Weather permitting, I’m flying from New York to Kansas City this morning to celebrate my sister Robin’s birthday. Upon landing at the airport I will head straight to the town where I grew up: Overland Park, Kansas, which is a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. (I know, it’s confusing.)
They say that after living in New York for ten years you can officially call yourself a New Yorker. I can certainly make that claim. But I’ll always be a Kansas boy at heart.
Although I happily spent the first 18 years of my life there, I haven’t been back in almost a decade. I’m not anti-Kansas by any means, it’s just that a.) both of my parents have passed away so it’s no longer home base and, b.) although I have a brother and a sister who still live there, my six siblings and I tend to reunite in other parts of the midwest.
Since I went out-of-state for college, I associate Overland Park/Kansas City with my high school years. I have a friend who insists there are two kinds of people in this world: those who hated high school and those who loved it. I’m one of those who loved high school; attending Shawnee Mission South in the ’80s was a real joy. It was a very “be true to your school” era and I was a bit of an overachiever: Vice President of the Student Council, Captain of the Yell Leading Squad (laugh all you want), Company Manager of our Repertory Theatre (keep laughing if you must), blah, blah, blah.
Our drama department was pretty prolific for a midwestern public high school in a pre-Glee world. Over the course of three years I appeared in three musicals (Kiss Me Kate, Guys and Dolls and Brigadoon) and several plays (Dark of the Moon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Crucible, The Skin of our Teeth, Arsenic and Old Lace, Wait Until Dark, and The Elephant Man.) Although I had neither the desire nor the talent to pursue acting after graduation, I will always be grateful for the experience of being on stage. I’m convinced that the dramatic arts are crucial for developing team building skills and public speaking confidence. But I digress…
My journey out of Kansas ultimately took me to New York and a career with the People’s Choice Awards. The high schools in the Shawnee Mission school district produced a number of graduates who would go on to become actual bold names in American popular culture. The year after I graduated from SMS, Rodney Peete transferred in as a senior and went on to be an NFL quarterback for 16 years, marrying Holly Robinson (21 Jump Street) along the way. I didn’t overlap with him, but I got to meet him when I came back from college for the homecoming football game.
Graduates of Shawnee Mission West include Paul Rudd and Jason Sudeikis. Shawnee Mission East begat Sandahl Bergman, who appeared in All That Jazz and opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian. Dr. Phil attended Shawnee Mission North. And Shawnee Mission Northwest proudly produced a porn star, but this is a family-friendly blog so we’ll just leave it at that.
Several movies were shot in and around Kansas City, including Robert Altman’s Kansas City (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson, Harry Belafonte, Steve Buscemi), Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward), Truman (Gary Sinise) and In Cold Blood.
Movies that were set in KC but not actually filmed there include The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck) and Kansas City Bomber (Raquel Welch as a roller derby queen.)
ABC Family’s Switched at Birth is set in Mission Hills, Kansas, and Showtime’s The United States of Tara took place in my very own Overland Park.
On the music front, Melissa Etheridge is from Leavenworth, Kansas, and the band Kansas (“Dust in the Wind”) hailed from the state capital of Topeka.
So the next time you think the only pop culture connection to Kansas is The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy Gale — the small and meek — think again.