Decade by Decade
Starlight Theatre has operated continuously since 1951. We are pleased to share a decade-by-decade overview of many of the historical highlights of Kansas City’s iconic outdoor theatre in Swope Park.
Much of the information is excerpted from Making Memories for 50 Years, a Starlight commemorative magazine published in 2000, and The Story of Starlight Theatre, written by Kathleen Hegarty Thorne and published in 1993.
We invite fans of Starlight to share memories of their own Starlight nights by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or mailing Starlight Theatre, Attn: Marketing Dept., 4600 Starlight Road, Kansas City, MO 64132. We particularly appreciate photographs with full caption information.
By the mid-1940s, discussions of an “outdoor stage” for Kansas City had been under way for two decades. While an outdoor theatre was low on the city’s list of priorities, plans for a ceremony to celebrate Kansas City’s 100th anniversary added urgency.
A Citizens’ Planning Council, a four-year study by the Park Board and the hiring of Kansas City architect Edward Delk laid the foundation for including the outdoor theatre proposal in a 1947 city bond issue. Voters approved the first $500,000 toward construction of the theatre and $225,000 was added for parking and roadways.
City officials selected Swope Park as the site for the performance and, with bond money held up in litigation, the city’s Centennial Association contributed $135,000 to begin construction in December 1949.
On June 4, 1950, in a facility not yet fully complete, the historical revue, Thrills of a Century, opened at Starlight Theatre in celebration of Kansas City’s 100th birthday. The show played nightly through July 10. Hundreds of local citizens participated in the pageant, and thousands turned out each night. Show highlights included the staging of the Battle of Westport, a Gay ‘90s revue, and the original locomotive that crossed the Hannibal Bridge 81 years before chugging across the stage on specially built rails.
The pageant’s success prompted the Park Board to move ahead with plans to complete Starlight. In July 1950, the City Council appropriated $213,000, and a later Park Board request for $160,000 was granted in January 1951.
Seeking to create a not-for-profit organization to activate and run the theatre going forward, 586 Kansas Citians contributed $10 each to become charter members of the new Starlight Theatre Association. John A. Moore was elected as the association’s first president, and New York veteran Richard Berger was hired as Starlight’s first producing director, a position he would hold through 1971.
On June 25, 1951, Edward Delk’s iconic designs for the stage, sloped seating area, light pylons flanking the stage, and light bridge behind the seating areas were all fully in place. Starlight opened its first Broadway season with the performance of The Desert Song.
The cost of the original facility was $1.75 million. By the mid-1990s, Starlight was valued at $40 million. Today, the estimated value of the theatre campus, which has undergone continued expansion and improvement over the years, comes in at upwards of $80 million. When Starlight opened in 1951, nearly
40 professional self-producing outdoor theatres operated across the United States. Today, only two – Starlight and St. Louis’ MUNY – remain.
Seasons in Starlight’s first decade consisted of 10 shows, including a mix of operettas, light opera and new musical comedies recently written for the Broadway stage. Production highlights under Berger’s direction included Carmen as Starlight’s first opera (1954), Liberace as its first variety show (1957), and the world premiere of Tom Sawyer (1958).
Other 1950s high points include:
- Opening Season 1951: The 10-show lineup in Starlight’s inaugural season featured The Desert Song, Rio Rita, Song of Norway, Roberta, Rose Marie, The Chocolate Soldier, Brigadoon, Bittersweet, Babes in Toyland and Naughty Marietta
- 1954: After replacing its stage annually during the first three years of operation due to year-round exposure to the elements, Starlight installed a permanent stage. The 1954 stage was built in 16 sections that allowed for removal and storage at the end of each season. Utilizing 2-by-6-inch maple planks installed one-eighth-inch apart so rainwater could flow into drains below, the giant stage came out of storage each spring to be reassembled, sanded and painted for the new season. The stage lasted 33 years.
- 1954: Patrons’ calls for some sort of shelter from the rain were answered with the construction of Delk-designed pergolas on each side of the audience areas. Each roofed pergola, still in place today, measured 225 feet long by 27 feet wide.
- 1958: After the Monday, June 9, opening of The Jerry Lewis Show, Lewis expressed disappointment with the sizable distance between the Starlight stage and the audience. To bridge the gap, he proposed the stage be extended to cover the orchestra pit. When Starlight leaders determined the project’s cost was not feasible, Lewis decided to pay for it himself. By 8 a.m. on June 10, the needed lumber had arrived. Starlight lead carpenter Ancel Lacy and a crew of 10 toiled in 100-degree heat to build a 50-foot by 24-foot temporary stage on which Lewis performed that same night.
