More than Lights: A Plaza Christmas

(originally published 12/19/19)

It was inevitable. These past two weeks I managed to find some unusual views of Kansas City at Christmas, declaring we were more than the Plaza Lights. Still, Christmas in Kansas City will always be associated with those lights, so it was inevitable I had to end this three-week series there. But we’re going beyond the postcard views. No story this week, just another photo essay, with history’s views of unseen, less familiar, and long ago Plaza Christmas decorations and celebrations.

Putting on the Show

Imagine what it takes to pull off this extravaganza. Months of preparation and repair, warehouses to store everything, and then – in the early years – there was the matter of putting them up. (L) In 1937, 3 workers using long ladders and no safety equipment scale the top of the dome at the northeast corner of Nichols and Central. (R) Even in 1950, the work required enormous prowess and confidence, but apparently still no safety equipment. Here another 3 workers put the finishing touches on the dome of the Plaza time Building at the southwest corner of Ward Parkway and Broadway.

I’m not sure if the fellow in this next picture (right) wears that Mona Lisa smile because he’s finished organizing the lights for the season just past, or is meditating on this season’s task just starting. Based on the “artistry” of the two men on the far right, untangling them at holiday’s end probably wasn’t any easier than putting them up. These two photos date to 1950 (left) and 1947 (right).

Plaza Decorations Beyond the Lights

In 1934 (top), children and their chaperones look up at the giant Santa Claus in delight – or fear. Santa looms over them from his perch on a large bail of evergreen. The photo looks northwest from a vacant lot bounded by Ward Parkway (s), Alameda Road (n), Central (e) and Broadway (w). Despite the fact that the Plaza had been in development for over a decade, there were still many open lots. The Broadway Building is in the background, facing east between Nichols Rd. and 47th.

In 1949 (bottom), Santa Claus resumes a human scale, in the days when the Plaza still had a “Santa’s workshop” display and children could come and talk to him. This Santa gets some mixed reviews from the children, but then, that’s part of the tradition, right?

In 1950, artist Bob May created the world’s largest Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer figure for the Plaza display. On the left, May holds a child up to touch Rudolph’s nose. May’s creation was ten feet tall with a movable head, a wagging tail, and of course, a lighted red nose. On the right, Rudolph stands ready for the line of children who come to see him. Or perhaps he’s been asked to sit out those reindeer games.

Over-sized bells and candles were part of the Plaza’s display in the earlier years, less so today. In the photos to the right, Nichols Company workers repaint the bells and candles (1939). Over the years, these larger-than-life decorations appeared in different sites around the Plaza. On the far right, by 1949 the big candles are featured with a lighted tree in the triangular park across from the Plaza Theatre (the aforementioned gasoline station is gone by this time).

The candles, bells and other decorations kept the Plaza looking properly festive during the day when the lights weren’t apparent. In the left photo above, the bells hang from streetlights and the candles decorate the corner of another vacant lot. To the right, streetlights are wrapped in evergreen, and large evergreen swags drape over the street. The photos show (left) the north face of Nichols Road, looking east from Central, in 1931, and (right) the Balcony Building on the north side of 47th Street, looking west, in 1929.

On the northwest corner of Nichols Road and Pennsylvania, Sears was a brand new tenant on the Plaza when this photo was taken in 1949, the first “suburban” (non-downtown) store the Chicago retail giant had ever built. It’s lighting scheme fits its mid-century modern architecture. The low, long awning, also created a perfect platform for the tableau of Santa and his reindeer taking flight in the center of a quaint village (that, coincidentally, looks a lot like the buildings in Brookside).

The Plaza Lights at Night

I said no postcards earlier, but I’m making an exception for these two (above) because they’re great shots of the early years – 1937 on the left, circa the early 1940s on the right. Both are also taken from the same place, the northeast corner of 47th Street and J.C. Nichols Parkway, about where the J.C. Nichols fountain stands today. The atmospherics are nice, with the blurred car lights in both, the setting moon on the left, the lingering sunset on the right.

These two shots to the left – and others discussed earlier – show some of the earliest concentrations of decorations. The area around the Plaza Theatre on Wyandotte between Nichols Rd and 47th Street date from 1938 (l) and 1949 (r).

(Near right) Small live evergreens were lit up and temporarily “planted” along the Plaza’s streets, as seen here from 1935, looking east along Ward Parkway from Broadway. On the far right, the roof of the Balcony Building is decorated with at least six illuminated trees. The photo, dated 1936, shows the building on the north side of 47th Street, between Broadway and Central.

In 1935, the Plaza Time Building was not yet built, but the retail strip and parking garage to the west had been. As the photo above shows, it made the perfect spot for Santa Claus’ headquarters, where his sleigh and reindeer stand at the ready on the roof. Families lined up at the small building where Santa held court and children offered their wishes. There’s a small crowd at this time, but the boards laid over the barren ground are ready to keep dry the feet of a long, winding line of kids and parents that will be there tomorrow. Above a garland of over-sized candy canes, toy soldiers march along the parapet of the parking garage, accompanied by a rocking horse and jack-in-the-box.

(Featured Photo: In the 1950 photo at the top, the fellow is replacing bulbs with new GE Mazda Lamps. The large ornamental star was featured in several places in the early years, including atop the Skelly Building, the front of Chandler Floral, and on the facade of the Plaza Theatre.)

A note on photos: All photos here can be found on line at the web sites of either the State Historical Society of Missouri-Kansas City or the Kansas City Public Library, along with many other Christmas photos too numerous to include here – for now.

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