The Manneco Inc. warehouse and work areas are virtually empty just before Christmas, but there are signs everywhere of where the Independence company has come in the past 50 years.

The Manneco Inc. warehouse and work areas are virtually empty just before Christmas, but there are signs everywhere of where the Independence company has come in the past 50 years.

Garland and tinsel peeks out of boxes. Hanging in the rafters is a simple lighted star covered in garland. It is one of the original Christmas decorations that Hoot Mann’s father, Frank, constructed when the company was in its infancy. Along another portion of the rafters hang plastic Christmas decorations – a couple of balls, the head of a soldier. All are from the company’s early days.

And nestled safely among the decorations, covered in plastic, is a prototype of a crown. Through a tear in the plastic, garland and a few lights are visible. It is this crown that started a Kansas City tradition – a tradition that was revived after 30 years in the dark.

Mannequins, not Christmas

Manneco did not start as a Christmas and outdoor lighting business. Mannequin, as it was called when Frank Mann started it in 1946, repaired department store mannequins. Frank worked at Birkson’s in downtown Kansas City as a window trimmer, and part of his job was repairing the plaster mannequins. One day, Hoot said, he came home and decided to go into business for himself.

“The story goes that he came home one day and told my mom that he had quit his job, and he was going into business for himself,” he said. “I believe mom had a few words to say about that decision.”

At one time, Hoot’s father had 15 women working with him, repairing the plaster. Frank, a talented caricature artist who passed away in 1989, was responsible for painting the faces. It wasn’t until about 1950, Mann said, that Mannequin expanded from solely interior displays to offering outdoor Christmas products.

“It was really a natural transition,” he said. “In 1960, Pop bought this building and the outdoor business moved here (to Independence). He had a warehouse downtown that housed the mannequin side of the business.”

But in 1968, that warehouse burned during the civil uprisings. Mann said that was the end of the mannequin business, and Mannequin began to focus solely on Christmas and holiday displays.

“At one time, Pop would go through thousands of yards of decorative paper. It used to be that department stores would cover entire walls in paper. There would be paper for Christmas, spring, summer, back-to-school, Valentine’s, basically any holiday or season,” he said. “They would even wrap the columns in paper. Stores would go all out to create these interior displays.”

Birth of the crowns

In the 1960s, Mann said the Downtown Merchants Association in Kansas City approached Mannequin about creating something “spectacular” for the downtown area to display during the holiday season. At the time, downtown Kansas City was bustling with stores such as Macy’s, Jones Store and Rothschilds. Mann said Hallmark was just coming into its own and the crown was beginning to become an iconic Kansas City image.

Nine intersection crowns were created that first year. Ninety smaller crowns were mounted on street poles.

“The only way that I can describe that first set of crowns was gigantic. They were enormous,” Mann said. “I think they were about 16 to 18 feet in diameter and 12 to 14 feet tall. They were huge.”

Each of the nine crowns was covered in 60 watt light bulbs. Mann said not much thought went into energy conservation at the time. Each crown also had a mechanical changer, so they would change from red to gold and then to blue throughout the day. He said the crowns drew so much wattage that KCPL had to bring individual transformers to power the crowns.

Mann said another challenge was trying to find a way to mount the enormous crowns. Holes were bored into the buildings, and the cables were mounted the floor inside the building. Because of this type of installation, he said, easements had to be gained for each of the four buildings needed to mount just one crown.

“It was a major undertaking to get all of the logistics worked out. Sometimes these property owners lived in places like Australia, and it was not like you could just email them,” he said. “In addition, because stores were closed on Sundays, that was the only time we could install the crowns. It would take two full days to get all of the crowns up.”

Mann said in the late 1960s, energy conservation came to mind and the crowns were changed. This second generation, called the Imperial Crowns, was lighted with 10 watt lamps. There were no changing colors and garland covered a lot of the steel frame.

But as with many downtown areas, Kansas City’s began to fail in the mid-1970s. No businesses meant no Downtown Merchants Association. No association meant no crowns.

“Downtown began failing for a couple of reasons. One of those was the economy. The other was that downtown stores were dying because of shopping malls. Shopping malls and strip centers killed big department stores,” Mann said. “I think the crowns stopped in 1975. The pole-mounted crowns lasted for a couple more years.”

Mann said the pole-mounted crowns were sold to Kansas City, Kan., which used them for a few more years. The big crowns had a much more interesting fate.

“They ended up in the city park of Holton, Kan.,” he said. “They were stripped of the lights and garland and welded together to form an enormous jungle gym.”

Manneco’s transition

The decline of downtown Kansas City meant the death of another part of Mannequin’s business, interior displays.

Mann said stores decided they no longer needed such large displays and in no time at all, 100 percent of the company’s efforts were in outdoor displays. Of that, 99 percent was Christmas. In the late 1990s, Mannequin became simply Manneco.

“We started looking for something to balance out the year,” he said. “We began doing more general outdoor lighting such as maintaining security and parking lot lights. We also now do some interior lighting. I would say that Christmas, however, is still 65 to 70 percent of the business (mostly large commercial displays throughout the Midwest).”

But one of the biggest changes, Mann said, has been the transition to LED lights. These lights, he said, are made of plastic instead of glass, use less energy and last forever.

“There is more cost upfront, but the maintenance is almost non-existent,” he said. “I would say that the transition is the second biggest product change that has occurred in the last 50 years. The first is probably the move from the garland that was made out of aluminum foil.”

Mann said that no matter where he is, the people are what he enjoys the most.

“I meet some wonderful people doing this,” he said. “The best part of my job is when we are talking about Christmas decorations. It almost always generates a smile. I like being able to put a smile on someone’s face.”

Rebirth of the crowns

About six years ago, Mann received a telephone call from Zona Rosa as the new shopping area was preparing to open in North Kansas City. He said they were looking to revive the tradition of the crowns and were wondering if Manneco was interested in making a new set.

“It was pretty exciting to get the call. We still had the prototype of the crown dad had made. So we pulled it out of the rafters and based the new crowns on it,” he said. “Although they are not as enormous as those first crowns, they were still large, about 15 feet in diameter and 11 to 12 feet tall.”

Two crowns now hang in the intersections of Zona Rosa. A third, smaller crown, sits atop Zona Rosa’s 50-foot Christmas tree.

Rosemary Salerno, general manager of Zona Rosa, said Zona Rosa learned of the crowns during a walkthrough of city officials the winter before it opened. When she was hired, she was given a book on Christmas in Kansas City and one picture. She used that to find Manneco.

“I think there is an instant connection with our customers,” she said. “Those that remember the original crowns now have kids and grandkids. They have wonderful memories about visiting downtown Kansas City as a child and want to experience some of that joy again.”

Salerno said the crowns really served as a jumping off point for Zona Rosa to start reviving other Kansas City traditions.

In 2006, the Kline’s Department Store Fairy Princess was revived, and the Kansas City Museum’s IGLOO is also a part of the holiday traditions at Zona Rosa.

“All of these things stem from the crowns,” she said. “We had such a positive, warm response from customers that the crowns really become the starting point for our marketing efforts during the holidays. You can truly say that it all started with the crowns.”