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Big crowd watches as Plaza lighting ceremony opens holiday season

Updated: 2012-11-23T05:27:55Z

By RICK MONTGOMERY

The Kansas City Star

The Archer family counted down from 10, as they always do, and when the Country Club Plaza lights blazed to life Thursday, their holiday was complete.

This is Thanksgiving,” said the father, Rick Archer of Kearney, Mo. “We’ve been coming here for 25 years,” and he drew out the 20 … 5 … years for emphasis.

But this year the Archers had choices — alluring, bargain-brimming, retail choices — though they never considered them. And from the family’s view on the second floor of a parking garage, the Plaza crowd looked as robust as ever.

“It’s tradition,” Rick Archer said, turning to son Ricky, who was with his wife. “First time here, I carried Ricky, who was 2. …We wanted to start a tradition with our family.

“Today we parked just five or six blocks that way, where we always park. That’s a tradition, too.”

Thanksgiving is still about “light” on the Plaza while, within hours of the switch being thrown, big box stores across the metro drew throngs of their own by heralding the new “black.”

For chain retailers, the strategy of Black Thursday was to take early holiday-shopping business away from online vendors who have posted huge sales during off days for the department stores.

In past years most of the chain stores threw open their doors for bargain hunters the Friday after the holiday.

But for some, the holiday is about memories, not stuff.

“You can go shopping any day,” said Cassie Archer, 29. “Life is busy enough.”

Flipping the switch at the 83rd annual lighting ceremony were soccer players Matt Besler, Kei Kamara and Jimmy Nielsen of Sporting Kansas City.

The ceremony stage had been moved from the east end of the Plaza, where it had faced west for the past generation, to the area of Pennsylvania Avenue and Nichols Road.

The east-facing stage allowed for a larger gathering spot for revelers to watch the entertainment, which included a post-ceremony concert featuring Irish folk band The Elders and the Ruskin High School Choir.

But several miles away in a line of waiting shoppers, Daren Sommers made his case for a new way of observing the holiday: Black Thursday.

“I’m here for a Toshiba 50-inch flat-screen TV. It’s going for $299.”

Sommers, a Lenexa engineer, gave up a traditional Thanksgiving when he decided to spend Thursday night outside near the riding mowers at Metcalf South Shopping Center. Joining him were 10 strangers — most of them also looking to grab that Toshiba, priced $200 less than the cheapest available online.

The Plaza lights? “I never understood the attraction of fighting those crowds when you can look at the same lights when it’s over,” said Sommers, 38.

While others feasted in the early afternoon, Sommers’ girlfriend was kind enough to swing by Sears and drop off a sack lunch from Burger King.

“See, I had this old, old TV that went out not long ago,” he explained. “And since then we’ve been sitting 8 feet away from 20-inch set with a bubbled shape.”

Sommers had to watch his Kansas State Wildcats on that little set, making a valiant run for a national football championship.

With the doors at Sears opening at 8 p.m., Sommers was able to buy the Toshiba, leave right away, and have the set hooked up before the day ended.

“An OK day for me,” he said, especially since today he will sit for a holiday-style meal with his girlfriend’s family — and, barring technical difficulties, he’ll enjoy high-definition images through the weekend.

Thanksgiving Day — this one the 150th since President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of reflection during the Civil War — once was among the more tranquil of holidays.

Remember “over the meadow and through the woods”?

We sat down together and prayed, ate, then took a short nap before the Plaza lights brightened the night.

“Through 83 years, we’ve been through a lot of changes in all the ways we celebrate Thanksgiving,” said Kara Lowe of Highwoods Properties, which owns the Plaza.

“This continues to be one of Kansas City’s favorite ways,” she said of the KCP&L Lighting Ceremony, “and it just gets bigger and better.”

The predictability of the Plaza lights each year is about all that hasn’t changed about Thanksgiving.

Not very long ago Americans were content to watch only two NFL games on Turkey Day. That changed in 2006 when the NFL Network broadcast the first Thanksgiving night contest from Arrowhead Stadium.

Plaza lighting organizers that year were concerned the game between the Chiefs and Denver Broncos might shrink turnout for the traditional flip of the switch.

But no, the Plaza was again packed — and so was Arrowhead, where 80,800 shoulder-to-shoulder fans saw their Chiefs win, believe it or not.

Ah, those holiday seasons of old.

But this night on the Plaza was nice, 60 degrees, and Ann Nielsen danced her own version of an Irish jig to the music of The Elders.

“I don’t mind people going shopping rather than sticking with tradition. I’m a retailer myself,” said Nielsen (no relation to the soccer player who helped flip on the lights).

“I do sympathize with the associates who have to work,” she said, adding she’ll be doing the same at a Hallmark store this morning, 9 a.m. sharp, and she’s hoping to be busy.

Some in the crowd were planning to be in the shopping aisles by midnight.

“I’ll be at Best Buy getting a deal on a computer,” one said. “But don’t print my name. I’m just doing it for my company.”

For bringing more choices to a nation neck-deep in choices, thank you, Thanksgiving 2012. Thank you.

To reach Rick Montgomery, call 816-234-4410 or send email to rmontgomery@kcstar.com.

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