KC music promoter Stan Plesser dies

Stan Plesser, a major Kansas City music promoter in the 1960s and '70s, died Thursday. He was 79.

Plesser, of Prairie Village, was born in New York but moved with his family to Kansas City in 1949. He attended Westport High School and what was then called Kansas City University (now the University of Missouri-Kansas City).

In 1963, Plesser opened the Vanguard Coffee House at 43rd and Main. The Vanguard became an important venue for young acoustic acts. Among the performers who appeared at the Vanguard were Danny Cox and Brewer and Shipley, both of whom became artists promoted by Good Karma Productions, a company Plesser co-founded and which eventually booked large-scale concerts into the Music Hall and Arrowhead Stadium.

Others who performed at the Vanguard included Glenn Frey (later of the Eagles), John Denver, J.D. Souther and comedians Gabe Kaplan, Steve Martin and Pat Paulsen.

“I loved that club,” Plesser said in 2008. “The audiences were great and listened so well. I would never even put in a cash register. I just put in a cash drawer so there wouldn’t be any noise.”

Plesser once described how he had bounced around, serving a stint in the Navy and managing shoe stores, before he walked into a place called the Lawrence Gallery, which he bought and transformed into the coffee house.

“At this time the coffee house circuit had passed its peak, but there was really good talent in it,” Plesser said several years later. “So I began booking people into the club and things started happeningThe people who were still doing the coffee house thing were in it because that was their life, music was their life, and there was no other way for them to go.”

In 1969, Plesser helped promote a free outdoor concert in Loose Park headlined by Brewer and Shipley. It was like Woodstock in miniature — the promoters expected a crowd of maybe 4,000, but 20,000 people showed up. Many in the crowd, he later recalled, stayed to help pick up trash.

“I just really wanted to do something for Kansas City because the town has been very good to me,” Plesser said. “Everything I’ve got came out of KC.”

In 1971, Plesser and his partners opened the Cowtown Ballroom, a former swing-era dance hall near 31st and Gillham. It served no alcohol and had no seating – just a huge floor where people could sit on pillows. The venue came to be regarded as the Midwest version of Fillmore West in San Francisco. Among the performers there were Frank Zappa, Linda Rondstadt, Ravi Shankar, the Byrds, B.B. King, Van Morrison and a group that became a local favorite – the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

But Plesser also tried unusual bookings, including the Kansas City Philharmonic. Eventually live radio broadcasts from Cowtown were syndicated internationally.

The venue was the subject of a highly regarded 2009 documentary, “Cowtown Ballroom: Sweet Jesus,” in which Plesser and others were featured prominently.

The ballroom’s final concert was Sept. 16, 1974. The artists included the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Brewer and Shipley, and Steve Martin.

“As Joni Mitchell said: ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,’” a reviewer for the Star wrote. “There’s going to be a big void in the hearts of Cowtown folk for some time.”

Services will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday at Louis Memorial Chapel in Kansas City. Burial will be in Rose Hill Cemetery. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Pet Connection, Winding River Kennel or the March of Dimes.