Before they’re wheeled out into the sunlight to stoke the nostalgia of passersby. Before they’re stormed by hordes of whooping and hollering and adoring kids. Before they’re unveiled to the public to signal a fresh springtime.
Before all of that hoopla this past week, the Country Club Plaza Easter bunnies and Wonderland animals sit stoically in their winter lair: a cold, drab, unremarkable Plaza parking garage.
The nine bunnies — Kate, Ellyn, Amy, Bess, Sue, Lee, Brian, Peter and Nicholas — and other animals rest atop wooden slats against gray stone walls in a storage facility tucked away from any semblance of public life. Underneath old pipes and the low hum of fluorescent lights, with empty paint buckets, scattered craft supplies and cardboard boxes for neighbors, the bunnies hibernate for nearly 11 months out of the year, waiting patiently to hop above ground and into the limelight as one of Kansas City’s most fanciful and storied holiday traditions.
“This city, we’re nothing without our traditions,” says Plaza marketing director Gayle Terry.
Indeed, to get to the root of these rabbits you’d have to jump back nearly a century.
The bunnies’ story begins 95 years ago in 1922 at the J.C. Nichols-owned Crestwood Shoppes south of the Plaza. The history on exactly who crafted the bunnies and the people they’re named after isn’t concretely known. We do know, however, that the bunnies made their move to the Plaza in 1931, one year after the first Christmas lighting ceremony and one year before the inauguration of the Plaza Art Fair.
“They came at a time when the Depression was happening and the J.C. Nichols Company was trying to raise spirits and keep the community feeling good and keep them coming out,” Terry says. “The bunnies, the lights, the art fair, they all came from the same place of ‘Let’s cheer everyone up, let’s create some events.’ ”
Since their migration to the Plaza, every March the bunnies are unveiled and undertake their brief residency on the district’s sidewalks, street corners and courtyards through Easter. This year the bunnies were unveiled to the public on the first day of spring, March 20, and will go back into hiding on April 23.
“They signal a new season,” Terry says. “I think that’s a part of the reason why the bunnies are so popular. Every year, Easter weekend there’s almost a roar coming from the courtyard from the kids and the families. It’s just a fun energy that I, and I think a lot of Kansas Citians, look forward to every spring.”
What they don’t see is the animals primping for their moment in the sun. Bunny beautification, it turns out, is serious business.
Each year a few weeks before the bunnies’ debut, Plaza facility workers descend into the storage house to take inventory of any touch-ups that might be necessary on the plaster of paris animals. They give each one a light washing, plus dabs of paint and any minor repairs where necessary. Repairs, Terry says, that are surprisingly minimal.
“For as many decades as they’ve been used, these things have stayed in remarkable shape,” she says. “Not an extraordinary amount of care is needed. It’s just a little TLC and making sure they’re bright and colorful and looking their best.”
After the prep period, the 6-foot (ears not included) bunnies and their accompanying, slightly newer “wonderland” menagerie (a horse, stork, turtle, elephant, a couple of swans and a pelican) are loaded one by one by Plaza workers onto tractors and rolled out to their various locations throughout the Plaza. Each is placed in its purposefully designated location before an official Easter Wonderland unveiling ceremony.
“And if there’s ever a chance the bunnies are in the wrong place, we hear about it,” Terry says with a laugh. “People are like, ‘Hey, move my bunny back! This is where my shot happens!’ ”
Terry says it’s in moments like these that she sees the strong bond of nostalgia the bunnies have forged with the community over the years.
“It is funny, but I love how much the bunnies have come to mean to KC. I think the tradition and the nostalgia is very much appreciated in a district like the Plaza. People like coming back to the same place, next to the same bunny and having a picture taken. I see multiple generations doing this.”
Steph and Debbie Bauer of Kansas City, both 63, have been coming to see the bunnies for more than 50 years.
Standing outside of the courtyard of the Michael Kors store at Broadway and Nichols Road, Debbie points to the adjacent street, now occupied by Starbucks. “If my memory serves me right, there used to be a grassy patch over there,” she says. “That’s where they used to put all of the animals other than the bunnies.”
Debbie remembers her mother bringing her to see the bunnies in the late 1950s. Years later she and her husband, Steph, would bring their daughter.
“And now our daughter’s bringing her kids,” Debbie says. “That’s four generations of my family who’ve been making it a point to come to the Plaza to see the bunnies. It’s a beloved tradition.”
A few moments later local mom Kim Randle tries to contain the excitement of her kids, 3-year-old Chloe and 6-year-old Michael, as they race from creature to creature: riding atop the swan, then zooming toward the pelican and begging mom for a photo before skipping to the elephant.
“You know I barely even remember these animals growing up,” Kim says as she tries to slow down the children. “But they’re magnets for the kids. As you can see, they get them pretty excited.”
Down the street, Bobbi Zink and her longtime friend Janette Smith pass through the Pomona Courtyard outside Seasons 52 restaurant at Broadway and Ward Parkway. Smith is visiting from Arizona, but she grew up in Clinton, Mo. She says she had forgotten about the bunnies. Until Zink reminded her, that is.
“I knew they were here!” Zink blurts out after taking a picture next to bunnies Kate and Brian (the Pomona Courtyard is their designated spot). “How can I forget? They’re adorable.”
It’s a rabbit appreciation, you might say.
There’s some mischief afoot with the Plaza bunnies. You’ll notice there are nine of them. But there used to be 10. About 15 years ago, the 10th bunny, Joe, was stolen from the Plaza.
“It’s a great mystery,” marketing director Gayle Terry says. “No one knows what happened to him.”
If you have any information on his whereabouts please let The Star know. He has nine brothers and sisters who are worried sick about him and just want to know that he’s OK.