Starlight Stories: The 1980s
Continuing our history of Starlight, this time we look at the decade of the 1980s. Following several troublesome seasons of financial struggles, the 1980s brought continued challenges, operational changes and, by the middle of the decade, a hopeful outlook to Starlight Theatre.
The 1980 Broadway season struggled through one of Kansas City’s most trying heat waves with many days in excess of 100 degrees, but there was a bright spot.
Starlight’s first popular music concert – Heart and The Little River Band – proved highly popular. The sold-out event signified, perhaps, that Starlight was an appropriate venue for concerts after 30 years of exclusively offering Broadway-style shows.
Nevertheless, the 1980 Broadway season as a whole was not a successful one.
One Step Back and One Step Forward
Starlight was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and, after serious deliberations, a decision was made to take a step back; the Starlight Theatre Association became a “landlord only” as leaders worked to determine a direction to ensure the theatre’s future.
In 1981, the Kansas City Philharmonic became Starlight’s primary tenant. It was responsible for staging a series of Pops concerts and also for determining how Broadway shows would continue to grace the Starlight stage. New West Presentations also became a tenant to present a series of contemporary music concerts.
The dual-tenant arrangement continued through the 1982 season, but that year also marked the demise of the Kansas City Philharmonic. While Starlight’s 1983 season progressed without that major tenant, the season continued with five self-produced shows managed by the Theater League and 28 music concerts.
Upon reflecting on the struggles of the 1981-83 seasons, the Starlight Board of Directors deemed the tenant arrangement an undesirable method of operations for the future. The Board made a momentous decision – Starlight would return to the role of Broadway Producer in 1984. And, New West Presentations would continue as the contemporary concert tenant.
Concert highlights of the 1980s included Sting, Kenny G, James Taylor, Anita Baker, Bonnie Raitt, Debbie Gibson, and Steve Miller.
Back to Broadway & A Way Forward
Bob Rohlf, hired in 1980 as director of marketing, had been named general manager in 1982. In preparation for the 1984 season, Rohlf added the title of executive producer in charge of Broadway programming. He would plan Starlight’s seasons, produce its shows, run the business office and be responsible to the Starlight Board. The 1984 Broadway series included four Starlight-produced shows: The Wizard of Oz, Annie Get Your Gun, Cabaret and the Starlight premiere of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Prior to launching Starlight’s return to the role of Producer, Starlight’s Board embarked upon a major capital campaign to enhance the quality and beauty of Starlight. The campaign was chaired by Kansas City civic leaders Anita Gorman and Jack Steadman, and items on the list of capital improvements included new seats, lighting, landscaping and bathroom upgrades.
Then, in 1987, again under the leadership of Gorman and Steadman, more improvement plans were set into motion. Starlight soon had a new stage floor, renovated rehearsal spaces and an outdoor Applause Club restaurant, where guests to this day enjoy meals before each Broadway show.
To secure continued donor and community support, Starlight hosted its first-ever gala fundraiser in 1986. The tradition of an annual gala continues to the present day. Gala funds are used to support a variety of programs at Starlight including education and outreach, operations, maintenance and more.
In 1988, Starlight reached a true milestone. For the first time ever, the theatre brought in revenues in excess of expenses. In layman’s terms, Starlight was operating in the black!
Back on its feet and growing thanks to the dedication and vision of Rohlf and the Board of Directors, Starlight had newfound confidence and expectations of continued success as it entered the next decade.