Hearne: Which is More Exciting, Watching the Chiefs or Plaza Lights?

Can we talk?

It’s time to lower the flag to half mast and admit that one of Kansas City’s most highly touted annual events is well past its prime…

For 88 years the vaunted Country Club Plaza has strung mostly old-fashioned Christmas bulbs along the outline of its Spanish style edifices and labeled it a world class sight to behold.

Generations of we locals have pointed to the Plaza lights with awe and pride, boasting of it to people worldwide.

But let’s not forget that when the tradition began there was no ceremony, no pomp and circumstance – just a single strand of colored bulbs stretched across a single building.

Five years later somebody decided to make a “ceremony” of it and hype the mere decorating of a local shopping center as a not-to-be-missed annual event.

To put that all in perspective here’s some of the other  stuff that was making the headlines in the year 1925 when the Plaza lighting tipped off.

The first motel opened in California; Sears Robuck opened its first store;  “The Great Gatsby” was published as was Adolph Hitler’s book Mein Kampf. Oh yeah, and Mount Rushmore was dedicated.

Little wonder the Plaza lights didn’t garner much if any attention.

Yet from that humble start the lighting grew into a Thanksgiving tradition that attracts thousands to the Plaza.

How many thousands?

Because Cowtowners are given to exaggeration,  the owners of the Plaza conspired with a complacent local news media to hype the event as a phenomenon that drew upwards a quarter of a million attendees.

Until 2003 when UMKC statistics professor Zeng Yong’s students and volunteers joined forces with Waldo businessman Gary Evert to – for the very first time – actually count the crowd.

Net result: 30,000 and change.

The Plaza immediately backed away from the bogus crowd numbers and ceremony sponsor KCP&L ditched its 200,000-plus crowd boasts.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter…

And that’s the sad reality that stringing old fashioned Christmas lights doesn’t cut it in the 21st Century.

The original Christmas bulb technology grew out of an era where colored light bulbs were still considered high tech-ish. Movies back then were mostly black and white, television didn’t exist. Ditto for video games, laser lights, drones and suicide bombings. Computer technology was as far removed from people’s daily lives as the Flintstones were from the Jetsons.

Al Gore hadn’t even invented the Internet yet.

That was then…

Today however technology has long since passed the Plaza lights by.

The awesomeness of the Plaza lights on a scale of 1-10?

“I’d have to say between 3 and 4 as far as the awe factor,” said one visitor to the recent ceremony. “I remember when my family went to Disneyland three months after it opened in 1971 and we saw that monorail. Oh my god, it was like something out of the Jetson’s. In 1971 it was mind blowing.”

Unlike the Plaza lights, she notes.

And this just in…it’s no secret that the Plaza is well aware of its lighting’s shortcomings.

When I was a kid growing up, watching the lights from atop the hill on Wornall Road overlooking the Plaza was more than enough.

However as time marched on, the Plaza resorted to hyping the event by exaggerating its attendance and by bringing in local and national celebs to “throw the switch.” Later they set up a stage with live entertainment and in more recent years, added a fireworks show.

“It wasn’t a real fireworks show though,”says the visitor. “I mean, you could do those fireworks in your backyard. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d give it a 2. They should do a real fireworks show.”

Which still doesn’t address the bottom line question.

Fireworks and live entertainment with lousy sightlines aside – in an age where just about every shopping area has state of the art holiday lights – do the Christmas lights alone render the Plaza a must see destination?

If the answer is “no,” how much longer can the event survive once local television stations vying for the rights to carry the lighting live bail? How much longer before the nose quaint lighting ceremony goes the way of a holiday hayride?

And how much longer before writers like the Kansas City Star’s Pete Grathoff stop embarrassing the newspaper by “reporting” – without attribution – that the lighting ceremony “has been known to draw up to 100,000 people?”

Seriously, Pete.

Or maybe until Kansas City take the lights for what they actually are, a modern day postcard that harkens back to Kansas City’s bygone distant past?

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15 Responses to Hearne: Which is More Exciting, Watching the Chiefs or Plaza Lights?

  1. Kerouac says:

    “Which is More Exciting, Watching the Chiefs or Plaza Lights?”

    – Lingchi/’death by a thousand cuts; declining said, Buridan’s ass…


  2. the plaza lighting ceremony is still a tradition in kc. Do remember when there were
    so many parties on the plaza at peoples homes to watch the lighting.
    Why do you hate it when people enjoy something. Don’t go if dont like it.
    If it’s 30,000 or 300,000 who cares….families get together…kids love it and
    you are just an old loser screaming bah humbug.
    Why do you hate it when kids find something like the lighting ceremony so fun?

    • CG says:

      Harley must you always be so angered with the writers of these stories. It’s a holiday season. be kind. Hearne is not an old geezer, he is out and about more than most guys his age and does like Kansas City very much. Try some holiday spirit.

