Shoppers passing under the massive crowns suspended over the streets of the Zona Rosa Town Center this holiday season may be too busy to look up and appreciate their connection to Kansas City’s past, but some people do.
Those are usually the folks who have lived in Kansas City for the past 50 years or so – the ones who remember the big crowns that helped ring in the holidays in downtown Kansas City throughout the 1960s and 70s.
Hoot Mann remembers them. It was his family’s company – Manneco in Independence – that created not only the Zona Rosa crowns but the original nine crowns commissioned by the Downtown Merchants Association to help celebrate the holidays in a city where crowns shine throughout the year.
“I remember being about 10 years old and going up in a bucket to help my dad with the lights,” says Hoot, who received his fun nickname at birth and has never been called anything else. “It was a lot of fun for a kid.”
As Hoot tells it, the merchants wanted crowns to celebrate the connection to the American Royal, Hallmark Cards, the Royals baseball team, the Crown Drug Store that operated downtown, and the Christian holiday season of the Prince of Peace.
Each of the crowns weighed in at an even ton. They were 12 feet tall and 15 feet in diameter, made from solid steel and painted with reflective white paint. Kansas City Power & Light installed an electrical transformer for each crown to power the rotating yellow, red, and blue lights.
Keeping such a monstrosity safely hung required some serious engineering and 3⁄4-inch aircraft-grade cables were suspended from the third floor of each corner building of the intersection. Drilling a hole through the walls, workers then bolted steel corner braces to the walls. The cable run continued to the basement where it was bolted to the concrete floor.
Back in those days, blue laws prohibited shopping on Sundays, so that’s when police blocked the downtown streets, allowing Hoot’s father, Frank Mann, and employees to safely hang the crowns. They came in four parts and were assembled in the air by workers in bucket trucks on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
In addition to the nine big crowns, Manneco built 180 smaller crowns that hung on downtown utility poles. By 1976, those smaller crowns were sold to the Kansas City Kansas merchants’ association and celebrated many Christmases just across the state line.
The big crowns came eventually down as well and were sold to the city of Holton, Kansas and turned into jungle gyms.
Fast forward to planning for holiday celebrations at the new Zona Rosa shopping center in 2005, and someone remembered the beautiful crowns of downtown Kansas City. They contacted Hoot, who still has his father’s original prototype in storage in Independence.
Zona Rosa ordered two crowns, which are identical in shape and size to the originals. However, they are made from aluminum and lit with LED lights. They weigh a slim, svelte 800 pounds, yet are anchored at Zona Rosa with the same support mechanism as their predecessors downtown.
Those original crowns are known in the design world as imperial crowns. They have pointy tips, like the one Burger King wears. Then 10 years ago, Zona Rosa ordered three more crowns, but these are known as royal crowns. With rounded tops, they are the style Queen Elizabeth wears.
Last year, Hoot pulled out his dad’s original crown design to create an imperial crown that now hangs in the lobby of Commerce Bank at 10th and Main downtown during the holiday season.
While the Mann family and employees are emotionally connected to the history of the Zona Rosa crowns, they are kind of proud of a new lighting project they did last year in Kearney. It’s an elf in a bucket lift putting the star on a Christmas tree outside of Platte-Clay Electric Cooperative.
While he didn’t say so, it’s quite possible Hoot was remembering his childhood self in a bucket with his dad in downtown Kansas City all those years ago.