Kansas City, MO

Celebrating Kansas City's Starlight Theatre: a look back at its 1925 origins and its 1950s opening

CJ Coombs

If you're not familiar with Kansas City's Starlight Theatre, it's a popular outdoor theatre and it's been around since the 1950s. It's a fun venue to catch a concert or Broadway show under the stars. The theatre seats 7,958 people. With warmer weather coming our way soon, it's time for the local community or visitors to think about what they might want to do this summer.

For visitors, the theatre is next to the Kansas City Zoo in Swope Park. It's less than 20 minutes from downtown Kansas City and it's less than 40 minutes from the airport via Interstate 29 and US 72 Highway South, or Interstate 435 East.

Starlight Theatre stage, Kansas City, Missouri.Photo byCharvex, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Starlight Theatre's preface to its story goes back to 1925

Although it would take years before the outdoor theatre plans would finally come together, the plans began after Queen Marie of Romania visited Kansas City in 1925. To prepare for that event, the Kansas City Federation of Musicians put together some local talent to perform for the Queen. It was a music concert held at the American Royal Building, which was open to the public with an admission fee.

The money earned from the event showcased before the Queen was put into a city trust fund. That's when the planning and incoming proposals began for an outdoor theatre. As far as location goes, one of the considerations was where the Kansas City Art Institute is now, however, residents in the nearby neighborhood felt an outdoor theatre would be too large and didn't approve.

Where the University of Missouri in Kansas City is situated was another consideration, but city officials thought it would have potential competition with the Municipal Auditorium.

Proposals continued for years

An upcoming centennial event celebrating Kansas City provoked the decision-making for the theatre's location. After a committee was selected, it didn't take long for the agreed-upon location of Swope Park which was perfect because there was ample space.

In December 1949, construction began and in June the following year, although the venue was not fully completed, Thrills of a Century opened at Starlight Theatre to celebrate the city's 100th birthday. After the success of this show, the Starlight Theatre Association of Kansas City, Inc. was established (501(c)(3) non-profit). The architect of the Starlight Theatre was Edward Delk.

Seeking to create a not-for-profit organization to activate and run the theatre going forward, 586 Kansas Citians contributed $10 each to become charter members of the new Starlight Theatre Association. (Source.)

The first producing director was Richard A. Berger, a New York native, and former production manager of St. Louis’ outdoor Municipal Opera. Berger kept this role until 1971. The first season began on June 25, 1951, with the musical, The Desert Song. Ever since then, going to the outdoor theatre and watching a show under the stars became a tradition for many. There are only a few outdoor venues that feature touring Broadway shows and the Starlight Theatre is one of them.

When comedian, Jerry Lewis, was at the theatre, he paid to enlarge a temporary stage in 1958 so he could be closer to the audience. Also of Interest, in 1964, when President Harry S. Truman was attending Mr. President, during intermission, he had an appendicitis attack and had to leave for the hospital.

In August 2012, I saw Crosby, Stills, and Nash at Starlight and it was an incredible concert with nice weather. In 2017, I saw Jersey Boys and that was great too. There's something about watching a performance in an outdoor setting. Visit here to see what Starlight has light up for 2023.

Did you know that you can rent space at the Starlight Theatre? There are nine event spaces. There are five spaces indoors and two of them have access to outdoor. There are also four that are outdoor only. Visit here for photos and more information.

Starlight Theatre stage, Kansas City, Missouri.Photo byDuedate2010, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Starlight Theatre is a part of Kansas City's performing arts community, and it's a great venue if you're wanting a place to take your family for some entertainment. There used to be many self-producing outdoor theaters in the United States. There are only three now and one is here in Kansas City.

Thanks for reading.

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Multi-genre writer and indie author with a BA in Eng Journalism & Creative Writing. My working career has been in law firms, and I retired early so I could be a writer all day. You could say I'm from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Missouri because I was born into the Air Force life. I love family, art, reading, history, true crime, travel, and research.

Kansas City, MO

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