Starlight Theatre’s story dates back to 1925, the year Rumania’s Queen Marie paid a visit to Kansas City. To celebrate her arrival, the Kansas City Federation of Music organized a showcase of local talent for the Queen that was also open to the public. While Kansas Citians had toyed with the idea of building an outdoor theatre before, the $7,000 that the showcase raised made it clear that Kansas City had an audience for such performances and that outdoor theatre could one day become a Kansas City tradition.
Profits from the showcase were then placed in the city trust and proposals for the location of Kansas City’s outdoor theatre began. One suggested site was where Kansas City Art Institute now stands, but area residents disapproved of building such a large structure in their neighborhood. Another possible location was just north of UMKC, although these plans were also shelved because officials feared the theatre would give the newly completed Municipal Auditorium too much competition.
After 15 years of proposals, the need for a venue to house celebrations commemorating Kansas City’s 100th birthday sped up the process. A committee was quickly chosen, Swope Park was deemed the location, and construction began on a cold December day in 1949. While the theatre was still unfinished for the city’s 1950 centennial anniversary, the show went on, and thousands of Kansas Citians flocked to see the historical revue of their city, Thrills of a Century. The show’s success then proved to be the perfect spark of motivation for completing Starlight and beginning the tradition of bringing Broadway to Kansas City. Community volunteers helped raise money and establish theatre policy; local craftsmen donated their time to finishing construction, and Starlight Theatre as we know it was born.
That same year (1950), the Starlight Theatre Association of Kansas City, Inc., was formed as a 501 (c)(3) not for profit corporation to operate, program and maintain professional theatre in our community.
In 1958, Starlight Theatre received a generous boost from Jerry Lewis. During an opening night performance, Lewis found the distance between performer and audience limiting. He then proposed to theatre personnel that they extend the stage so it covered the orchestra pit. When Starlight officials explained they could not finance the project, Lewis himself paid the cost! Although the extension was temporary for Lewis’ show only, the idea was a good one. In the early 1980’s the stage was permanently extended over the orchestra pit, bringing on stage action closer to the audience. This extension lasted until the building of the 10-story, climate controlled Jeannette and Jerome Cohen Community Stage in 2000.
Another highlight in the history of Starlight Theatre came in a 1960s production of Mr. President. Starlight’s producer, Richard Berger, who always had a knack for adding pizzazz to his shows, swayed President Harry Truman to make a guest appearance in the opening night show. Berger’s casting of Truman was a sensation, although an attack of appendicitis forced Truman to leave Starlight by ambulance during the intermission.
Since then, Starlight Theatre has steadily remained a staple of Kansas City’s performing arts community and a favorite for those looking for summer-time family-oriented entertainment. And while there were once 38 other self-producing outdoor theatres in the U.S., today only three remain, making Starlight a landmark not just for Kansas City, but also the whole country.