Each year, a four-man crew strings 75 miles of lights in the country's largest ceremonial lighting display.
Some electricians may untangle a string of Christmas lights, crawl up on their rooftops and outline their homes with colorful bulbs, but few have 250,000 spectators flock to see their handiwork.
A quartet of electricians from Kansas City, Kan.-based Broadway Electrical Construction Co. spends nine months every year stringing lights around Kansas City, Mo.'s Country Club Plaza, an upscale, outdoor shopping district built in 1922 and modeled after the marketplaces of Spain. On Thanksgiving night, crowds cram into the streets and on the rooftops to see the Spanish-style domes, towers, courtyards and buildings illuminate with thousands of jewel-colored bulbs. At the flip of a switch, all the electricians' work lights up for all to see.
"It was amazing, especially since I was a part of it," said Apprentice Russell McNeal about his first year on the Plaza lighting project. "I kind of stood there and looked around. They told me that is what it would be like, but I couldn't believe it. Everyone was there just to see what we did. That's never happened to me before."
In 1925, the historic Plaza Lights ceremony had humble beginnings with a single string of lights.
"The first little stringer was hung over a single doorway in 1925 by a maintenance man," said Ivan Hendrickson, who worked on the Plaza lights from 1962 to 1965. "Mr. Nichols (the Plaza developer) liked the idea and had his people do some more Christmas lighting. It grew to encompass all the buildings that made up the Plaza at that time."
Broadway has been wiring the Plaza Lights since 1990 when it took over the project from Evans Electric, which went out of business. Two of Evans' electricians, including Hendrickson, came to work for Broadway and ended up retiring after spending more than 30 years together on the project. Foreman Kermit Kauffman said he would like to follow in their footsteps.
"How much longer would I want to do the Plaza lights?" Kauffman said. "I have about 25 years until I retire, so I'd say 25 more years."
Kauffman said he enjoys the challenge of the Plaza Lights, a $197,000 project that takes 3,000 man-hours.
"It's amazing what it takes to put them up and take them down in a year's time," he said.
On a sunny November day, the electricians were stringing lights and putting the final touches on the project. Project Manager Brian Root described what was ahead for the team during crunch time.
"We come down the day before the ceremony at four in the morning to test the lights, replace the bulbs and make sure everything is working," he said.
The Broadway team celebrates Thanksgiving Day with their families, but at 4 p.m., they're expected to report to the Plaza to take care of any last-minute tasks, such as setting up a low-voltage switch on the stage. The switch consists of candy canes with a piece of plexiglass and an old knife switch on top. Root said a lot of people think the switch is fake.
"A lot of people don't think it's a switch," Root said. "They think it is someone standing there plugging in a light.
Actually, in the 1960s, that's exactly what happened. Hendrickson said the maintenance workers stood by each building's electrical service and tried to turn them on as close as they could together. Today, the electricians wire the knife switch into the circuit so all the lights will come on at the same time.
When the clock strikes 7:30 p.m. and the special guest flips the switch, holiday revelers' jaws drop and heads swirl to look at all the lights around them. Meanwhile, the electricians make sure all the bulbs are burning bright. The electricians are appointed to different spots on the Plaza for troubleshooting.
"We're by the backup switches just in case something happens and there is a problem, which there hasn't ever been," said Foreman Joe Buffa.
The Plaza Merchants Association predicted a crowd of about 250,000 to 300,000 people for the 71st annual Plaza lighting ceremony.
"It's amazing how many people get crammed down there," Buffa said. "All you can see from the top of the building is hair. You can't even see bodies; it's so tight."
Not only Kansas Citians, but people from across the country travel to see the lighting ceremony. Buffa said many of the hotel rooms overlooking the Plaza are rented out years in advance. The event has also drawn attention from national media as well as a camera crew from IMAX Theatre, who filmed the Broadway team at work.
"Every year it gets bigger, and more people get involved," Buffa said. "It was live worldwide last year with CNN. There's also a trailer at the IMAX Theatre about the Plaza Lights. We had a 30-man camera crew down here off and on for two weeks."
BRAVING THE HEIGHTS TO HANG THE LIGHTS McNeal, an apprentice and Kansas City native, said he and his family used to come down to see the Plaza Lights, but he never thought he would be the one to make it happen. With a laugh, he recalls when Root asked him to get involved with the project.
"When I first came to work for Broadway, the first thing out of Brian's mouth was, `Glad to meet you, I'm Brian Root. Are you scared of heights?'" McNeal said. "He said, `We got a job for you. You're going to be doing the Plaza Lights.'"
Root said the project requires a certain kind of electrician.
"A lot of guys don't like heights," he said. "You need to find a fearless person."
Not all the work can be done off the roof, the lift or a ladder, Root said.
"There are places where the guys have to get on the domes that don't have much of a walking ledge," he said. "The Times Tower has an 8-foot, 2-inch piece of pipe with a decorative ornament and we put lights on it every year. That takes a guy walking up on the dome, strapping a strap around this 2-inch pole, walking around it and putting lights on it."
Buffa said he enjoys wiring the Times Tower.
"The Times Tower is my favorite tower because it's the hardest one to do," Buffa said. "Usually it takes three days, but it will probably just take a day and a half with the new lift."
This year, Broadway bought a 110-foot lift. For the first 10 years on the project, Broadway used ladders and a 62-foot lift, which wasn't tall enough to reach the towers, Root said.
