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A Vision for Talent: The St. Louis Teen Talent Competition

A Vision for Talent: The St. Louis Teen Talent Competition

by Kim Vrooman

Mary Strauss, owner and restoration director of the world renowned Fabulous Fox Theater in St. Louis, and founder of the Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation, has always had a passion for the arts and a vision for improving access to the arts for all children in St. Louis and the surrounding communities. Back in the 1980s and long before the creation of American Idol, the Voice or any other number of talent competitions, Strauss cultivated the idea of a unique community based competition that would empower teens within a 50 mile radius of St. Louis to compete for scholarships and recognitions in order to lift up their lives, brighten their futures and catapult them into opportunities they may not otherwise encounter. From this vision, the St. Louis Teen Talent Competition was born.

According to their website, The Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis was purchased in June, 1981 by Fox Associates, LLC, a private partnership. Robert J. Baudendistel, Harvey A. Harris, and the late Leon Strauss had a dream to restore the Fox Theatre to its original grandeur. Under their aegis, and with Mary Strauss directing the restoration, they made that dream a reality. Since then, the ownership has continued, through several additional restorations, to secure the Fox Theatre as one of the premier venues in the country. With the success of the Fox Theatre and Fox Theatricals, the producing arm of Fox Associates, LLC, the ownership took the next step in realizing the second part of their dream — the creation of Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation in 2002.

Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation (FPACF) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) charitable organization with the mission of fostering, promoting, and encouraging young people in the St. Louis region to discover and participate in the joy and wonder of live performances. The foundation provides unique opportunities and develops educational performing arts programs focused on young artists.  Their vision in action offers additional opportunities in the arts including St. Louis High School Musical Theater Awards, Kids’ Night at the Fabulous Fox, Next Stop Broadway, Broadway Master Classes, Educational Encores, and the St. Louis Teen Talent Competition.

According to the FPACF, in the spirit of fostering the emerging talent in the St. Louis performing arts community, the foundation is proud to underwrite and produce an adjudicated competition showcasing the talented teens of the St. Louis region through one of their most powerful programs, the FPACF St. Louis Teen Talent Competition.

“Vying for a chance to perform on the Fox stage brings out a wide range of teen artists who have trained locally and make us so proud,” said Judy Cullen, FoxPACF Executive Director, who works closely with the Board of Directors and other community stakeholders, donors, and supporters while following Strauss’s lead in order to make the competition one of the best in the country.

Students compete for college scholarships, cash awards, prizes, and public appearance opportunities. Students may compete in a talent category of their choice and will likely be forever impacted by the experience.

To ensure success of the competition and other programs, Strauss continues to serve as President of the Board of Directors. From her original vision, through decades of building, Strauss has watched her dream of empowering students in the arts come true. She notes, “We are so pleased with the positive response to the St. Louis Teen Talent Competition from students, parents, arts organizations and the community.  The Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation is delighted to provide this opportunity for students and we’re happy that we are able to give students the opportunity to shine.”


On August 10, 2020, sixteen finalists of the St. Louis Teen Talent Competition from the St. Louis bi-state metro area competed in a special televised event broadcast on Nine PBS. These students and others from the preliminary rounds vied for nearly $50,000 in college scholarships, cash awards and special prizes. A full list of prizes and winners along with official event information can be found on the foundation’s website ( A distinguished panel of judges, performing arts professionals with careers spanning film, the recording industry, TV and Broadway, had the difficult job of judging the acts on interpretation, stage presence, technical ability, and originality. This year, the competition winners were revealed for the first time during the Nine PBS broadcast.

First place was awarded to hip-hop dancer DemBari Taneh from Kirkwood High School who performed a self-choreographed dance to “Got It Good” (photo attached). DemBari received an $8,000 college scholarship, underwritten by Ameren Corporation Charitable Trust.

This year two acts tied for second place, Kelsey Carnes, from Francis Howell North High School, for her original contemporary dance performance; and tap dance group Barbapapa’s Groove, which included dancers Mackenzie Branson, Emma Bilzing, and Ja’La Stancil (Belleville East High School), Jenna Jelks (Belleville West High School) and Amariss Mueller (Freeburg Community High School). Each second place act will receive a $6,000 scholarship, one underwritten by John Russell and one by the Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation.

The $4,000 scholarship provided by Sally Johnston for third place was awarded to contemporary dancer Lexie Antolik from Columbia High School for her performance to “Half Light”. The $1,000 cash Audience Choice Award went to singer Kyle Rehme from Timberland High School.