Richard Hill Berger, Starlight’s first theatre manager and producing director, took the reins in 1951 and continued as producing director through 1971. Through the 1950s, Starlight produced 10 shows each summer. In 1960 and ’61, the number dropped to nine shows, and from 1962 through the rest of the decade, the annual show count held at eight.
Starlight Theatre’s nine-show 1960 season featured Rose-Marie, Kismet, Annie Get Your Gun, The Pajama Game, The Student Prince, The Merry Widow, West Side Story (Starlight’s first “touring book musical” and the first of three times it would play at Starlight that decade), Meet Me in St. Louis and The King and I.
Two years later, Starlight recorded its highest-ever weekly attendance for a variety show. The Carol Burnett Show played July 9-15, 1962, and its leading lady surely left all 55,142 audience members laughing during the entire drive home.
Berger had a knack for adding surprising twists to his productions, and he definitely showed it during the 1960s. For example, he convinced a couple of “celebrities” to make cameo appearances in opening-night performances of Starlight shows – President Harry S. Truman took the stage on Aug. 3, 1964, in Mr. President, and Ewing Kauffman stepped up for Damn Yankees five summers later. While Mr. K’s night apparently went well, President Truman was not as lucky. He left at intermission – in an ambulance suffering an appendicitis attack!
Advertising in Starlight’s 1960s programs had some surprising twists, too. Opposite the Cast of Characters page in several 1960 season programs, you could find the “Cast of Cigarettes” plugging Philip Morris, Marlboro, Parliament, Alpine and Benson & Hedges brands. Other advertisers that may stir a few patrons’ memories included Jenkins Music, Putsch’s Cafeteria, TWA The Superjet Airline and Dolly Madison Ice Cream.
In 1960, the Starlight Board of Directors had 181 members (today it has fewer than 40), and the highest-priced show ticket was $4.
By 1969, the price for Box and Orchestra seats had risen to $5, but a general admission seat could still be had for $1. In those days, Starlight tickets could also be purchased at 20 branch reservation offices, including at locations of Capitol Federal Savings, Sears stores and even Vesto TV.
The prices of various concessions in 1969 seem like a bargain today: hot dogs 35¢, butter corn 35¢, pop 25-35¢, coffee 15¢ at stands, coffee 25¢ in seats, malts 35¢ and cigarettes 50¢. Seat cushionsrented for 50¢ each, and a souvenir program could be had for a quarter.
While Starlight continued to dazzle audiences with name stars and glitzy productions through the ‘60s, annual attendance was on a decline and performers’ salaries were climbing. And it certainly didn’t help matters that the summer of 1969 was a wet one – six performances were cancelled and patrons stayed away on other nights when rain threatened.
As a business, Starlight was losing money as a new decade, the 1970s, waited in the wings.
By the end of the 1960s, Starlight Theatre was losing money. In 1970, a plea went out to the community for underwriting money critical for the preservation of the theatre. Following the 1971 season, at the Starlight Board of Directors’ request, Richard Berger retired as producing director, and Anthony Ferrara took over the management reins. He was responsible for both the artistic and financial sides of the house.
In the years that followed, Ferrara and the Board chose to populate the Starlight schedule with variety shows rather than more costly self-produced Broadway musicals. The 1972 season, for example, included variety shows featuring Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ed Ames, Jim Nabors, Robert Goulet, Roy Clark and Shirley Jones. Worth noting was Jim Nabors’ popularity – when the Jim Nabors Show came to town in August 1971, its attendance of 52,545 was the second-highest ever for a variety show. And when the
Jim Nabors Show returned the following July, 46,792 people attended, setting the mark for the third-largest crowd.
By the mid-1970s, declining attendance indicated Starlight was in serious trouble. Audiences missed the lavish sets and melodies of Starlight’s earlier operettas, its popular musical comedies, the sounds of its orchestra and, of course, the local choruses of talented, young Kansas City performers.
So, book musicals steadily made their return to the Starlight stage. In 1974, The Man of La Mancha was placed amid the variety shows. In 1975, Carousel and The Wizard of Oz took the stage. By 1976, the season was back up to 10 shows, eight of which were musicals. Highlights were Yul Brynner’s performance in The King and I in 1976, and Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! a year later. The shows, however, were mostly touring packages and, since Starlight was not producing them, the theatre was unable to control the quality of the performances to the degree it had in the 1950s and ‘60s.
