Johnson County’s Theatre in the Park celebrates 50th season in 2019

Theatre in the Park
A scene from the show ‘Mary Poppins’ during the Theatre in the Park’s 2016 season. Photo courtesy of Bob Compton

Theatre in the Park, the most-visited outdoor theatre in Johnson County, celebrates its 50th season this year.

And as a big thank you to all of its supporters over the years, Johnson County Park and Recreation District staff are planning a free concert this fall to celebrate. Details are still in the works, but the concert will take place at its outdoor amphitheater at Shawnee Mission Park.

Tim Bair, manager of the JCPRD fine and performing arts department and the producing artistic director for Theatre in the Park, said opening night of the first show of the 50th season — “Annie” — will feature special guests to give an extended curtain speech: Demmarree Carnes, the original producer of Theatre in the Park, as well as original members of the Sertoma Club, which started it all back in 1970.

One of the club members in 1969 had suggested they start offering outdoor theatre opportunities. “So they started collecting newspapers to pay for the theatre,” he added. The following year, Theatre in the Park debuted its first-ever show, “Mame,” which was on Broadway only a few months earlier.

‘From a little wooden stage’

Theatre in the Park
The dedication ceremony for Theatre in the Park in 1970. Photo courtesy of Theatre in the Park

Bair hopes the curtain speeches will shed light on Theatre in the Park’s rich history over the past five decades. Bair himself was a performer back in the 1980s. Back then, performances were free and took place on a simple, wooden stage.

Tim Bair
Tim Bair, manager of the JCPRD fine and performing arts department and the producing artistic director for Theatre in the Park. Photo courtesy of Tim Bair

“We’ve gone from a little wooden stage in Antioch Park in 1970 to moving about three or four years later to Small Lakes in Shawnee Mission Park,” Bair said.

These days, Theatre in the Park features a fully developed amphitheater in a hollow in the side of a hill, with space to seat up to 4,000 people. Additionally, the amphitheater features hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment and lighting to enhance the stage area, a fence enclosing the amphitheater and a box office for tickets, which cost $8 for adults and $6 for children.

“Our boards have made a clear choice that what Theatre in the Park provides to the community is important; that’s why our ticket prices are so low,” Bair said. “We rely on sponsors and people who believe in what we do.”

‘A very affordable, cultural experience’

Theatre in the Park
A scene from ‘Shrek’ during Theatre in the Park’s 2015 season. Photo courtesy of Bob Compton

Susan Mong, superintendent of culture for Johnson County Park and Recreation District, said she thinks the 50th season celebration is a “neat opportunity for the community to reflect on what it’s meant to so many over the years.”

“It’s been a very affordable, cultural experience for families that wouldn’t typically be able to afford a theatre experience at other venues,” Mong said, adding that Theatre in the Park has been an economic driver by employing creative talent and bringing tourism to the area.

Susan Mong
Susan Mong, superintendent of culture for Johnson County Park and Recreation District

The performances takes hundreds of local talent and crew members as well as a small front-of-house staff and concession workers to complete the experience. And the program is popular; Bair recalls the popularity of Kansas City Symphony’s Labor Day concerts, which often drew crowds of more than 3,000.

Theatre in the Park continues to grow, offering five shows each outdoor season. In fact, just last year, the program completed its 200th show, “In the Heights.” Additionally, last year, JCPRD staff began offering year-round programming with three shows at the Black Box Theater in Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center.

Following “Annie,” this year’s outdoor season continues with classics “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “The Music Man,” “Matilda” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

“It’s a good season for actors, singers and dancers; there’s lots of big casts, particularly,” Bair said, adding that 600 to 700 people generally audition for the outdoor season. Click here to see the rest of the 2019 indoor and outdoor season schedule.

Editor’s note: This article incorrectly identified the name of the first production of Theatre in the Park. It was “Mame,” not “Maine.”