Starlight Stories: The 1970s
Starlight celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1970 with a season that was deemed “The Greatest Season Ever” and featured popular shows Hello Dolly!, The Man of La Mancha, and Fiddler on the Roof.
Before the beginning of the musical season, a special show called The Sound of the Seventies was headlined by Paul Revere and the Raiders. The season ended with a performance by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, Merle Haggard, The Strangers, and Bonnie Owens.
A Change of Direction
Even with great shows and musicians, Starlight Theatre was losing money. Members of the community were asked 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 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.
Above: Ed McMahon and Peter Marshall both performed in 1975.
The Return of Musicals
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.
Other 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 1960s.
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.