After 40 years of bringing Broadway to KC, he has plenty of stories to tell

After 40 years with Kansas City's Theater League, Mark Edelman is retiring.
After 40 years with Kansas City's Theater League, Mark Edelman is retiring. skeyser@kcstar.com

After 40 years as head of the Theater League, Mark Edelman has stories.

The kind of star-studded personal stories you can only collect after a career of rubbing elbows with the stars.

Stories like the one about Desi Arnaz — Ricky Ricardo himself — at the Hereford House. According to Edelman:

“When we did ‘I Do! I Do!’ with Lucie Arnaz and (her husband) Laurence Luckinbill — by the way, Larry Luckinbill was the first actor I’d known to pick up a meal check — Lucie’s father, Desi Arnaz, came to town and we had dinner at the old Hereford House.”

The elder Arnaz, recognized worldwide for starring opposite his former wife Lucille Ball on TV’s “I Love Lucy,” proceeded to wash down his meal with copious helpings of drink.

“He got up on the table and started singing ‘Babalu,’" Edelman recalled. “Pretty wacky.”

Or the time Eartha Kitt — perhaps best known for playing Catwoman on the '60s “Batman” TV show — dropped in on an unsuspecting Kansas City couple because she liked the look of their Ward Parkway home.

“Eartha Kitt was here doing "Timbuktu!" Edelman said, “and we were driving her to an appearance or something. And she sees a house and says, ‘Oooh, let’s go to that house.’

“I tell her, ‘But we don’t know those people.’ She says, ‘Oh, that’s OK.’

“So we knock on the door, and this couple answer and Eartha Kitt takes us into the house and sits there chatting with them for a while.”

And then there’s “Sugar Babies” star Ann Miller’s appetite. Edelman took the famous tap dancer to dinner, where she scanned the menu and announced, “I want everything.”

“We thought she was kidding. No. She ordered one of everything. She ate every entree on the menu.”

Edelman’s reminiscences are flowing now that he's officially retired. In May, with the final performance here of a touring company of “A Chorus Line,” he turned the duties of booking those shows over to the staff he has built over four decades.

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For its inaugural season in 1977-78, Theater League booked the national tour of "A Chorus Line" for an unprecedented three weeks. Martha Swope

Appropriately enough, it was a touring production of “A Chorus Line” that back in 1978 convinced Edelman that the newly formed Theater League had a future. After more than a decade of theatrical near-drought in which only a couple of Broadway shows would play in Kansas City each year — and then for only a night or two — he realized the city had a vast untapped market for the glitz and glamour of the Great White Way.

“There’s something dramatic about concluding my Broadway touring presenting career the way it began — with ‘A Chorus Line,’” he said.

Edelman is a Kansas City native. He attended Shawnee Mission East High School, then studied theater at Washington University in St. Louis, where he wrote original musicals for his fraternity.

While in law school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Edelman attended a performance at Missouri Repertory Theatre (now Kansas City Rep) that changed his life.

“I saw ‘Marat/Sade’ in that old Quonset building that used to be the theater, and it just blew me away," he said. "I think that may have been the moment when I realized I had to stay involved in theater.”

While still studying law in the early '70s Edelman contracted with the city Parks and Recreation Department to create the Theatre Truck, a mobile flatbed theater that offered a country-Western version of Shakespeare's “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”

After getting his law degree, Edelman went to New York, intending to become an entertainment attorney.

“But I was like a C+ student. Those jobs were going to the A students from Michigan and Harvard. I wasn’t likely to get a top job like that.”

Instead he found his way into theater management. He spent a year with the famous Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pa.

“That’s when I started reading Variety and I saw that Broadway touring shows were playing places like Columbus and Cincinnati for a full week. I thought, ‘Hey, Kansas City’s bigger than those towns. Why can’t we bring in those shows?’”

This was the beginning of the Theater League, inspired largely by Joseph Papp’s famed nonprofit Public Theater in NYC. The league’s first subscription season opened in the fall of 1977 with a touring company of “Grease” and then kicked into high gear with a three-week booking of the then-hot “A Chorus Line” in April 1978.

“I remember my mom said, ‘Are you crazy? Shows come into Kansas City for two or three nights. That’s it.’"

“I said, ‘Well, Mom, that’s the way they’re doing it now’.”

The “Chorus Line” run was a smash, and the Theater League was on its way.

As a nonprofit, the league initially relied on volunteer labor.

“I was a practicing attorney and for years this was a hobby,” Edelman said. “It didn’t become a career until we started booking shows into another city. With just one town you really can’t afford the staff you need to do it right.”

