So Soca Jukebox was playing a show recently at the State Theater in Mound City, MO. Mound City is just in the next county over from where I grew up in Tarkio, MO. The State Theater is their renovated movie theater converted into a live music and live theater venue.
It was a great night, great people and a great show there.
But I was taken back slightly by what they had in the green room there. In the back, set into the floor was a rectangle of exposed brick. Near there and up on the wall was the plaque.
“The bricks in the floor are from the old Mule Barn Theatre in Tarkio… a symbol of and a tribute to the continuation of theater in Northwest Missouri.”
You see when I was growing up the Mule Barn was source of pride for our little town. A round, brick, multi-story mule barn once owned by the town’s founder had been renovated into a nearly “in-the round” theater. In association with the theater department at Tarkio College and national theater leagues, they presented world class plays and musicals there for years.
The Mule Barn was destination for theater-goers across the Midwest.
I remember auditioning to be in “Oliver” there. My mom took me up and you had to sing something. I sang “Happy Birthday”. I did not get a part.
When you were 12 or so, you could actually volunteer to be an usher for the summer seasons. I did that for several seasons. It was a great experience and very formative just being able to hang with the colorful cast of people that were there, the actors, musicians and technical folks.
I saw endless performances of “Annie”, “Brigadoon”, “The Music Man” and “Man of La Mancha” just to name a few. I had crushes on the orphans in little orphan “Annie”. We got free pop and popcorn. And we would show the little old ladies and their entourage to their seats.
After I started playing the guitar, I did get to sub for one show in the orchestra for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat”. I remember the music took a lot of work to learn at the time, we wore kind of painted T-shirts and the band was ON STAGE for the production. So I can say I actually played a show at the Mule Barn!
Not long after that, we had started our high school rock band and we were playing our very first real gig at the Northside Saloon in Tarkio. Most of us were just 15 years old so our moms, dads, their friends and the regulars were all there. It was going pretty well. I doubt we were very easy to listen to, probably pretty rough around the edges and of course everybody has an opinion to give the young band about their music, style, volume and beyond. “Get a hair cut.” People were dancing though and it was a dream come true for us.
‘Round about Midnight, someone comes in the bar and says “The Mule Barn is on fire!” This statement cleared the place out pretty quickly. A lot of the men there we a part of the volunteer fire dept. anyway and so you know they had to go! Everyone else headed that way too.
I remember when we finished we drove up near the site and we watched the Mule Barn throwing flames out of it’s roof and windows. Just very sad. The Mule Barn Theatre basically burned to the ground.
We watched for a while and then headed to the local truck stop for a late night breakfast. You could see the flames and the smoke in the night sky from miles away.
Losing that barn was a huge wound that has never quite healed for the community. It was the beginning of the end in a lot of ways. The college closed down not long after that too.
It was a great place when I knew it and while it lasted. It had been there long before that even. My own great-grandfather had worked there when they housed mules there. The story is that he even bought the family banjo from the music dept. at Tarkio College during that time.
Seeing these bricks and this plaque brought back a lot of great memories. Thanks to the people at the State Theater for this tribute to a place where great art was shared in a rural community. Grateful to our neighbors for remembering that.
This old mule barn, the college, the players, the professors, the actors and the students made our little town a pretty cosmopolitan place in the heart of the midwest. Grateful to have been there and to know it… when.