Celebrating 65 Years of Starlight

CATEGORY: Starlight

The 2015 season marks Starlight Theatre’s 65th year of producing and presenting live Broadway entertainment under the stars.

In celebration of this important milestone, each issue of “On the Spot” from now through September will share selected highlights from each decade. We invite newsletter readers and Starlight guests to share their own memories of special Starlight nights by emailing barb.schulte@kcstarlight.com or mailing Starlight Theatre, Attn: Barb Schulte, 4600 Starlight Road, Kansas City, MO 64132. We would particularly appreciate photographs with full caption information.

The following 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.

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 includedCarmen 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:

  • 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.