Friday, June 27, 2014

'You will never find another Mayfair'

The Star called it "probably the most elaborate and expensive night club between Kansas City and the Pacific Coast."
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Most fans of Kansas City's jazz history know about the long-ago steak-and-chicken roadhouse near 79th and Wornall Road (and later in other locations) when that was just outside the southern city limits. It was a place run by a former motorcycle cop named Matthew "Tootie" Clarkin, not much more than a white barn with tables and a bandstand. Tootie's Club Mayfair, it was called.

Compared to its ill-fated namesake, Tootie's Mayfair was a bare-bones dive.

The original, exponentially more fantastic and glamorous Mayfair preceded Tootie's by a few years, and sat on 10 acres near 79th and Holmes, also beyond the city limits. When it opened The Kansas City Star called it "probably the most elaborate and expensive night club between Kansas City and the Pacific Coast."

Picture one of those Hollywood musicals of the era, Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell flashing across a streamlined set, tiers of white-clothed tables full of tuxedos and gowns and cocktails, and nearby a full orchestra providing a lush soundtrack. You're conjuring the Mayfair. 

It cost $200,000 to build in 1935; nearly $3.5 million in 2014 dollars. Its facade was Spanish Mission style – stucco with a tile roof, ornate arched doorways and flowers in urns. Inside, a huge circular dining room, 90 feet in diameter, had terraces of tables. At one end was the stage. A circular dance floor, beneath a dome of multicolored lights, was of inlaid hardwood. The soaring ceiling had no visible supports and the walls, where not mirrored, were enameled black and ivory. Furnishings were of chrome and blue leather. A separate taproom held a circular bar. In the lounge a 10-foot-high tiered fountain of silver-and-blue glass sprayed water on a revolving statue. Murals depicted Western mountain scenes. The kitchen included an open range and several charcoal broilers. There was an extensive sound system. Air conditioning kept things cool. Other rooms offered casino gambling, including a Midwest exclusive: roulette. The club could handle 500 patrons. A parking lot held 300 cars. Including the orchestra and floor-show entertainers, 100 people worked at the Mayfair.

It opened on August 1, 1935, after a week of press previews. Ted Weems and his orchestra, national favorites from the Prohibition era, headlined. The floor show featured singers, dancers and veterans of Broadway and vaudeville. A large newspaper ad announced the opening: Go where you will – travel in any direction of the compass, you will never find another Mayfair!

And today, if you go looking around 79th and Holmes, you'll find no trace of the original. The Mayfair lasted less than a year.

August 1, 1935: a grand opening.
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The Mayfair's four-man ownership group was led by Gus Pusateri. Pusateri's experience in the hospitality business was extensive and notorious. During Prohibition, he and his brothers had run several well-known speakeasies downtown and near the City Market. Gus eventually did time in jail for selling liquor. Since repeal, Gus and his brother Jim had become legitimate restaurateurs with a steakhouse near 12th and Baltimore.

The Pusateris' speakeasies had been especially popular with younger folks from the Country Club district. Perhaps the Mayfair, situated near that district, was created with that relatively well-off clientele in mind.

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The Mayfair was a seasonal place, spring and summer. As in most such clubs nationwide, an orchestra of note routinely topped the bill for several weeks, with a floor show that changed periodically. The 1936 season had opened April 11 with a show headlined by Sophie Tucker of vaudeville fame. In May, Leon Belasco brought his orchestra to the Mayfair.

On May 18, the floor show changed. During a previous gig at a hotel in St. Paul, Belasco had heard the tight harmonies of three singing sisters from Minneapolis, and he asked them to join this new show at the Mayfair. They were billed as "The Three Andrews" and they proved to be crowd pleasers. When the floor show changed again in June they stayed on.

June 26, 1936: the final night.

After the show of Friday, June 26, the Mayfair was dark, save for the lights of the kitchen where one employee was closing up, and the taproom where Gus Pusateri and a couple of partners lingered in the pre-dawn hours. Just before 4 a.m. someone caught a whiff of something burning. They hurried to the basement, saw nothing and returned upstairs. Smoke billowed everywhere. Flames followed.

