of the Sears & Roebuck catalog from the time period.
A glimpse of the back hall that leads to the kitchen:
The movie took 5 months to shoot, from December 1943-April 1944.
“Nowadays,” Esther Smith says in the film, “you can’t get a maid for less than $12 a month!”
I read that pots and pans were usually stored on open shelves because they were greasy. Closed cabinets would attract mice and other critters.
The house as it looked at Christmas time (the striped awnings are gone):
A scene was cut that had taken place inside the master bedroom. Unfortunately, the film they took no longer exists.
The bathroom was only in the movie for less than a minute, but it wowed me with that window!
Sally Benson, the author of the stories that the movie was based on, was called “Tootie” as a child. In real life, Tootie’s older sister Agnes pulled most of the pranks attributed to Tootie in the film.
This scene between Esther and Rose primping at the vanity mirror was the first one Minnelli shot:
Instead of trick-or-treating for candy, the kids in those days carried bags of flour to the homes of their “enemies.” Back then, if you hit someone with flour on Halloween night, you could say that you “killed them.” Grandpa advises Tootie to get the flour wet first so it’ll stick.
The house in warmer weather, when the roses are blooming:
St Louis Street, the MGM back lot where the streets were lined with Victorian homes built for Meet Me in St. Louis, is now sadly gone. Derek sent me a photo of how the Meet Me in St. Louis house looked in 1970, just before it was demolished:
In 1970, MGM auctioned off most of its property, including St. Louis Street. Lot 3 was 80 acres with a lake, where they filmed this and more MGM features. Now it’s reportedly lined with new condos instead. At least we can still revisit the glory days of Kensington Avenue in the movie!