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The History of The Plaza Lights

The Plaza Lights remain an iconic part of Kansas City history. Here is a brief overview of what makes these lights so special to the community.
Jasmine Cervantes
A crowd around 300,000 jammed the Country Club Plaza on Thanksgiving evening to witness Kansas City’s traditional herald of the Christmas season in 2000. photo courtesy of The Kansas City Star.

The Plaza Christmas Lights, an iconic Kansas City tradition, have been lit for their 94th official year. Beginning in November 1929, the Country Club Plaza hosted its first official lighting ceremony featuring the designs of lights known today. This was not the first time lights had been strung on the buildings, though. That tradition actually began in December 1925 with a simple string of twinkling lights. 

    The Country Club Plaza completed construction in 1922, becoming the first outdoor shopping center of its caliber in the country. J.C. Nichols, the owner, faced much doubt and criticism for his idea of an eclectic building design, Spanish Revival; this project would soon become known as Nichol’s Folly. The critics were proved wrong as The Plaza became a major success. In 1925, two years after The Plaza was opened, Charles Pitrat, a J.C. Nichols Company maintenance supervisor, hung a string of 16 twinkle lights on The Plaza’s first structure, the Mill Creek building.  This tradition of stringing lights continued to grow and in 1928, Pitrat marked the opening of The Plaza Theater by stringing lights across 47th street and the adjacent business storefronts.

     On Thanksgiving 1929, in the midst of the Great Depression, the first formal lighting ceremony was held. Many saw the lights as a beacon of hope during such tough times. The iconic building pattern, which is still used today, was also established on five Plaza buildings. The ceremony remained as a shining symbol of Christmas for many years until 1942 when the United States officially entered into World War II. During those three remaining years of the war The Plaza remained dark as a way to honor those fighting abroad. The only other time The Plaza lights did not shine was in 1973 when President Nixon called on Americans to not light Christmas lights during the energy crisis.

     Over the years the lighting ceremony has grown immensely; now it is a full-scale live production with performances and even celebrity guests who flip the official switch to turn on the lights. Some of these performances include “Stage Right Performing Arts Center” who senior Anne Rinella performs with at the lighting. 

     “I love going to The Plaza lighting because I get to sing and perform with all of my friends and we feel very cool and official, we get backstage passes,” Rinella said.

     The ceremony has also played host to many local celebrities, who are given the honor of flipping the official switch to turn on the lights. Some notable guests over the years include: Paul Rudd (1998), STA alumna, Kate Spade (2003), Jason Sudeikis (2009), Eric Stonestreet (2011) and Rob Riggle (2013). Each of these celebrities have remained involved in the Kansas City community, so it is not surprising that they would be chosen for this important Kansas City event. This year’s honored guest was “Red Kingdom” rapper, Tech9 and some of the performances included Soundproof, Quixotic (both local performance centers) and “The Voice” contestant, Kate Cosentino. Rinella also feels that having local performers and artists is a great way to support Kansas Citians and helps promote them to a larger audience. 

     “It’s a really good way to support the arts in Kansas City, and get artists out on live television, get them on a big stage and share their work with a give them a performance opportunity that they otherwise may not have had without The Plaza lighting,” Rinella said.

     When COVID-19 hit in 2020, some changes needed to be made in order to follow CDC guidelines. There were still fireworks, but the Kansas City police asked residents to not attend the ceremony in person and to instead watch the celebration from home. 

     The lights have also brought together many different people, and Rinella believes that is why the lights are such an important tradition. 

     “Everyone loves Christmas and it’s just a fun way to kick it off, and it really does bring together all of the artists of Kansas City from all different backgrounds,” Rinella said. “So it’s just a fun way to kick off the holiday season and everybody gets excited about it.”

     For almost a decade The Plaza lights have remained a symbol of hope during the Christmas season, even during times of hardship. What started out as a simple strand of twinkle lights has grown into an important Kansas City tradition and it is all thanks to a maintenance worker who simply wanted to add some light to The Plaza. The lights were turned on Thanksgiving and will remain on through mid January 2024.

This story contains information from KMBC, The KC Star and Kansas City Magazine


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About the Contributors
Olivia Cooper, Web and Lifestyle Editor
Hey Stars! My name is Olivia Cooper and I am a senior. This is my second year on staff and I am so excited to be one of the Web and Lifestyles editors this year. I have always loved writing and photography and I am so excited for this school year. A little bit about me is that I am on the STA tennis team and this will be my fourth year in the book club. I am also a huge Taylor Swift fan and one of my favorite TV shows is “New Girl.” When I am not doing those things you might find me hanging out with my sister, Carly, or playing with my dogs, Charlie and Isabelle. I am so excited for this school year and getting to grow my skills on The Dart!
Jasmine Cervantes, Photo Editor
Hello Dart readers! My name is Jasmine Cervantes, I am a senior at STA and this is my second year on staff. I am so excited to be a photo editor this year. When I’m not busy with school or the Dart, you can see me working at my parents restaurant, Dos De Oros, or listening to music. My favorite artists include Tyler, The Creator, Faye Webster, Silk Sonic and Bad Bunny. I love hanging out with my sister Daisy. We like going to the movie theater or playing with our dogs: Jojo, Chanel and Toby. I am excited for this final year and growing my skills as a photo editor for The Dart.

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