      • how can anyone dislike the plaza lighting. It’s for the kids and families. I guess if you’re out and about looking for love and lonely….anything that’s fun and exciting for families makes your
        depressed. I love the plaza lighting ceremony and if you ask
        anyone noone cares how many people are there. I’ts packed every year with festive happy people. You glazo and hearne are

        • admin says:

          Ah, boom boom…

          Sounds like maybe you’re living in a bubble of your own making. And revealing a bit of how you view the world. That you’re looking for love and lonely and that families having fun makes you depressed.

          That certainly was not the case with me as I went down there with my girlfriend and four family members and my dog. And trust me, I sure as heck wasn’t looking for love.

          And if no one cares about how many people were there, why have they labored so along and so arduously to convince people that there are three to ten times as many people there than there actually are?

          My answer to that is because they know that stringing Christmas lights on buildings is a modern wonder of the world and if they can convince people that a quarter of a million people are gonna be there, they’ll wanna go just to be a part of it.

          The bottom line – my personal bottom line: It’s a nice, quaint pean to the past – charming and festive – but at this stage the game, far from a world class event or sight.

  3. CG says:

    Yep Hearne you don’t know how many folks still say man we had like a million people at the Royals parade and victory party downtown. As you and I discussed likely 150,000 or more which was fantastic. The 800 thousand…we don’t have that many adults with car in the metro, nor are there that many fans driving down for a parade to KC….just stupid but we want our city to get noticed for good things, i understand.

    As for the Plaza. I was down there a few times this past couple weeks in the evening and man for the first time in forever it was packed. Restaurants busy, even on the week day nights. Nice to see.

  4. plaza has new owners….weather has been good for this time of year….some new
    beautiful new openings….place next to jax is top notch. Owner is an architect.
    So watch for the plaza to hopefully make a comeback this holiday season and after.
    Also…with more people living within the area that helps the crowds also.
    But the real story about growth is in south joco.

  5. Mysterious J says:

    Your annual piece on the Plaza lights has become a holiday tradition right up there with egg nog and Dickens!

    • admin says:

      Almost as tedious as…oh yeah…the lighting ceremony itself and the TV and media hyping of it.

      Look at the pic – that’s the view most folks had of the event. No way you could see the Elders performing and the sound was mediocre at best unless you were among the few close to the stage.

      Hey, it’s a quaint, little event that somehow still manages to get over-the-top publicity.

      The $64 million question: which do you find more boring, the across the board media hype or my occasional head scratchings?

      And speaking of annual traditions, think again!

      Last time I wrote about it was in 2013 and before that 2010….too much egg nog?

  6. PVJack says:

    HC, time for you to go Full Monty Geezer, and call for getting rid of Santa Claus.

    • admin says:

      Full Monty, eh? Clever.

      How about instead they figure out a way to make it matter…I’ll serve up an idea or three shortly.

      And by the way, Santa doesn’t need any pointers from me, unlike the Plaza he’s got his act together just fine.

      • CG says:

        Making it better. Yes. Agreed. Much like we did in Westport with Red Fridays and playoff pep rally’s. More big celebrities, perhaps the cheerleaders, Perhaps more local sports figures go up and speak, more excitement, but its a holiday event so it has to stay clean cut and family oriented. Perhaps Nigro and I could take over and make it what the event it once was with a much larger attendance. Just takes a bigger on stage extravaganza. Good idea Hearne.
        Especially now with our fall and early winters so mild.

        • keep the plaza lighting ceremony asit is. I’ts fun and
          with all the party’s at different locations it’s even better.
          Hearne can devise a ceremony in lawrence…and
          glazo can do one in westport or downtown. that would
          be better.

  7. santa clause is just a drunk walt bodine says hearne says:

    For once I agree with Harley Boom Boom. Hearne writes this column every year and it is tedious. We get it- they lie about the numbers. Given our local newspaper it is the smallest lie printed in the thing.

    You can also tell he didn’t watch it that closely because he would have mentioned the problems with Gary “Latz Gainz” Lezak and the celebrity Chiefs guests throwing the switch.

    • admin says:

      Dear Santa Claus:

      Get it straight, wild man. Last time I wrote about this was 2013 and 2010 before that. I did a recount was the reason for the revisit.

      The angle this year wasn’t just the phony numbers, I actually went down with family members just as an observer and discovered that the entire event was massively underwhelming. The lights coming on was ho hum, the vast majority of attendees couldn’t see or really hear very well the action from the stage and the fireworks according to people I spoke with at the event were small time as opposed to spectacular.

      As fir the telecast, you are dead on that I didn’t watch it that closely…hello! I was down there dogg. I can’t believe YOU watched it on TV. Seriously. Has life in KC become so boring that it’s comet this, watching Christmas lights on television???

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