This story was originally published Dec. 18, 2014.
For millions of children in the United States, the holidays mean a visit to Santa Claus. The ritual is alive and well in the Kansas City area, but many families have another holiday icon, one specific to the region: The Fairy Princess.
The Fairy Princess is as much a part of the Kansas City holiday tradition as the Plaza lights, and has endured for more than eighty years.
These days you can find her spreading holiday cheer at two locations: her original venue at the Kansas City Museum, and since 2006, at the Zona Rosa shopping center in the Northland.
The princess is born
Born in the world of retail, the Fairy Princess was created by Kline’s Department Store, originally located at 1116 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. The tradition first began in 1936 as a marketing campaign to lure parents and their kids to the store's new toy department.
According to The Kansas City Museum, because the Klines were a Jewish family they decided against hiring the conventional Santa Claus. Instead they wanted a non-denominational holiday icon and the Fairy Princess was born.
For decades after, the Fairy Princess greeted families at Kline's each December in her white gown, gloves and diamond tiara. For just 25 cents, children could visit and have their picture taken with the princess. At the tap of her magic scepter each child received a surprise gift that slid out from a secret chute.
Carol Barta, 81, was one of the original women who worked as the Fairy Princess. In 1956, the young communications professional found herself between jobs and saw an ad for the position in the paper.
“It was a minimum wage, part-time job,” remembers Barta. “But you know, I got to dress up in a beautiful gown, wear a crown and see adoring children: Who could ask for anything more?”
Her reign lasted just two weeks before she left for a full-time position elsewhere. But Barta says she was transfixed by the experience.
"Loving fantasy as I do I guess I've just blown it up in my mind a bit," she says laughing. "I went to work as a receptionist and I'm sure I had moments of thinking, 'I'd rather be on the throne.'"
In 1970, Kline’s went out of business. Without a throne the Fairy Princess disappeared for more than 20 years. Then in 1986, the Kansas City Museum revived the tradition, and has featured the princess in the Corinthian Hall ever since.
Today few details about the Fairy Princess have changed since her origination. The photos are now digital and the toy chute was replaced by a treasure chest with an automatic switch — but the children are as mesmerized as ever.
Lindsey Griffith, a 27-year-old artist, has held this position for the past seven years. Each season she'll work just three to six shifts and prepares for the role on her own. After curling her hair and applying a bit of makeup, she slips into a puffy David’s Bridal wedding dress and a pair full-length satin gloves. In less than an hour she's transformed into a vision no little girl — or boy — can resist.
“I’ve learned that the ones that are the most excited about it are the ones that really freeze up,” says Griffith about the kids. “For them there’s a pressure about meeting the princess. It’s this giant thing.”
The role of the Fairy Princess is now divided between several young women to accommodate the amount of children. These performers come in all shapes and represent diverse backgrounds. Not much is required of them, other than they be good with children and complete formal training at “Slipper Camp.”
“There was a basketball that was pink, of course," says Griffith of Slipper Camp, "and we would have to balance the basketball on our lap while waving what I remember was a weighted wand.”
An official Kansas City tradition
In 2006, the Zona Rosa Town Center collaborated with the Kansas City Museum to bring the princess back to her roots in retail. Together they created a second location at the Northland shopping development where a new generation can create lasting holiday memories.
This year, the Princess and the Kansas City Museum were recognized in a resolution by Kansas City council members, honoring the initiative for its dedication and inspiration to the children of Kansas City.