KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Many of us would agree — flipping the switch to turn on the lights at the Country Club Plaza unofficially kicks off the holiday season in Kansas City.
Thousands of multi-colored bulbs cover every dome and tower on the plaza to brighten shoppers’ spirits as they walk through the historic shopping center.
A Tradition is Born
The lighting tradition first started in 1925 when a single strand of colored bulbs was draped over the entrance to what is now the Millcreek Building on 47th Street.
The first Plaza Lighting ceremony took place a few years later in 1930.
“It’s incredible how every building has its own descriptive style and color of lights,” said Country Club Plaza General Manager Meredith Keeler. “It welcomes the holiday and frames it in a beautiful way.”
41 Action News Chief Meteorologist Gary Lezak has emceed the ceremony for several years.
“I love countdowns,” explained Lezak when asked to provide his favorite moment during the ceremony. “We get to do a countdown and when we get thirty, fifty or one-hundred thousand people and everyone at home as well as people watching from all over... doing that countdown and having the lights come on in sync with the fireworks, it’s a great moment and experience.”
Larry Moore, a long-time news anchor at KMBC-TV, emceed the lighting for decades and witnessed how the ceremony changed and grew over the years.
Moore is now retired. 41 Action News talked with him on a Friday afternoon at his farm. He said the lighting ceremony that sticks out in his mind took place in 1977 months after the deadly flooding on the plaza.
“There were a lot of questions as to whether there was going to be a lighting ceremony or not,” said Moore.
“There was a question as to whether it would be proper to do it but with everything built back up and ready to go even though marks remained on the buildings, there was a feeling that it should be done.”
The Production Evolves
What was once a small gathering in the 1930s has grown to an event that attracts tens of thousands of people from the Kansas City area and across the Midwest.
The planning and production of the ceremony has grown, too. As Moore pointed out, when he first started hosting the event they would film it then later put it on television.
Now the show is broadcast both on television and online.
41 Action News director Tom Brown has worked on the lighting ceremony for several years. “When we first started we were in a very old satellite truck,” described Brown.
“Two people were running audio and switching next to each other. Our shoulders were combined and I don’t even think there was a heater in the truck.”
Today dozens of people and truckloads of equipment are needed for the planning and execution of the ceremony. KCP&L, the Country Club Plaza, 41 Action News and Harvest Productions all work together to ensure the show’s success.
Bill Hartnett produces the show with Harvest Productions which includes overseeing the summer auditions and multiple aspects of the stage show. He said the 24 hours before the show goes “live” can be a bit hectic.
“We don’t have possession of the site until 5:00 p.m. Wednesday,” explained Hartnett. “We then have to transform that space from a shopping district, traffic area and busy shopping area into a concert venue by 8:00 the next morning.”
It’s all torn down that evening so that the plaza can be open for business the next day.
Tim Bair is the show director and works side-by-side with Harnett.
“We have a lot of great folks working backstage so it’s all very planned out and everyone knows when they’re supposed to push and where they’re supposed to pull,” said Bair.
He added that his favorite part of the show is working with the talented performers.
The 88th Annual Ceremony
2017 will mark the 88th annual lighting ceremony in Kansas City. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith and linebacker Derrick Johnson will help flip the switch along with Lezak and a child selected randomly from the audience.
Among this year’s performers are Casi Joy, KC A Capella, Isaac Cates and Ordained, the Blue Valley High School Choir and The Elders.
Viewers can watch the television broadcast on 41 Action News, on our desktop site or mobile app. Coverage starts at 4:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day with the ceremony at 6:00 p.m.
The fifteen blocks of lights will shine daily from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. through January 14, 2018.