Strauss, Levy honored with awards

BY MIKE SHERWIN, STAFF WRITER

Two women, united in their love of the arts, were recognized for their contributions to the St. Louis arts community.

Sally Levy and Mary Strauss were honored by The Arts and Education Council for their work for and support of the St. Louis arts scene.

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At the council’s 16th annual St. Louis Arts Awards banquet at the Chase Park Plaza in late January, 620 people were on hand to see Levy receive the “Excellence in Philanthropy” award, and Strauss receive honors for “Lifetime Achievement in the Arts.”

Strauss, a congregant at Central Reform Congregation, is perhaps best known for her work leading the renovation of the Fox Theatre. In 1981, Strauss, her late husband Leon, and their business partners purchased the theater, which had been neglected and had fallen into disrepair over the years, and she led the one-year, $2.5 million restoration of the Fox.

Strauss said that project has been a major highlight of her life.

“Everything pales beside the Fox Theatre, because it was such a huge undertaking,” Strauss said. “When we bought the Fox in 1981 everyone just looked at us and said, ‘What are you doing with that white elephant?'”

That project turned out to be a major success for Strauss, and she has continued her work in the St. Louis arts scene with numerous other projects, producing three Tony Award winning plays, serving on the boards or advisory committees of a long list of St. Louis organizations, including Dance Saint Louis, Grand Center Inc., the Center of Creative Arts, KFUO 99.1 FM, Cinema St. Louis, and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Strauss has been working with the Kevin Kline Awards, which recognizes local theater groups, and will be holding its second annual awards ceremony in March.

Strauss is president of Art Access, Inc., a group promoting classical music and the arts. The organization produced a documentary film, Eroica (which aired on PBS) and it created a curriculum for its use by educators. In fact, Strauss said one of her main focuses these days is to get young people involved in the arts.

“I think every visual and performing arts organization in St. Louis needs to reach out to young people, because we want all of the arts to stay alive and be vibrant,” Strauss said. “We have to build audiences for tomorrow.”

Susan Wedemeyer, director of marketing and communications for Grand Center, Inc., said Strauss has been a tireless supporter of the arts.

“Mary’s efforts on behalf of Grand Center have been extensive and magnanimous. She is an integral part of Grand Center because of her relationship to the Fox Theatre, one of the anchors of Grand Center,” she said.

Strauss said it did give her pause to receive her lifetime achievement award.

“I really hesitated for a minute and I thought ‘lifetime’? Does that mean that my future is completely behind me, that I’ve done it all? Then I was reminded that, no, this is the beginning of a new life, another lifetime,” Strauss said.

Levy, the recipient of the “Excellence in Philanthropy” award, has been a longtime supporter of the arts in St. Louis, particularly with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Levy provided a $1 million gift, to start off the “Building for Opera Campaign,” which allowed the organization to build a new $5 million administrative, educational and rehearsal space on the Webster University campus.

In honor of her gift, Opera Theatre of St. Louis named the new building the Sally S. Levy Opera Center, which has been affectionately nicknamed, “The Sally.”

Levy, along with her late husband, John, were founding board members of Opera Theatre of St. Louis 32 years ago and Levy continues to serve as secretary of the board of directors.

Charles MacKay, general director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, said Levy and her family have been a key supporter since the organization’s beginning.

“Sally is someone who is revered and really beloved by the company. I think every arts organization would be so fortunate to have someone like Sally in their midst,” he said.

Levy, a congregant at Temple Emanuel, said opera has a special place in her heart. “My husband courted me to Tristan and Isolde. Ever since I have been hooked,” she said.

Levy said that while it has been “wonderful” and “great fun” to have a building named after her, it has been most rewarding to watch the reactions of the artists using the state-of-the-art building.

“I don’t think there’s anything like it in the country, and certainly not in the Midwest,” Levy said.

And, she said, there is a certain satisfaction in having her name attached to such a fine facility.

“I really get a thrill every time I walk into that building. I just kind of look at it and grin. It really is spectacular,” Levy said.

Patti Dowd, manager of marketing for the Arts and Education Council, said people like Levy and Strauss are vital to keeping a strong and vibrant artistic community.

Dowd deferred to something Strauss said at the awards dinner about the importance of art.

“As Mary [Strauss] said that night, ‘I can’t imagine a world without art. What would we do? Just work?'”