As darkness descended on Black Friday and a few thousand obliging traditionalists gathered outside Crown Center to wait for the mayor to light his 100-foot Oregon fir tree, a cold breeze carried choral music and other sounds of the season. A tired-looking man in a jacket pocked with the Royals' logo turned from his perch along a rail near the parking garage and spit hard — thphnh! — into the patch of lawn behind him, just missing a pedestrian. "Oh," he said, avoiding eye contact. "Excuse me." That's how you know it's Christmastime: The spitters beg your pardon.
It's December. The Crown Center Ice Terrace is open. The Plaza lights glow through the night. And Mayor Mark Funkhouser has taken his Cossack hat out of mothballs. While conductor Charles Bruffy coaxed the Kansas City Symphony Chorus and a medium-merry brass section through a sensible program of carols, the mayor stalked the VIP area in front of the stage, a dour Santa whose Mrs. Volunteer Clause, Gloria Squitiro, was nowhere in sight. Beyond the clusters of shoppers and parents waiting to light their candles, children ran around the plywood gingerbread huts of an imagined North Pole. With his apparatchik's headwarmer level above his gaunt face and a long wool coat buttoned nearly to his neck, Funkhouser cut a severe figure as he reported for guard duty in Toyland.
The music halted. Johnny Rowlands of KMBC Channel 9 approached a lectern made of old wood-grain shelf paper and made a predictable quip comparing the mayor's height with the tree's. A Hallmark executive recited a brief statement in a voice just short of announcing that his family was being held for ransom. Daily Show With Jon Stewart correspondent and Overland Park native Rob Riggle goosed the audience with welcome volume, then remembered to be polite while making a mental note to bring a camera crew back and give KC's City Hall the proper Daily Show treatment. His young daughter, the only postcard-ready presence on the stage, concealed her eagerness to light the tree with wisdom beyond her years, as though she'd read about Funkhouser and was sorry she couldn't vote.
Funkhouser barely looked up from his notes as he offered a few festive words about ... ghosts. The ghost of George Shelley, anyway, the originator of the Mayor's Christmas Tree Fund 130 years ago. Or maybe the mayor was invoking the late Jerry Cohen, who organized the fund (and donated liberally to it himself) through a long, successful period. The program has suffered since Cohen's death in 2003. Last year, it turned away applicants; the same shortfall will likely have the same result this year.
The mayor, whose speaking cadence on a good day suggests someone hauling his splintered toboggan back up the hill, wandered through his prepared remarks like a skier with a broken ankle looking for an aid station. Recapping the history of the Mayor's Christmas Tree Fund (in language nearly identical to what's on the fund's Charlie Brown Christmas tree of a Web site), Funkhouser paused to note that Shelley was, as KC mayors were by law until after the turn of the last century, a one-term man. That no collective weary chuckle erupted at the phrase "one-term mayor" must have been some kind of early gift for Funkhouser, who was elected to be a no-bullshit, Island of Lost Toys-championing Rudolph but has turned out to be a toothless Bumble.
More music chased away Funkhouser's short, clumsy speech, and a few minutes later, the Riggles and the mayor threw the switch. Seven thousand lights snapped on, fireworks sizzled off a rooftop, and projected colors danced on the ice in front of the throng of skaters circling the ice nearby. On the terrace overlooking the white-lit mall, in the glow of charity not yet fulfilled, you could almost find where that spit had landed in the dormant grass.
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