The world’s biggest teeth are getting pulled.
After nearly 40 years of encouraging children to take care of their mouths, the Delta Dental Health Theatre at Laclede’s Landing is moving to a new location on Macklind Avenue near the St. Louis Science Center.
The retooled theater will become part of HealthWorks Kids’ Museum St. Louis, adding interactive exhibits such as giant gurgling intestines, the skin crawl climbing wall, a skeleton jungle gym, farmers market and cafe.
And to reassure generations of St. Louis school kids who grew up visiting the 3-foot-tall set of fiberglass teeth, the original theater’s most memorable feature will make the cut.
“I think I would lose my job if the teeth did not find a home there,” said Shannon Woodcock, president and CEO of Delta Dental Health Theatre. The giant teeth will likely decorate the My Mouth Theater, which will feature a four-dimensional movie that follows a bite of apple through the digestive system and ends in the toilet after letting loose various sounds and smells along the way.
The new museum is set to open in the spring, in time for field trips from Scout troops, summer schools and day camps. Phase one will include 15,000 square feet of exhibits in a storage building owned by the St. Louis Science Center Foundation. Delta Dental of Missouri pledged at least $600,000 toward the $2.5 million cost of the museum’s launch. Other partners include the Science Center, the St. Louis Office for Developmental Disability Resources and the Saigh Foundation. In five years, the size of the museum is expected to double, with space to host birthday parties and summer camps.
It’s a long way from the dream of several St. Louis dentists to educate schoolchildren on oral health. In 1977, the Foundation of the Greater St. Louis Dental Society opened the theater after spending $20,000 for the set of boulder-sized bottom teeth. Delta Dental became a sponsor in 2004. At some point, the lighted teeth made it to a list of quirky roadside attractions, bringing in tourists from around the world in addition to the busloads of kids. The 1-millionth visitor is expected to bask in the toothy glow sometime in the next year.
Dominique Jones, 40, remembers visiting the theater when she was in first grade at Woodward Elementary in south St. Louis.
“They were showing us healthy snacks, and that stands out to me because it was the first time I had ever known peanut butter and celery was a thing,” Jones said. “It’s funny because my son loves peanut butter and celery now, and I can’t get him to eat any other green vegetables.”
The original theater will stay open until its lease runs out in February to offer a sneak peek of the new museum.
“You might find other cities that have certain programs that are geared to kids, but not year-round and not as cool as this place is,” said Dr. Gary Padberg, a retired dentist who helped out with the theater in the late 1980s. “It’s kind of like Las Vegas. If you’ve never been there, it’s hard to describe what it’s like.”
Theater leaders insist the new museum will keep the original charm while adding modern technology and accessibility. Kids will be able to put on lab coats, use blood pressure cuffs and look at X-rays in mock doctors’ and dentists’ offices.
“I want kids of any ability, any race, any gender to look in the mirror and see themselves in these professions,” said Woodcock, the CEO.
St. Louis ranks near the bottom in several children’s health measures, including asthma, diabetes and obesity, making the region a prime target for children’s health education. The museum will feature specialized software that can show kids what they will look like as adults if they make poor choices with tobacco, sun exposure and fast food.
The St. Louis location will be HealthWorks’ third children’s health museum, with the others in South Bend, Ind., and Tupelo, Miss. The museum group is a nonprofit branch of the Beacon Health System of South Bend.
The point is to provide fun, engaging and memorable ways for kids to learn about all the gross and wonderful things the body can do, said Jacqueline Simmons, HealthWorks’ conductor of creative chaos.
“It’s the best way to approach all of the health in your community,” Simmons said. “If we can prevent chronic disease in children, we can reduce costs, improve educational opportunities and increase economic development. It’s about helping our kids grow and be healthy and be the best they can be.”
Joanne Parrott’s late husband, Roger Parrott, was one of the original founding dentists, and she helped open the dental theater on Laclede’s Landing. She said she is thrilled with the theater’s expansion plans — as long as they make space for those teeth filled with children’s memories.
“I just think it’s a tremendous teaching tool, and it brings people,” Parrott said. “They want to go see those teeth.”