The City Museum Puts Its Best Foot Forward

Posted by Gail King on 04/26/2000

I trooped through City Museum here recently, along with 80 preschoolers from Normandy Early Childhood Center. The children were looking for fun; I was looking for shoes, and we all came away happy.

I had my doubts. City Museum is bizarre and trashy, nirvana for St. Louis flotsam and jetsam. Had I not been curious about a special exhibit called "The Really Big Shoe Show," I would not have deigned to enter. Established three years ago by Bob and Gail Cassilly in the old International Shoe warehouse, the place has a hippopotamus on the roof (Bob Cassilly sculpts huge animals for zoos and parks), a school bus hanging out a 10th-floor window and, for landscaping, a castle-in-progress, a parked crane that is a bridge-to-be and an 18-foot-tall shoe. Inside was even more fun.

To get to the shoes on the third floor I took a circumlocutional route, past a slide made from a conveyor belt and around a great fish tank filled with gar, catfish and carp. A sign on the tank reads "I used to be an I-Beam" and explains that the beams holding the tank came from the Polar Wave Ice Building on Vandevender and Shaw, torn down in 1995. Then, on through tunnels made of old leather-tanning barrels, past a small cafe with lizard columns made from an astonishing collection of trash, to the second floor where the shoelace factory workers were on break. (Or vacation -- whatever. The machines stood unused.)

Up on the third floor, at "The Really Big Shoe Show," I caught up with the preschoolers. The "Shoe Store" is a few steps from the entrance to a child-size train ride where the children stood in amazing (but not silent) order waiting for their turns. The 1950s shoes displayed in the store window included a pair of purple pumps with rhinestone-bordered medallions that I would have sold my soul for had they been in the window of Simon's Shoe Store in Henderson, Ky., in 1955.

The "store" is stocked with nostalgia and history. Shoebox labels offer shoe facts: Up until 1750, when a Welshman opened the first modern shoe factory in Lynn, Mass., shoemakers made shoes to fit individual feet; the average person walks 15,000 steps a day; American women spend $15 billion annually for shoes; women buy an average of six pairs a year, and men buy three pairs. The store also includes memorabilia from the 1940s and '50s, when as many as 18,500 people worked in 150 shoe-related factories in St. Louis. Of that proud contingent only Brown Shoe Company, which serves as the corporate sponsor of the show, remains in town.

International Shoe once displayed 1,200 shoes in a museum in this building, but after the factory closed in 1991 the shoes were given away to, of all places, the Boonville, Mo., chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. And so a good many shoes here have come back to roost, courtesy of the DAR.

"Amazing Shoes, A-Z" begins with Around the World (fur shoes from Finland and wooden shoes from China) and ends with Zippered Boots. The C for Clown shoes are on loan from Robleigh Majors, a museum employee, who clowns when he is not driving the children's train. E for Enormous encompasses a horseshoe from an Anheuser-Busch Clydesdale as well as two size-37 shoes worn by Robert Wadlow, whose 8-foot, 8 1/2-inch height made him famous as the Alton Giant. K for Kids commemorates Keds sneakers which, invented nearly a century ago, mark the beginning of shoes designed especially for children.

As I moved from M for Madonna to R for Red, the preschoolers discovered the Below The Knee Theatre. Shrieks in disharmony with the piped-in tune "These Boots Were Made for Walking" enticed me around the corner to find a reverse-puppet stage (the curtains reveal only the knees on down) with sets of children sashaying across the stage in a staggering variety of giant shoes: boxing-glove shoes, Mary Janes, fur shoes, leather shoes, ballet shoes, yellow vinyl boots and a pair of jewel-bedecked, chartreuse-velvet jester shoes that set off a foot-stomping, show-stopping tug of war between two preschoolers.

I headed for home just in time to catch the last contingent of children making their grand exit. As I walked down granite steps (from City Hospital, closed in the '80s), the kids sailed down a slide (originally a giant steam exhaust fan) to wait politely on granite benches (from a demolished Famous-Barr store) until their friends landed.

"The Really Big Shoe Show" runs through Sept. 2.