Celebrating our 65th Year: Starlight in the ‘90s

CATEGORY: Starlight

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.