The outlook as the decade came to an end was worrisome at best. Changes coming in the early 1980s, fortunately, would pull Starlight back from the brink of bankruptcy.
Following several troublesome seasons of financial struggles, the 1980s brought continued challenges, operational changes and, by the middle of the decade, a hopeful outlook to Starlight Theatre.
The 1980 Broadway season struggled through one of Kansas City’s most trying heat waves with many days in excess of 100 degrees, but there was a bright spot. Starlight’s first popular music concert – Heart and The Little River Band – proved highly popular. The sold-out event signified, perhaps, that Starlight was an appropriate venue for concerts after 30 years of exclusively offering Broadway-style shows. Nevertheless, the 1980 Broadway season as a whole was not a successful one. Starlight was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and, after serious deliberations, a decision was made to take a step back; the Starlight Theatre Association became a “landlord only” as leaders worked to determine a direction to ensure the theatre’s future.
In 1981, the Kansas City Philharmonic became Starlight’s primary tenant. It was responsible for staging a series of Pops concerts and also for determining how Broadway shows would continue to grace the majestic Starlight stage. New West Presentations also became a tenant to present a series of contemporary music concerts.
The dual-tenant arrangement continued through the 1982 season, but that year also marked the demise of the Kansas City Philharmonic. While Starlight’s 1983 season progressed without that major tenant, other tenants stepped up to present Broadway shows and concerts.
Upon reflecting on the struggles of the 1981-83 seasons, the Starlight Board of Directors deemed the tenant arrangement an undesirable method of operations for the future. The Board made a momentous decision – Starlight would return to the role of Broadway Producer in 1984. And, New West Presentations would continue as the contemporary concert tenant. Concert highlights of the 1980s included Sting, Kenny G, James Taylor, Anita Baker, Bonnie Raitt, Debbie Gibson and Steve Miller.
Bob Rohlf, hired in 1980 as director of marketing, had been named general manager in 1982. In preparation for the 1984 season, Rohlf added the title of executive producer in charge of Broadway programming. He would plan Starlight’s seasons, produce its shows, run the business office and be responsible to the Starlight Board. The 1984 Broadway series included four Starlight-produced shows: The Wizard of Oz, Annie Get Your Gun, Cabaret and the Starlight premiere of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Prior to launching Starlight’s return to the role of Producer, Starlight’s Board embarked upon a major capital campaign to enhance the quality and beauty of Starlight. The campaign was chaired by Kansas City civic leaders Anita Gorman and Jack Steadman, and items on the list of capital improvements included new seats, lighting, landscaping and bathroom upgrades. Then, in 1987, again under the leadership of Gorman and Steadman, more improvement plans were set into motion. Starlight soon had a new stage floor, renovated rehearsal spaces and an outdoor Applause Club restaurant, where guests to this day enjoy meals before each Broadway show.
To secure continued donor and community support, Starlight hosted its first-ever gala fundraiser in 1986. The tradition of an annual gala continue to the present day. Gala funds are used to support a variety of programs at Starlight including education and outreach, operations, maintenance and more.
In 1988, Starlight reached a true milestone. For the first time ever, the theatre brought in revenues in excess of expenses. In layman’s terms, Starlight was operating in the black!
Back on its feet and growing thanks to the dedication and vision of Rohlf and the Board of Directors, Starlight had newfound confidence and expectations of continued success as it entered the next decade.
As the 1980s concluded, Starlight Theatre had returned to financial solvency. Determined to grow and thrive as a new decade dawned, the theatre’s leadership and Board of Directors undertook efforts to bring continued improvement and positive change to the Starlight venue and operations throughout the 1990s.
Helping to fuel the activity was significant growth in Broadway ticket sales. At the outset of the decade in 1991, season ticket sales climbed to 20,000. That same year a box office record was set when Starlight’s production of The Wizard of Oz, starring funny lady Phyllis Diller as the Wicked Witch of the West, sold out all seven of its performances.
1993 launched a five-year $5 million capital improvement campaign. It was evident to Starlight’s management and board that the theatre was increasingly seen as a Kansas City landmark and cultural treasure and, thus, needed financial support for its continued success. Starlight formed a unique partnership with the City of Kansas City, Mo., that allowed it to utilize both private and public funds to improve the historic venue.