Five fire companies answered the call and found the closest hydrants were two blocks away, inside city limits. Water pressure was low. The Mayfair burned to ashes, twisted steel and a stone foundation. For some reason the place had been insured for only $35,000, little more than the cost of the kitchen alone.

June 27, 1936: the morning after.

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Gus Pusateri talked about rebuilding the Mayfair, but nothing came of it. Instead, he and his brother enjoyed continued success with Pusateri's. 

Leon Belasco lost just about everything in the fire – all the band's instruments (including his rare antique violin he had purchased in Paris) and his 600 arrangements. Still, he was back in business by the end of summer, when his orchestra was booked for an extended job at the Hotel Muehlebach. 

The Three Andrews – who had lost their only gowns and publicity photos in the fire – remained with Belasco for the Muehlebach gig and beyond, to New York and big-time success as The Andrews Sisters. Years later Maxene Andrews would recall the summer of 1936:

 Leon offered us a job for $150 a week, and of course we jumped at that. The first date was the Mayfair Club in Kansas City. This was our first crack at a real high-class supper club, and I was sure we were on our way. We were going to become very successful.

After the fire temporarily stole his livelihood, Belasco talked about the experience:

 The Mayfair was unique among night clubs in the United States. It was the most roomy, the most comfortable. There is nothing like it in New York. That is not my opinion only, but that of every performer who came to Kansas  City. It was a tragic thing, this fire.

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Watch a few of the performers of that last Mayfair season. First, Sophie Tucker ...

Then, The Andrews Sisters ...

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Friday, May 30, 2014

Ephemeral city: World Book Encyclopedia

Volume 6 of the 1931 edition: "Husband to Leo."

Made my way down to the West Bottoms early one recent First Friday to see how the antiques merchants had replenished stock over the previous month. I arrived just as business began. The morning was fresh, the coffee black and steaming. The vintage things awaited.

Until seeing it, I seldom know what vintage thing I need to own.  This time there were two such things: a sweet backyard springer chair (immediately hauled to the nearby Industrial Services company for sandblasting) and a single volume of The World Book Encyclopedia – the sixth of 12 in the 1931 edition, covering all of the letters I, J and K as well as parts of H and L. Specifically, it spans entries from "Husband and wife" to "Leo the lion."

That familiar blue cover. Those blue covers filled a shelf of my 1960s childhood bookcase, a full set my grandparents had bought new in the 1920s for my aunt and mother. Their old World-Book world view seemed foreign to me then, and these pages brought back those encyclopedic charms and oddities. Again, how much has changed.

References to the World War. As in the entry for "League of Nations" ... a world wide union of great and small countries designed as an international force which should guarantee justice to all peoples and make future wars unnecessary.

At "Key, Francis Scott" it becomes clear that his famous lyrics have become a favorite national hymn – 'The Star Spangled Banner' – but not yet the official national anthem. (President Hoover signs that law in 1931.)

Under "Illiteracy"– referring to all persons ten years of age or over who are unable to write in any language (not necessarily English) regardless of ability to read – you discover Kansas is fifth most literate among the 48 states and Missouri ties for 15th.

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The title page shows The World Book Encyclopedia was a local production, something I hadn't noticed in my childhood set. The Roach-Fowler Company, with headquarters at 1020 McGee Street, had been collaborating with a Chicago concern on the books since 1917.

Roach-Fowler, headed by Arno L. Roach, marketed The World Book as "The only encyclopedia equally useful to children and adults, calling it "an outstanding achievement in American book making. Twelve volumes; over 9,000 pages; more than 14,000 illustrations; 288 pages of maps."

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Colored maps of the U.S. states are among the charms of the series, and there are six states in my Volume Six. They show elevations, railroads, counties and county seats, towns and cities and each state capital.

Three calendar months are included, and three U.S. presidents, as well as Robert E. Lee, Lenin and Jesus Christ, the Man who, of all that have lived, has influenced humanity most profoundly.

