The Country Club Plaza lights have illuminated KC’s iconic shopping district for 98 years, with the lighting ceremony growing from an unofficial gathering to a city-wide party.
According to historians at Kansas City Public Library’s Missouri Valley Special Collections, “On December 25, 1925, a string of Christmas lights hung over the doorway of the Mill Creek Building at the Country Club Plaza for the first time, beginning a tradition that today is one of the most extravagant Christmas light displays in the nation.”
How the Country Club Plaza Lights morphed into a holiday tradition through the years
Two years after the Country Club Plaza opens, Charles Pitrat, a J.C. Nichols Company maintenance supervisor, hangs the first string of lights on the Mill Creek Building.
The holiday tradition begins to grow when Pitrat marks the opening of the Plaza Theater by stringing lights across 47th Street and several businesses’ storefronts.
The stock market crashes in September, ushering in the Great Depression. That Thanksgiving, the first formal Plaza Lighting Ceremony is held, bringing a little light to a very dark time. The iconic building outline pattern, still used today, is established on roughly five Plaza buildings.
The light display grows to an estimated 25,000 bulbs.
During World War II’s bleak years, while many Kansas Citians are fighting abroad, the Plaza remains dark.
John Glenn becomes the first American to orbit the Earth, and though the total number of lights in the Plaza has now surpassed 75,000, the astronaut fails to mention if they are visible from the window of his Friendship 7 capsule.
The Plaza Lighting Ceremony becomes a full-scale televised production for the first time and is shown live Thanksgiving night.
The number of lights reaches the 100,000 mark.
The light display is curtailed due to the energy crisis, or what’s often referred to as the Oil Shock of ’73, a period of skyrocketing energy prices and fuel shortages. The lights are turned off just three days after the Thanksgiving Day ceremony.
Nearby Brush Creek floods after storms drop nearly 2 feet of water, flooding the area about a month before Thanksgiving. Seventy-seven of the 155 businesses at the Plaza face more than $100 million in damages. The community rallies, however, and the lighting ceremony goes on.
Kansas City Star reporter Lewis Diuguid writes of the thousands attending the 1981 ceremony: “It was their great escape. Gone was talk about soaring unemployment, high interest rates and hard times. No one spoke of the Hyatt Regency hotel disaster that took 113 lives and injured about 200 others just four months ago.”
Kansas Citian and actor Paul Rudd throws the ceremonial switch at the Plaza Lighting Ceremony for an estimated crowd of over 250,000 attendees, illuminating a dazzling mazework of lights and decorations beneath celebratory fireworks.
Despite one of the worst economic downturns in the United States since the Great Depression and with the unemployment rate at more than 10 percent, Kansas Citians still gather at the Plaza and witness 287,000 lights flicker on.
The Country Club Plaza undertakes the herculean task of replacing the almost 300,000 incandescent bulbs with LED lights.
Kansas City native and Saturday Night Live star Heidi Gardner flips the ceremonial switch to turn on the lights as the event now regularly attracts several hundred-thousand people.
Police ask Kansas City residents not to attend the lighting ceremony in the interest of public safety during the Covid-19 pandemic. There are still fireworks, but the city is encouraged to watch the spectacle from home.