Celebrating Our 65th Year: Starlight in the ’70s

CATEGORY: Starlight

In each issue of “On The Spot” from now through September, we are sharing selected highlights from each decade of Starlight Theatre. The following is excerpted from Making Memories for 50 Years, a Starlight commemorative magazine published in 2000 and from The Story of Starlight Theatre published in 1993.

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, 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 theJim 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 Showreturned 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, Carouseland 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.