"There are some towers that are more than 100 feet tall," he said. "They'd get up and use bosun's chairs or tie ladders to the towers and we'd put up lights. Now we've got this 110-foot lift. We can work almost everything off of this now."
The electricians can do the work in about half the time with the hydraulic lift as compared to the bosun chairs and ladders, Root said. Along with saving time, the lift makes the electricians feel more comfortable with the heights.
"I enjoy working on it more than standing on top of the roof," Kauffman said. "You can swing at things as fast as you can at 360 deg. at 110 feet in the air and it doesn't bother me as much as stepping down and looking over the side."
Seeing the electricians dangling off the edge of the roof and working off the lifts often draws comments from the passersby, Buffa said.
"People look up at you, shake their heads at you and tell you you're stupid," Buffa said. "We have someone up in the lift and one of us down on the bottom, but they don't know we work together. You get to listen to the whole story they tell about the guy in the lift."
LADDERS INSTEAD OF LIFTS While some Plaza shoppers might think that standing on the lift is risky, they would probably faint if they saw what electricians had to go through 50 years ago to get up the lights. The answer lies in Broadway's storage shed and meeting room. Tacked to the bulletin board, a yellowed newspaper clipping from 1937 reveals that it took six months to hang 45 miles of wiring. Although four electricians are responsible for the Plaza lighting project today, it used to take dozens of workers.
"The most labor intensive period was in the 30s and 40s, when there were 40 people doing a smaller amount of work," Hendrickson said.
When he first started in 1967, Hendrickson said the electricians used extension ladders and bosun's chairs to hang the lights. Buffa said a bosun's chair looks like a kid's swing.
"It's just a flat board that has ropes underneath the bottom that come up the side," Buffa said. "It was unsafe."
As Buffa picked up the bosun's chair from the ground, he pointed out the rope.
"It has ropes underneath so if the board breaks, you're still sitting on the ropes," Buffa said. "These electricians tied this themselves. These are two ends of a rope braided together."
Along with the chair, Broadway also kept the rope, which was coiled up near boxes of old, dusty bulbs.
"These are the old ropes they used when they dropped down the side and sat in their little chairs going up and down the big tall buildings," Buffa said.
The electricians and maintenance workers did all the work off of the scaffolding, Buffa said.
"They had to have the whole crew pushing the scaffold, which might be several layers high," he said. "It's pretty amazing what it took to put them up."
More than seven decades after the first Plaza lighting ceremony, the electricians are still hard at work checking lights in the final weeks before Thanksgiving and making new stringers in their shop.
Apprentice Jeff Wahlen said he is excited to see the lights come on during Thanksgiving night.
"I've always come down here as a kid and wondered what it would be like one day to do it," he said. "This is my third month, and I love it. The people are great. You couldn't have a better group of guys down here doing this."
Kansas City's Country Club Plaza was built in 1922 and designed as the country's first suburban outdoor shopping mall. A trip to Europe inspired Plaza developer Jesse Clyde (J.C.) Nichols to model the Plaza after the marketplaces of Spain. Kansas City later became a sister city of Seville, Spain, in 1967. Here are a few facts about the country's largest ceremonial lighting display:
- The first Plaza lighting ceremony was in 1929.
- 257,000 ceramic and transparent bulbs, in five different shapes and sizes, outline the Plaza buildings.
- 75 miles of lights are used in the project.
- Broadway Electrical Construction Co. spends about 3,000 man-hours on the project each year. The electrical team starts hanging the lights in August and then takes them down in early January. From about January until May, the team makes stringers in their shop and checks the lightbulbs.
- About 250,000 to 300,000 people were expected for the 71st annual Plaza lighting ceremony.
- As many as 10,000 bulbs can burn out during a holiday season.
1. Go slow and stay organized. "Take time with the lights," said Apprentice Russell McNeal. "They bundle them a certain way. Make sure you don't get out of order or you'll have tangled mess."
2. Try not to break any bulbs. "My biggest worry is breaking something and having it fall below on someone," McNeal said.
3. Take your time and relax. "You've got to relax because if you tense up hanging off anywhere, you're more apt to lose your balance," Kermit Kauffman said.
4. Make sure you get quality material. "Some of these stringers down here are 30 years old," said Project Manager Brian Root. "If you went to a store and bought a stringer of lights, you'd be lucky if it lasted you until next year."
5. Stay on top of safety. "You get accustomed to the heights," said Apprentice Jeff Wahlen. "Everything we do is safe, so we don't have anything to worry about."
Broadway Electrical Construction Co., a Kansas City-Kan. based contractor, has wired the Plaza Lights for the past 10 years. Here is the company's background:
Founded: 1983. Jerry Root, owner and father of Project Manager Brian Root, started the company after buying out Electric Service Contractors.
Company Growth: Broadway Electrical has bought out two contractors including Boese Hilburn Electric and Reynolds Electric. "Since we've been in business, we've moved three times and expanded from a $1 million company to $25 million last year," Brian Root said.
Markets: Broadway Electrical does commercial, industrial and communications work in the Kansas City area. "We're really starting to expand our data-voice department right now," Root said. "It's a never-ending market because of the technology that keeps coming out. There's never going to be a spot where technology is going to stop. Datacom is a major source of revenue."
Employees: 163 in the field, one full-time estimator, seven project managers, two employees in Broadway's service department and an in-house accountant and his staff.