These lucky seven weren’t the only winners. Many young artists from high schools around the region received scholarships and additional opportunities. One of those students was my son who won the “Missouri Audition College Prep Award” for his performance on piano and vocals of “Space Oddity” by David Bowie. You see, for me this article is personal. My father had a passion for musical theater. I was raised on Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar.  When my father transferred from the Chicago region to the St. Louis region in the early 1990s I was in my early twenties.  I was taking classes at the local community college and working as a server and captain at the Fox Club in the Fabulous Fox Theater.  I had the good fortune to see many amazing shows including Phantom of the Opera, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, David Copperfield, Hair, Jesus Christ SuperStar, My Fair Lady, Miss Saigon, Cats, Rent, so many more and countless concerts and arts experiences. These experiences influenced my own musical path. I began life as an emerging entertainer myself in those days.

Now, married to an artist, we cultivate a home where music and the arts are honored as something powerful and transformative in life. We instill this value within our family through important experiences in the arts. Our son and daughter are a part of the story having already spent a decade or more in piano lessons, drama camps, and watching all nature of live performances in venues across the region including the beloved Fabulous Fox Theater and most recently Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen. And there, in particular,  they always have to listen to mom’s stories during intermission during our habitual walk through Peacock Alley about my adventures in the Fox Club. Before 2020, I was certainly aware of the FPACF, having written an article years ago for another publication. Still, I did not appreciate the first hand experience of how valuable the mission is and how much positive influence it has on young artists in our community until my son competed in the 2020 Fox Teen Talent Competition. I now see how noble the mission.

My son plans to compete again this year, but things will be a little bit different in 2021.  Although traditionally the three rounds of the competition are conducted in person, as the Teen Talent Competition moves into its 11th season, a season taking place during uncertain times, the organization will host the preliminary round via internet video submissions.  The foundation made this decision because they believe this is the best way to keep the talented teens, volunteers, judges, and staff healthy and safe.  They do note that this is a brand new process for them and they are excited to see what this new year brings as they move to this format.

There were many winners in 2020, and there will be a brand new batch in 2021, made possible through the donors and do-ers who make up the FPACF family- a family I was lucky to see in action first hand. The FPACF team has an eye for talent. And they’ve been watching the magic play out through play it forward opportunities they have offered generations of students. Thanks to Mary Strauss and her support system, a decade of young dancers, magicians, bands, comedians, artists, poets, actors, and singers now soar.

To find more information on and to sign up to participate in the St. Louis Teen Talent Competition and to learn more about all of the programs offered by the Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation, visit their website at SLTTC Winners

September Kids’ Play Calendar:

Go on a nature scavenger hunt with guidance from Doing Good Together:

Check out learning how to Hula Hoop: Youtube

Visit Laumeier Sculpture Park: They are also excited to announce that a limited selection of classes and workshops are available. Visit our calendar to learn more and register to participate!

Camp Out at Camp Ondessonk: Hike and Camp in an outdoor unit or stay in the sanitized St. Noel Retreat Center with Your Small Group: September 18-20: OPEN for limited lodging only. Call for availability. All meals and programs are for Fall Family Camp;  October 9-11: OPEN for limited lodging only. Call for availability. All meals and programs are for Mother-Daughter Weekend; October 23-25: OPEN for limited lodging, no meals or programs.  Our annual Ondessonk Trail Run and Fall Family Fest will be Saturday.   Check out for more info!

1020 Artworks Studio: Registration is now open online for Fall 2020 6-week sessions.  First session will offer in-person homeschool, in-person evening, and Zoom evening art classes.

Space is limited in our in-person classes so be sure to reserve your spot in advance.   And Themed Painting Kits to go are Fun for All Ages! Painting kits are an excellent way to incorporate art in your at-home learning curriculum.

Go to the Skyview Drive In:

Ride a bike, build a fort, wash the car! Get outside and have some fun!

 Note about the Columnist:
Kim Vrooman is a seasoned educator, communications professional, researcher, advocate, nonprofit, and for-profit business founder, entertainer, and community builder. In the early 2000s she was a guest columnist in St. Louis Sound Magazine where she created a column called “Kids’ Play” which focused on kids in the arts, and events for kids.  We recently invited her to return to creating this column for Gesso Magazine. She shared that she is excited to continue a new chapter on her journalistic adventure, and invites the readers to reach out to her with kid-centric events and arts news, and she will be delighted to consider these items for the calendar and / or a feature. You may reach her at She is kicking off this journey with an article about The Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation’s Teen Talent Competition.

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1 Comment

  1. This is amazing… The inspiration that I can encourage the kids to aspire towards…. This is exactly what we need. Wonderful. Just.. beyond wonderful.


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