Season subscriptions continued to climb and, by 1994, numbered 28,309. Fans of musicals headed to Swope Park frequently to enjoy the sights and sounds emanating from the Starlight stage on starry summer nights. And, as interest in the Broadway season scaled to heights not seen in decades, Starlight’s concert series was expanding as well.
Shirley Helzberg served as president of the Starlight Theatre Association from 1991 through 1994 and along with her husband, Barnett, donated $1 million toward constructing The Shirley Bush Helzberg Garden of the Stars. In 1997, the picturesque fountain was dedicated. With its flowing cascades of
water, the Helzberg fountain welcomes guests entering Starlight’s east gates and is a favorite photo and resting spot for many who attend. Other improvements that greeted guests in 1997 were a new main box office and expanded Applause Club restaurant on Starlight’s east side.
As venue expansion continued in the 1990s, it became apparent that the Starlight stage needed more advanced improvements. To stay competitive with theatre companies around the country, Starlight’s outdoor stage would need to be able to host national touring productions. Recognizing this need, the capital campaign was expanded to include the construction of a new covered stage house.
A contribution from two very generous individuals went a long way toward making the dream of a new stage a real possibility. A gift of more than $1 million from Jeannette and Jerome Cohen gave Starlight the backing it needed to advance the project. The news left longtime Starlight fans eager to see what the next decade – and new millennium – would usher in.
As the century turned and the new millennium dawned, Starlight was ready to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a big present for audience members and performers – a grand new stage!
The summer of 2000 heralded the opening of the $10 million Jeannette and Jerome Cohen Community Stage, named in honor of the generous couple who contributed more than $1 million toward its creation. Standing 10 stories tall and encompassing 12,000 square feet, the new stage was climate-controlled, fully enclosed and had the bells and whistles needed to attract megahit Broadway touring productions. Starlight booked the national tours of both Miss Saigon and Fosse into the stage’s first season, and 227,638 guests turned out to see that Broadway season’s five shows.
Broadway producers took notice of the new, expansive outdoor stage in Kansas City. So much so that they chose Starlight as the site for the national tour launches of 42nd Street in 2002 and Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2003.
Construction of the new stage raised the bar and spurred a decade of facility growth and enhancement at Starlight. To bring other areas of the theatre campus up to date, Starlight launched its $15.25 million Future Generations Campaign in 2003. The donations received from 571 individuals, organizations and foundations gave Starlight the capital capacity to make important physical changes in annual phases from 2005 through 2007. Highlights of the building boom included:
- Phase 1: East Side Concessions and Restrooms (2005) – Following demolition of outdated and undersized restroom and concession facilities, Starlight guests arrived that summer to find new structures that housed 45 new women’s restrooms, 28 new men’s restrooms, 21 new points of sale for concessions on two levels, and the 3,600-square-foot casual seating and dining area known the Encore Deck.
- Phase 2: Southwest Court and Backstage Improvements (2006) – Starlight performers, staff and patrons all benefited from the project that resulted in air-conditioned indoor rehearsal spaces (Berger Hall and Jeter Music Room), the Applause Club, Ovation gift shop and Starlight administrative offices. Dressing rooms and wardrobe facilities were also renovated.
- Phase 3: North Side Improvements (2007) – This final phase of development enclosed the theatre’s north lawn, built two open-air pavilions for use by patrons and groups, added northwest Gate 4, and introduced the Anita B. Gorman Court of Honor to recognize her years of dedicated support of Starlight, as well as all of the donors to the successful capital campaign.
The mid-2000s also saw significant growth in performing arts education at Starlight. New programs introduced in 2006 that continue to today include the Starlight STARS of Tomorrow performance troupe, the Vincent Legacy Scholarship program, and the ever-popular Act Like An Animal Camp.
As the decade neared its end, its leader for nearly three decades – President and Executive Producer Bob Rohlf – decided it was time for his own curtain call. When Rohlf retired after the 2008 Broadway season, he left knowing that he had pulled Starlight back from the brink of financial ruin in the early 1980s, preserved its cherished history and equipped it with the facilities, amenities and programs that will attract Kansas City theatre-goers for decades to come.
The flurry of capital construction that defined much of the 2000s at Starlight Theatre (new stage, restrooms, concessions, indoor rehearsal spaces and more) set the stage for an international honor and program expansion in the 2010s.
