Starlight Stories: The 1960s
As we approach our 75th anniversary in 2025, we’re looking back at our history, decade by decade. Today, we’re looking at the 1960s.
By 1960, Starlight had entertained nearly three million people since the opening night of the 1951 season.
From the 1960 season program book, Starlight Theatre Association President J.F. Pritchard said “… it is apparent that this theatre, a novel experiment to Mid-America when it first opened in 1951, has become an outstanding summer entertainment attraction for the Middle West.”
Starlight Theatre’s 10th anniversary season featured Rose-Marie, Kismet, Annie Get Your Gun (featuring Gordon and Sheila MacRae), The Pajama Game, The Student Prince, The Merry Widow, West Side Story (Starlight’s first “touring book musical”), Meet Me in St. Louis and The King and I.
“…it is apparent that this theatre, a novel experiment to Mid-America when it first opened in 1951, has become an outstanding summer entertainment attraction for the Middle West.”— Starlight Theatre Association President J.F. Pritchard
A Legacy Continues
Richard Hill Berger, Starlight’s first theatre manager and producing director, took the reins in 1951 and continued as producing director through 1971.
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.
A Theatre for the Community
An emphasis on community was still a priority for Starlight as they introduced the High School First Nighter Club. For 40¢, high school students could attend any opening night performance throughout the season at half the box office price. More than 4,000 students took advantage of the program that season.
In 1960, 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¢, soft drinks 25-35¢, coffee 15¢ at stands, coffee 25¢ in seats, malts 35¢ and cigarettes 50¢. Seat cushions rented for 50¢ each, and a souvenir program could be had for a quarter.
Goin’ to Kansas City
The popularity and ease of train travel made Kansas City a regional draw for tourism. Many of the show programs included a Visitors Guide to Kansas City to introduce other area attractions. Municipal Stadium was the home of the American League Kansas City Athletics at the time. In 1961, all Saturday games were held in the afternoon so that visitors could attend both the game and a show at Starlight. The William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum was touted as “one of the supreme museum achievements of America.”
Other attractions included the Liberty Memorial, Truman Library, Old Independence Courthouse and Jail, and Excelsior Springs which was described as a “mineral water health resort and spa in the European tradition.”
Another option was to eat out before the show. Starlight recommended Jasper’s at 75th & Wornall Road in Waldo “for some of the best Italian food of your life.” Meierhoff’s at 63rd & Troost had great German cooking in the tradition of restaurants in New York and Chicago.
The new Hereford Steak House had opened in 1957 at 20th & Main and built “a great reputation for steaks in a city famed for steaks!”
And for out-of-towners, the Aladdin Hotel at 12th & Wyandotte had a Starlight special of tickets to Starlight (or a baseball game), dinner, breakfast, and a room for $21.50!
Other 1960s highlights include:
1960: West Side Story was the first national touring production at Starlight. The cast of 34 members of the company came to Kansas City a week early to get used to the “big outdoor stage.”
1961: The 1961 TV Guide Best Actress Carol Burnett stars in Calamity Jane.
1962: Starlight recorded its highest-ever weekly attendance for a variety show when Carol Burnett returned with The Carol Burnett Show and played to 55,142 audience members.
1964: Former President Harry S. Truman took the stage for a cameo in Mr. President. He had to leave at intermission in an ambulance suffering from an appendicitis attack.
While Starlight continued to dazzle audiences with name stars and glitzy productions through the 1960s, 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.