Bright Lights, Big City

The Country Club Plaza’s festive holiday lighting ceremony has dazzled Kansas City since 1930.

   It started as a single, six-foot strand of 16 lights over a doorway in 1925 to celebrate the beginning of the Christmas holiday. It has since evolved into an iconic annual Thanksgiving night tradition in Kansas City witnessed by tens of thousands of people and televised locally on KSHB-TV. We’re talking about the Country Club Plaza Lighting ceremony, which first took place in 1930, eight years after J.C. Nichols converted a swampy and undesirable tract of land into a covetable outdoor shopping center.

   Each year, a special guest or celebrity flips the switch that brings to life in one dramatic instance all 287,000 lights. Past ceremonial light flippers have included hometown luminaries such as George Brett, Trent Green, Kate Spade, Olympic sprinter Maurice Green, Paul Rudd, Walter Cronkite, Derrick Thomas, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Marcus Allen, Buck O’Neil, Jason Sudeikis and Oleta Adams. This year, Gillian Flynn, the KC-born bestselling author of Gone Girl, will flip the switch.

   According to the Country Club Plaza’s website, it all started when Charles Pitrat, head of the J.C. Nichols Co.’s maintenance operation, placed the single strand across the Plaza’s first building in 1925. Three years later, when the Plaza Theatre was completed, Pitrat strung lights across 47th Street to reach the theater building. The next year he outlined the curves and columns of all the Spanish-style buildings and towers with lights. And so it went as more buildings appeared and the shimmering maze of lights grew larger.

   Shining from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. through mid-January, every Plaza light bulb comes down by April and is tested individually on a work bench and inspected for damage. Installation of the holiday lights begins in early August.

   The 86th Annual KCP&L Plaza Lighting Ceremony will take place beginning at 5 p.m. Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26, at the Main Stage at Nichols Road and Pennsylvania Avenue. The flipping of the switch will occur at 6:54 p.m., followed by a post-ceremony concert. The lights will shine until Jan. 17, 2016.

Light Bulb Moments

  •  Tower lights are always one color. For example, The Time Tower, at Broadway Boulevard and Ward Parkway, is always red. LED lights are currently used on all single-color green towers.
  • On the day before Thanksgiving from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., a lighting test occurs and has become a popular tradition for families to catch a sneak peek of the Plaza lights.
  • The only time the Plaza lights were not in operation occurred in 1973 when President Nixon called upon all Americans to curtail the use of Christmas lights to reduce dependence on foreign oil imports.
  • Each string of lights is made to fit in one exact spot — the same spot every year. The installation crew uses a “secret code” on aluminum tags to identify where they belong. Each stringer has a series of numbers, corresponding to the building, the location on the building and height at which it is hung.
  • Lights are inspected and maintained daily to ensure all burnt-out bulbs are replaced. The burnt-out bulbs are turned into souvenir bulbs available at Plaza Customer Service. Several thousand bulbs have to be replaced annually to keep the light show bright.