While Kansas Citians have long considered Starlight a world-class venue, their beliefs were confirmed in 2013 when the International Association of Venue Managers (IAVM) awarded Starlight its prestigious Venue Excellence Award. The 2013 award essentially declared Starlight “the best of the best” among performing arts venues worldwide, giving it high marks on criteria including service to the community, team building/ professional development, safety, security and operational excellence.
Starlight’s impact was recognized locally, too, when the City Council of Kansas City declared Monday, May 2, 2016, as “KC Loves Starlight Day.” The civic announcement recognized Starlight as a cultural powerhouse in its 66th season of operation, a year in which Starlight hosted eight award-winning Broadway musicals and nearly 30 big-name concerts for Kansas City residents and visitors.
During this decade, Starlight expanded its performance calendar beyond the traditional summer months. A foray into “off-season” programming came in 2012 with the introduction of Starlight Children’s Theatre at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Crowd response was positive for Starlight’s off-season productions, but costs and logistics involved with presenting shows off-site prompted a re-evaluation of the plan for the future.
A new plan for how to present shows on a year-round basis began almost immediately after Rich Baker joined Starlight as President and CEO in early 2014. Having led the Fox Theatre in St. Louis for many years, Baker brought fresh ideas and approaches to his new role. Among them was the introduction of indoor, on-site shows! A successful trial run with 50 Shades! The Musical Parody presented inside Starlight’s Cohen Community Stage House in February 2015 led to expanded programming of Off-Broadway comedies and parodies in the new Starlight Indoors series, which officially launched in January 2016. Then, in 2018, new risers were purchased and installed, providing 400+ comfortable, spacious seats and unobstructed views for indoor audiences.
Starlight’s commitment to children and performing arts education continued to grow in the 2010s. Camps added early in the decade, including Frosty Fun Days, Spring Break Camp and Camp Take-a-Bow, kept kids engaged as they developed performance skills. While camps ended after 2018, well-established programs such as the Starlight Stars, Starlight Stars of Tomorrow and the nationally respected Blue Star Awards continue to thrive. The growing importance of Starlight’s education programs even prompted a new construction project. Atop the site of the former open-air Director’s Pavilion, which served as Starlight’s rehearsal space until 2006, sits a new 2,700-square-foot Education Pavilion. The fully enclosed and climate-controlled building now provides dedicated space for education programs and activities.
Other new initiatives were launched to bolster Starlight’s marketing and fundraising efforts. Young Friends of Starlight was created early in the decade to attract younger theatre enthusiasts, and the group of 21- to 40-year-olds hosted its first “After Hours at the Towers” event in 2016. At the now-annual event, young professionals from across Kansas City enjoy an evening of dining, games and music as they raise funds to help support Starlight’s Bob Rohlf Internship program for college students. Other initiatives, such as the video series “Broadway Beat” and “Talkin’ With Taylor” hosted by Taylor Smith of Starlight’s marketing team, debuted in 2018. The shows share national news from Broadway, local updates from Starlight and feature interviews with prominent performers and creatives who have graced Starlight’s stage.
The venue itself continued to evolve with new additions to enhance audience experience. In 2015, large LED screens were installed on both sides of the stage, and in 2017 Starlight began streaming its Broadway productions on these big screens, giving patrons close-up views of actors on stage. Other additions included a new sound system, non-invasive security magnetometers, ADA enhancements to parking lots and theatre walkways, and cushioned seats in Producer’s Circle.
The most visible construction project of the decade stemmed directly from audience feedback that summer heat was dampening their enjoyment of Starlight nights. Starlight chose to invest more than $600,000 to install four mega-fans in the seating bowl in time for the 2018 season. These ultra-quiet fans stand 35 feet tall and create a breeze of about 4 mph throughout the seating bowl to keep the audience cool. The fans have gathered quite a fan following among Starlight patrons.
And, speaking of fans, many top concert artists enjoy Starlight so much that they actually ask to return on a nearly annual basis! Among these Starlight super-fans are STYX, The Fray, Train, REO Speedwagon, Chicago and Earth Wind & Fire.
The newest addition to the list of amenities for audiences came in June 2019 when Starlight’s Ovation Museum opened in the space previously occupied by the Ovation gift shop. The new museum chronicles nearly 70 years of Starlight history through photos, timelines, show chronologies, video interviews, profiles of individuals who have greatly impacted Starlight’s development and much more.