Article Kathryn Leo
For many of us, the holiday season would not be complete without a trip to the Country Club Plaza to see the lights. Rising in vertical and horizontal precision, the multi-colored lights trace the contour of the city’s Plaza shopping district in a dramatic blend of tradition, celebration and electric festivity.
The famous tradition draws its beginnings in a moment of spontaneity. In preparation for the 1925 holiday season, the Plaza merchants adorned the area’s sidewalks with small Christmas trees. For additional ornamentation, Charles S. Pitrat, head of maintenance for the Nichols Company, draped a single strand of colored bulbs over the entrance to the Suydam Building (currently the Millcreek Building on 47th street, the district’s original structure). The tradition really did not get going, however, until three years later when the Plaza Theater tower, then the highest point in the area, was completed and the decision was made to try to light that and every other building. As the shopping district expanded, the tradition grew in equal proportion. Today, that single-string afterthought has turned into an annual affair that defines our city.
In the years that followed, Pitrat added a crew to install the lights. At that time it was all done with wooden ladders which was a slow, tedious process. The men would climb up the ladders, attach the lights, move the ladder over, and climb back up. It was grueling work that took six months to hang 45 miles of wiring. Today, while the process is much easier, there is still tons of work and man hours to get all the lights hung and working by Thanksgiving night in time for the lighting ceremony. Capital Electric, the company responsible for hanging the lights, begins the process in August which entails covering the 55 acres that make up the Plaza district. Each section of the KCP&L Plaza Lights is made to fit the same spot each year. There is a coding system on aluminum tags to identify where each string belongs. This system enables them get the right building, right spot, and right height each year. There are tens of thousands bulbs used each year, and they get checked daily for burned-out bulbs. Retired Plaza lights are added to all gifts wrapped at Customer Service during the holidays.
2016 marked the 86th anniversary of the Plaza Lighting Ceremony on Thanksgiving night which draws hundreds of thousands each year to see one of the most spectacular holiday lighting displays. To ensure there are no glitches, there is a practice lighting the day before Thanksgiving from 2:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. which some Kansas Citians get up early to view. From Thanksgiving on, the lights are on each day from 5:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. until mid-January. Then the takedown process begins and goes on until March, where the lights are organized and stored in a building on the Plaza.
The holiday season ushers in many traditions, and the Plaza Lighting Ceremony is one that this community truly cherishes. “We’re thrilled to be a part of something special that so many friends and families come together for each year,” states Meredith Keeler, the general manager of the Country Club Plaza. Shining each night, the lights create an almost magical holiday marketplace, so take an evening to enjoy the magnificent architecture and dazzling lights of this time-honored holiday tradition.