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?”
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?