With all the bright lights, hum of generators and little kids running around, the parking lot in front of Union Station took on the air of a circus Friday night.
And that was before athletes started flying through the air.
Several dozen people packed bleachers to watch the first of two nights of filming for TV’s “American Ninja Warrior” and check out the obstacle course and all its rings, nets and bars. Some in the audience were friends and family of the 125 or so competitors. Others were seated in chairs on grass out of camera range.
Meanwhile, some fans who couldn’t get tickets took up positions in Penn Valley Park across the street, the Liberty Memorial tower looming behind them.
“TV’s much better than this,” complained Fred Ford of Lee’s Summit, as he and his wife, Joy, gazed at the spectacle from behind a chain-link fence on closed-off Pershing Road.
“Ain’t it funny — it looks so much bigger on TV,” Joy Ford said.
The couple had tried for 8 or 10:30 p.m. tickets but had to settle for the 2:30 a.m. seating. But they weren’t planning to stick around.
John and Beth Hatch of Independence had front-row seats on a concrete ledge in the park. Only problem: a somewhat obstructed view of tents and a construction trailer.
“We just wanted to come out because it’s novel that it’s here,” she said.
Shortly after 6 p.m. inside Union Station, a fellow in bright red long underwear was attracting a few looks. This was the Long John Ninja, aka contestant Paul Kartchner of Rigby, Idaho.
The long johns, he explained, were a tribute to an ancestor from the 19th century who worked in a fabric mill and was known for making his own underwear out of leftover material.
Steps away, in one of two long lines, Teresa Gutgesell held a glittery poster for the Norwegian Ninja, Lars Hanson of Olathe. She and husband Paul, of Overland Park, know Hanson, a student at Kansas State University, because he started a youth basketball team their son played on.
The Hanson fan group, perhaps 200 strong, donned orange T-shirts.
Meanwhile, another local competitor, Alex Carson of Kansas City, relaxed on a bench. He wouldn’t get his turn through the course for a few hours but wanted to survey the scene and the course.
Flipping through paperwork from the show, Carson pointed out that the ninja who completed the course with the fastest time Friday night would score $2,500. Saturday night at the city finals, featuring the top 30 from Friday, the fastest athlete will win $5,000.
Outside, steps away from the course, competitors warmed up in “the pit,” an area complete with nunchucks and bungee cords hanging off a high bar.
This was also where a crew member checked athletes’ attire for logos — typically forbidden on TV shows. Dave Cavanagh, 29, a firefighter/paramedic from the Boston area, said he planned to change T-shirts after being told a fire department logo was a no-go.
Cavanagh and girlfriend Jenny Lawler snagged walk-on spots on the show, but to earn those they camped out several nights in Penn Valley Park and spent a couple of nights in a rental car on the street.
Cavanagh walked on in St. Louis last year too and made it to the city finals there.
How did he get so much time off? “A lot of swaps,” he said.
Cavanagh was one of the first competitors to hit the course Friday night and made it all the way through.
Filming had been expected to start around 7 p.m., but it was well after 8 before the first ninja got a go. Meanwhile, ominous clouds floated overhead but didn’t produce rain. That threat of thunderstorms had prompted producers to move up the shooting schedule Friday evening by two hours.
Filming is scheduled to continue Saturday night. (Free tickets have been distributed through a website.) About 15 competitors from Saturday night will get the chance to confront “Mount Midoriyama” in Las Vegas in late June.
Season 7 of “Ninja Warrior” debuts May 25 on NBC.