Today the league has a staff of nearly two dozen and books shows into 11 cities, among them Thousand Oaks, Santa Barbara and Riverside in California; Phoenix; Colorado Springs; South Bend, Ind.; Toledo, Ohio; and Wichita.

In all, the league has 46,000 season subscribers, more than half of them in Kansas City. In each locale, the same successful business model is at work: Sell subscription tickets first, then single seats.

Each season lineup features at least one smash musical that everyone wants to see. The subscription income underwrites shows — especially non-musicals — that may be off the average subscriber’s radar.

Not every subscriber likes every show, Edelman acknowledges. There have been walkouts. Especially in the early years, shows with controversial subject matter were a tough sell.

“But that’s OK,” said Edelman, who always has had a soft spot for experimental theater. “Part of our mission is to create that broader theatrical experience our audiences might otherwise never have.”

To that end the league has a long history of not only presenting touring companies, but creating its own shows, like the 1998 “Geech: The Moosical,” based on a popular '80s newspaper comic strip about small-town Texas. It featured an original score by Angelo Badalamenti, the favorite film composer of director David Lynch (“Twin Peaks,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Blue Velvet”).

Theater League invested in "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," which was up for a Tony Award in 2012. Michael J. Lutch

In recent years the league has invested in several productions that went on to snag Tony nominations, among them the musicals “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” and “Once” (based on the popular Irish film).

In fact, Edelman is a Tony voter who saw every show on Broadway last season. He credits his perfect record to his wife Karin Lichterman, who is dedicated to attending every production.

“I promise you, I am the only touring Broadway presenter who saw every Broadway show last season. Most guys in my line of work go to New York and just see the musicals.”

Over 40 years the league has presented its KC shows at the now-defunct Lyric Theatre, the Midland, the Music Hall, the 150-seat Quality Hill Playhouse and now the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

The road hasn’t always been smooth. In 2007 the City Council voted to give the booking rights to the Music Hall to the national presenter Broadway Across America, effectively disenfranchising the league, which lost the only venue capable of holding the biggest tours.

The divorce didn’t last. In 2010 the two organizations joined forces. Today the league presents smaller shows in the Kauffman Center, which seats 1,800. And it does local promotion and ticket sales for Broadway Across America shows booked into the 2,400-seat Music Hall — including next summer's "Hamilton."

Edelman’s final effort as head of the league was to develop a production of “The Wizard of Oz” that will play at the Providence Medical Center Amphitheater in Bonner Springs next month.

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Scarecrow (Jordan Fox), Tin Man (Brian McKinley), Dorothy (Chelcie Abercrombie) and the Cowardly Lion (Robert Hingula) are on their way to the Emerald City in "The Wizard of Oz," coming to Providence Medical Center Amphitheatre Aug. 1-5. Theater League

Not only is “Oz” believed to be the first professional musical theater production ever presented in Wyandotte County, but it represents the first time Warner Bros. has licensed the use of stills and film clips from the classic 1939 movie for a stage production. They will be shown on a 40-by-20-foot video wall at the rear of the stage.

Equally innovative is Edelman’s decision to use developmentally challenged youngsters as extras. He hopes this “Oz” becomes an annual tradition. (Shows are at 8 p.m. Aug. 1-5. See wizardofozkc.com).

Edelman is out of the day-to-day operations now, but he will remain as leader of the Theater League board, concentrating especially on efforts to fund other theaters and projects around the country.

The business of booking touring shows into Kansas City has shifted to a new entity, the American Theatre Guild. This sister organization is being run by longtime staffers like business affairs director Debbie Davis, advertising director Raida York and especially marketing director Amy Hamm, who will become executive director and the public face of the Guild.

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This fall, marketing director Amy Hamm (left) will take over for Mark Edelman, who is retiring. Theater League

Theater League will concentrate on philanthropic efforts.

“We’re one of the few not-for-profits that makes grants to other organizations,” Edelman said. “It’s not anybody’s money, so our board feels it should be returned to the communities we serve. Recently we’ve awarded grants to Toledo Rep and Oregon Contemporary Theater.

“Our credo always has been to enhance the quality of life in the communities we serve with the thrill of live theater. That’s what we do.”

Nor has Edelman’s love affair with theater cooled.

“We just did ‘The Lion King’ in Birmingham. Watching it with an audience that was 70/30 white/black — whereas most of our audiences are 98/2 — made me really proud to be part of it.

“Seeing people who don’t normally hang out together share the experience that Julie Taymor and Elton John wanted them to have…well, that’s a kind of community that we’re receding from today. Because it gets us all together in a room sharing these feelings, theater may play a more important role in our daily lives than ever before.”