There are instructions for building a "Kite" and tying "Knots." And rules for "Hygiene" – Exercise in open air. Bathe frequently. Drink plenty of pure water. Keep the feet warm and dry.  Sleep eight hours a day.

No "Internet" exists, nor "Integration," and you'll not find "King, Martin Luther." But under "Ku Klux Klan" you learn that Although the organization exceeded legal bounds, it did much in bringing law and order to the South.

Fifteen pages are devoted to "Kindergarten," the developmental institution that fills the gap between the home and the school. Twenty-eight pages cover everything "Indians, American," the 'redskins' of romance and history. Twelve pages profile a great empire under the rule of Great Britain, "India."

Ireland gets 13 pages and Italy 19, but Iraq, a new kingdom on the border of Asia Minor, gets just three, and Iran is worth a single paragraph ending with See 'Persia.'

And then there's the reason I chose Volume Six over the other World Book on the table of vintage items for sale: "The Story of Kansas City." Three pages and a half dozen illustrations of our town,  noted primarily as a grain and livestock market. Nary a word about machine politics or sin industry or jazz music, all of which comprised a big chunk of the story of Kansas City in 1931.

Still, "Jazz" does have its own one-paragraph entry, where you learn Its effect has been objected to by the moralist, on conventional grounds. There are those who feel that, in its more modified forms, jazz may yet prove the basis for a distinctly American type of music. See 'Music.'

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Prime location, near streetcar line

Though never built, Armour Center was designed to profit from proximity to the existing streetcar line.

Another brief side trip into current events, sort of ...

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If somehow you haven't noticed, running the downtown streetcar line into other neighborhoods is an idea that gets under some folks' skin. To them, streetcar supporters are naive dreamers demanding a "toy train" accessory for a hipster lifestyle. Some anti-expansionists are bursting with anger at public meetings, putting a coat of ugly on legitimate questions about cost and aesthetics and whether Kansas City needs a streetcar.

It was interesting this week to read The New York Times architecture critic's case for bringing streetcars to sections of that city the subways don't reach. Sure, buses would work, he says ...

But where's the romance? A streetcar is a tangible, lasting commitment to urban change. It invites investment and becomes its own attraction. ... Today, a city that attracts young entrepreneurs who favor old, mixed neighborhoods and industrial buildings, and whose employees like to ride bikes, take public transit and live near work is thinking ahead. So is a city that doesn't leave behind its poor citizens in neighborhoods that have long had meager access to public transit.

Yes, it's New York City. But those dynamics would seem to apply here, too.

No surprise: I tend to look at lots of things through the prism of the past. To me, building out the starter streetcar line is a restoration project.

The standard historical narrative about streetcars is that they fell victim to "our love affair with the automobile," especially after World War II. But that's only part of the story.

In 1940, downtown business leaders were actively lobbying the Kansas City Public Service Company to remove streetcars from city streets. Never mind that their own survey showed that 60 percent of downtown shoppers rode streetcars or buses and only 24 percent drove cars. The people in cars spent more money.

There was a growing attitude nationally, fueled by General Motors' vision of "The World of Tomorrow" at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, that the future was not about public transportation, but about the automobile and lots of speedy, multiple-lane freeways. Well, that's what we got.

But I wonder: Why throw the baby out with the bath water? Why did seemingly no one consider the possibility of a peaceful co-existence between autos and streetcars? In 1940, the three most popular of the many streetcar lines crisscrossing town were Troost Avenue, 31st Street and Country Club. It's not hard to imagine a different city if just those three lines had been preserved for the future. Meaning us.

So this effort to expand beyond the starter line really is a kind of restoration project. And with that in mind, let's revisit a time before hipsters. When no one thought of a streetcar as a "toy train," but as how you got to work, to the store, and back home. And when home's value was enhanced by its proximity to a streetcar line:

There are hundreds more where these came from. But you get the idea ...

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Watch the General Motors promotional film from the 1939-40 World's Fair:

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