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K.C.'s Christmas is in the cards.

k.c.'s christmas is in the cards

My first memory of Christmas in Kansas City takes place in the car, in the middle of winter. My father is driving us at night through a typically bland Midwestern city. We reach the crest of a hill and the car pauses. There, spread below, is a city of lights. Multicolored pinpoints of light burn through the chill air. I wonder at the clear outlines of turrets, towers, roofs, and archways.

But these are not castles in the sky. This is Country Club Plaza, quite likely the country's oldest shopping center. Here no lush store names, or common ones, or shopping center "look" affronts the patrons.

Forty-nine miles of 156,000 lights outline the 14-block plaza, a general Spanish framework of low buildings finished in earthern tones and high-lighted with briliant tile roofs of red. Italian, Portuguese, and Moroccan influences abound. A 1911 English fountain with Neptune and spounting seahorses nicely counterpoises a bronze bord fountain copied from Florence's straw market, both a bit removed from the images of three frolicking penguins that might have been sculpted by a playful Rodin. There is the beige brick Plaza Time Building with contrasting blue and red tiles and Renaissance ceramic clock tower.

Even large stores, like Swanson's, greet visitors through Arabic archways. Halls Department Store is finished in white plaster with Moorish designs on the facade. More familiar names also succumb to the Mediterranea look: Bonwit Teller, Saks Fifth Avenue, Laura Ashley, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Crabtree & Evelyn. At Christmas many stores decorate their windows while characters from children's stories stroll among the crowds. Carriages take patrons through the plaza streets; and the trolleys, staffed by talkative drivers, link the plaza to the rest of town.

The plaza began with J. C. Nichols' purchase of a patch of swampy ground a mile beyond the end of the trolley line back in the 1920s. He saw in this pig farm a possible shopper's beau geste; people dubbed the project Nichols' Folly. Today it helps shape the city's character.

The same spirit manifests itself a few blocks away at the Crown Center. A dozen years before Nichols created his fantasyland, Joyce C. Hall began Hallmark Cards here.

Today, the half-billion-dollar Crown Center is as much a Christmas institution as the plaza. Here the mayor's tree is lit, a 92-foot Oregon Douglas fir, claimed to be the nation's second-largest Christmas tree. From November 24 through January 1, the entire area is transformed. Children's Coterie Theater characters like Winnie-the-Pooh and smiling snowmen wander the site. Kids navigate Santa's Play Trail of slides, ladders, and tunnels. Nearby is Kaleidoscope, a creative workshop for children. Visitors pet the giant stuffed animals and work at the magnetic sculpture table with the assistance of artists, including a green-glowing E.T.

Enormous displays featured at the center range from a historical tour of Christmas cards, to an exhibit of presidential cards going back to Eisenhower, to paintings by Norman Rockwell and Grandma Moses. Then there are the special trees given by employees each year to the late J. C. Hall. Hundreds of artists and crafts-persons made personalized miniatures to fit the theme of each tree. It is all there from November 24 through December 30.

Crown Center has its chrome and neon, but the outdoor skating rink mood is like a small town's--not at all like a Rockefeller Center's.

The Kansas City Museum harbors another tradition. Beginning two years ago, the Christmas Fairy Princess was resurrected. This gossamer vision was first created in the depths of the Depression; she reigned from Kline's Department Store, where she sat with wand in hand, gently and patiently listening to children who whispered their grandest Christmas schemes to her. With a flourish of the wand, and sometimes buzzers hidden under each slipper, she alerted concealed employees to the needs of boys and girls, who stood agape as the parcels slid down a chute or popped out of a magic tree. In 1970 Kline's closed its doors, but the tradition has new life.

Corny? You bet. So was Wlat Disney, who started in a Kansas City garage and left town not long before the plaza was first electrified, 1925. Did he take with him those castles in Spain?
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Kansas City, Missouri
Author:Mueller, William
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Nov 1, 1989
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