Kansas City loves food traditions that blur with the entertainment at which they’re enjoyed.
By KIMBERLY WINTER STERN
There’s Friday night at The K, shelling peanuts, munching on Topsy’s popcorn and quaffing a Boulevard as the boys in blue battle it out with the visiting team.
Sunday at Arrowhead with the parking lot showdown before the showdown on the field, where acres of Weber grills piled high with hot coals cradle baby back ribs and chicken breasts slathered with homemade barbecue sauce.
The Ethnic Enrichment Festival — one of the country’s largest, nearly free, festivals — when 60 cultures turn Swope Park into an open-air kitchen, showcasing signature dishes.
Crisp fall weekends at Louisburg Cider Mill chomping on apples and swigging fresh cider before maneuvering the corn maze.
And then there’s Starlight Theatre, that jewel of summertime entertainment where some season tickets have been handed down in families for generations.
Sipping lemonade while watching a show, the moon rising, the stars popping out above the stage — there’s nothing like it. Even in July’s murky heat, Starlight is a summer staple to be cherished with family and friends.
Starlight debuted in June 1951 with a much-ballyhooed historical revue of KC, just in time for the city’s centennial anniversary. After the show’s success a star was born — community volunteers raised funds and local craftsmen helped finish construction of the outdoor theater in Swope Park. Broadway shows became de rigueur, along with concerts and touring productions like “Prairie Home Companion.”
Concession items have always been available at Starlight — food like burgers, hotdogs, fries, popcorn, sodas and beer. But in 1996 Starlight started serving dinner to premium ticket holders and this year overhauled its sit-down dining option to include all Broadway show guests in the VIP Club.
Partnering with Plaza Catering and Chef Rolfe Loomis, Starlight shines with creative buffets and gourmet fare — fresh, well-executed salads, entrees and desserts — that offer a seamless “dinner-and-a-show” experience.
And the best part — now everyone is a VIP at Starlight.
“It’s the perfect addition to an evening at Starlight,” said Loomis during a recent pre-show dinner service in the VIP Club.
“Guests can call ahead and make reservations to dine before the curtain goes up. It’s fits everyone’s busy schedule. You don’t have to go to a restaurant and tell them you’re in a hurry and that you’ve got to get to Starlight. You’re already here and can enjoy a leisurely dinner before taking your seat.”
Each Broadway show boasts its own custom-designed menu — the Very Veggie Garden Bar is a repeat performer — created by Loomis, featuring plenty of healthy entrees and vegetables.
“Collaborating with Starlight to enhance their priceless tradition is an honor,” Loomis said..
Loomis and his crew, including Chef d’ Cuisine Chris O’Dell, serve more than 400 guests prior to curtain call during Broadway shows. Sit outside on the patio, with the pleasant splash of the Shirley Helzberg Garden of the Stars Fountain nearby, or in the airy VIP Club.
Dick and Sandy Jones, who have attended Starlight for decades, lingered over dinner underneath one of the VIP Club’s massive chandeliers recently before seeing “Flashdance” with friends Dr. Ron Wright and his wife, Sharyl.
“This is spectacular,” Dick said, gesturing around the VIP Club between courses of hot bacon spinach salad and herb-crusted lemon-thyme chicken breast with succotash.
“Why would you want to dine anywhere else before seeing a show at Starlight? And now that this option is available for all Broadway ticket holders — that’s really special. A great tradition in Kansas City has become even greater.”
Lenexa residents Dan and Tammy Bruegger are Starlight regulars — they’ve held season tickets for more than 20 years, before they started having children. Their family tradition at theater under the stars began when their three kids — 21-year-old twins Josh and Jenna and 15-year-old Maddie — weren’t old enough to have their own seats.
“I remember many a sweaty night holding one of them on my lap,” said Dan, who also recalls Tammy’s first outing after the twins arrived.
“It was Starlight — she went to see a performance with her mom two weeks after Josh and Jenna were born. She wasn’t out of the house long before they started crying. But I was thrilled to know she was enjoying Starlight.”
Jenna vividly remembers her first time at Starlight — a production of “Peter Pan.”
“I love coming here with my family,” she said.
The new dining option in the VIP Club enhances the Brueggers’ experience — along with friend Mark Prochaska and his wife who often accompany the group.
“To be able to come and enjoy a meal like this,” said Tammy, “makes Starlight the ultimate family outing.”
As the family polished off their cake and ice cream and prepared to take their seats for the opening scene of “Flashdance,” Tammy nodded to one of the concession stands located outside the VIP Club.
“We’ll probably get a glass of lemonade tonight,” she said. “It’s tradition.”
Dinner and a show — and lemonade. That’s Starlight Theatre.
For more information, visit Starlight Theatre’s website.
Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine.