On the hill topped by Kansas City’s iconic Liberty Memorial, Amanda Gonzalez looks around and her spirit soars.
This is her favorite spot in the city she has come to call home, a spot she especially enjoys on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend when the Kansas City Symphony sets up in front of Union Station and fills the air with rumbling tympani, trilling piccolos and powerful cannon fire. With the Liberty Memorial and Union Station as bookends and fireworks silhouetting the skyline, Gonzalez can’t imagine spending her Memorial Day weekend anywhere else.
But Gonzalez is not among the estimated 55,000 audience members each year who enjoy Celebration at the Station with friends and family by spreading picnic blankets on the sloping hillside of Penn Valley Park.
Instead, she is one of more than 150 people who volunteer on the holiday weekend to make this event one of the nation’s largest musical tributes to the concept of remembering those who have served our nation.
“The Symphony does such a great job of interacting with the public and bringing different types of music to audiences in such a variety of places,” said Gonzalez, a 35-year-old transplant to Kansas City from the Chicago area. “The Symphony is great for bringing all age groups together in an appreciation of music and a celebration of the community. I just love it.”
This Memorial Day Sunday will be the 13th year the Kansas City Symphony has brought its folding chairs and music stands to a tent on Pershing Road. Supported financially and with significant volunteer assistance from Bank of America, Celebration at the Station last year drew people from 10 states and had an economic impact on the city of nearly $2.3 million, according to an economic calculator provided by Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit that connects arts organizations around the country.
“It’s an event that is a source of pride, a positive experience no matter who you are or where you come from or what your politics are,” said Linda Lenza, a Kansas City-based senior vice president and market manager for Bank of America. “For weeks after, we get notes from people expressing their appreciation for the program.”
In addition to the live audience, the two-hour program is broadcast live by Kansas City Public Television (KCPT) and watched by 65,000 local households and is replayed several times in the following days. A taped broadcast later plays in 14 regional television markets in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas with an estimated audience of more than 1 million people. Other than the National Memorial Day Concert on the Capitol Lawn in Washington, D.C., also broadcast live on PBS, it is likely that the Celebration at the Station is the largest musical tribute to the holiday and its intent anywhere in the U.S.
“The event in Washington, D.C., is focused on great stars and performers and a variety of experiences, but in Kansas City, our focus is on the symphony, on the music, on the community,” said Frank Byrne, executive director of the Kansas City Symphony.
Formerly a member of the United States Marine Corps Band for 27 years, Byrne understands the potential for music to convey a sense of national pride.
“There are great moments of exhilaration and celebration, and quiet moments of reflection that we hope touch the hearts of our audience.”
Gonzalez agrees with the distinction between Celebration at the Station and the event at the U.S. Capitol. Her parents lived in the Washington, D.C., area for several years, so she had the opportunity to attend a couple of programs on the Capitol lawn. After volunteering for four years at Celebration at the Station, usually in a traffic control position stationed on top of the hill beside Liberty Memorial — keeping people far away from the cannons and fireworks — she says there’s no comparison between the two programs.
“Kansas City’s is so much more interactive, so casual,” Gonzalez said. “The mayor is always on the grounds wandering around and greeting people, and the pre-program for families and kids is amazing. Kansas City’s is just so much more personal.”
This year’s event will have the largest contingency of volunteers the Symphony has ever called upon at one time. Ann Marie Oesterle-Siegwarth, the Symphony’s volunteer coordinator, has upped the involvement by incorporating volunteers from the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and members of local National Guard units.
“As the event continues to grow, we realize we need more people and by involving more organizations, we are introducing more individuals and their constituents to the Symphony and becoming more a part of our community,” Oesterle-Siegwarth said.
The 150 or so volunteers are divided into 11 categories of work that include everything from seating VIPs to passing out programs to answering questions in information booths and helping with traffic flow.
Each volunteer wears a bright yellow T-shirt, easily visible in the sea of people that will cover Memorial Hill.
Volunteers with the DAV will pass through the crowd passing out small American flags for those who make donations to the Symphony. The National Guard will make sure pathways stay clear in case of emergency and, in general, help with traffic control and other needs as called upon.
Sgt. 1st Class Brian Jorgensen and his fiancee, Staff Sgt. Amy Brown, both Army combat veterans with the Missouri National Guard from Platte City, will volunteer for the first time this year.
“We’re both excited to serve the community in this capacity and to experience the event firsthand,” Jorgensen said. “One of our first dates was to the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial, so we’re very proud to become a part of this patriotic program in our community.”
Michael Gordon, the principal flute player for the Symphony who will be participating in his eighth Celebration at the Station, often finds himself overwhelmed by the generosity and hard work of the volunteers who help make all Symphony events so special.
“We have a relatively small staff at the Symphony, so it’s the volunteers who oftentimes make us so successful, and this is one of those occasions,” said Gordon, one of about 125 musicians who will perform Sunday.
“I find myself looking up the hill and seeing the audience, all of the little American flags waving, the Liberty Memorial in the background and it’s just a remarkable experience,” he said. “Sometimes, I have to remember to concentrate, that I have a job to do.”
And Gordon’s job is indeed important. As one of three piccolo players in the Symphony, he is in the spotlight literally. Tradition requires that John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” officially known as the National March of the United States, be included in most patriotic celebrations. The focal point of the march is an approximately 30-second piccolo solo.
“As an American flute player, it’s one of those songs that you learn to play in high school, but it’s always an honor, always very exciting, and this setting in Kansas City is a rare opportunity indeed,” Gordon said. “It’s the largest live audience the Symphony performs for. It’s certainly not Helzberg Hall, but it is equally special for us.”
Just as every flute player learns “Stars and Stripes Forever,” so does every percussionist learn the timely booms associated with Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” During Celebration at the Station, the Symphony positions a percussionist on the hill with the cannons to ensure they are fired at the precise moments. Matt Henderson is the percussionist who will conduct the cannons or signal when they are to be fired.
However, the Missouri Army National Guard, Battery D, “Truman’s Own,” actually fires all three cannons. The cannon shots are a highlight of the evening, second only to the 15-minute fireworks show orchestrated by Wald & Co./All-American Display Fireworks. The 91-year-old Kansas City company has been a part of every Celebration at the Station. Daryl Marmon, display manager, starts working on the show in December, coordinating with the Symphony, looking for new shells and other ways to keep the show fresh year after year.
“It’s certainly one of our signature shows in the Kansas City area and always a special event for us,” Marmon said.
He and his crew of 20 employees arrive on the south lawn of the Liberty Memorial by about 9 a.m. to begin setting up the show. On average, about 100 shells explode each minute in the Kansas City sky during the final 15 minutes of Celebration at the Station.
The National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial Celebration at the Station, however, is not the only commemorative event that sets Kansas City apart on Memorial Day weekend and relies heavily on the contributions of volunteers. The Liberty Memorial, a tribute to those who served in World War I and the primary reason Celebration at the Station is held at its base, is a more solemn recognition of the holiday and those who gave their lives in service to the United States.
Activities take place on the grounds beginning on Friday of Memorial Day weekend, but the Monday events draw the largest crowd, thus requiring more volunteers. A 10 a.m. ceremony includes comments by dignitaries and salutes to veterans and active military. Another ceremony at 1 p.m. is devoted to the Walk of Honor, the bricked area in front of the museum that now includes more than 10,500 bricks, most of which honor those who served the U.S. military.
More than 100 new bricks will be added to the Walk of Honor this Memorial Day, and the names of each honoree will be read aloud. Almost 10,000 people attend this ceremony and, afterward, many eagerly search the bricks for the names of loved ones.
That search for bricks any time of the year has become easier because of the volunteer work performed by Margaret Allen of Bonner Springs. A self-proclaimed master of spreadsheets who works regularly on Microsoft Excel, Allen has spent dozens of volunteer hours in recent months reconfiguring the brick data base making it easier for staff, volunteers and museum visitors to locate a specific brick.
“When my husband and I first visited the museum, it was just the two little rooms on either side of the Memorial,” said Allen, whose great-grandfather served in the Navy during WWI. “The museum was not very impressive then, but we were so struck by the passion and dedication of the volunteers who greeted us that we decided this is where we wanted to give our time.”
Allen’s husband, Steven, is equally passionate about this aspect of Kansas City and global history. A member of the Living History Corps, he often dresses in World War I uniforms for special events at the museum. This Memorial Day, he will wear the uniform of a French soldier from WWI.
“It’s really one of the most excellent volunteer experiences we’ve ever had,” said Margaret Allen, 38, who has also volunteered at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Arts, among other Kansas City nonprofits. In addition to working on the Walk of Honor database, Allen enjoys devoting time to the research center, located in the museum’s basement.
“I have been so moved by looking at the list of original donors and the original people who worked so hard to bring this great museum to Kansas City,” she said. “They gave so much to make this happen, and of course, the veterans, that I’m honored to be able to give a few hours each month.”
By the Numbers
Celebration at the Station
Volunteer hours: 944 (est.)
Mini flags handed out by volunteers: 2,000
Firework shells used: about 1,500
Live-firing cannons: 3
Cannon shots played in Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”: 16
Microphones used: 144
Trash receptacles: 200
Music folders: 58
Pages of sheet music: 1,973
Weight of all the sheet music: 32 pounds
Liberty Memorial Events
▪ Admission to the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial is free to the public on Memorial Day.
▪ And here’s your Memorial Day/Celebration at the Station trivia question: What emcee of Celebration at the Station was once signed as a free agent by the Kansas City Chiefs, but cut during training camp by Coach Hank Stram?
That would be the 2015 emcee John Amos, who earned greater success and fame as an actor. Among his television roles: Gordy the weatherman on the old “Mary Tyler Moore Show”; Lisa’s father on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air;” and Admiral Fitzwallace on “The West Wing.”
▪ Other entertainment prior to the Kansas City Symphony performance at 8 p.m. Sunday includes Kansas City’s very own Vine Street Seven, who play exclusively Kansas City jazz; The Elders, also from Kansas City who share a unique style of American and Celtic folk rock; the A La Mode Quintet; the Allegro Choirs of Kansas City; Diverse; the Phoenix Brass Band; and more.
▪ A complete schedule of entertainment, along with parking and other details of Celebration at the Station can be found at www.kcsymphony.org.
▪ The Traveling Vietnam Wall, an 80 percent scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., will be among 10 special events or attractions at the museum. It will be accessible following the 6 p.m. opening ceremony on Friday, May 22, through the 2 p.m. closing ceremony on Monday.
▪ A Vietnam-era “Huey” helicopter and other vintage military equipment will also be on display on the grounds.
▪ A pancake breakfast benefiting the National World War I Museum is set for Saturday, 8-10 a.m.
▪ The Disabled American Veterans will conduct a clothing drive Saturday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.