Sunday, August 21, 2016

Postmark: August 21, 1957

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Overnight rains have delivered a lovely morning in downtown Kansas City.  It's a comfortable 80 degrees at 11:30.

The headlines are about Jimmy Hoffa, teamster boss, testifying before a Senate committee on racketeering, and about a new Western Electric manufacturing plant planned for Lee's Summit, and about rain and wind disrupting last night's performance of "Damn Yankees" at Starlight. 

Today is the final day of the 33rd annual Toy and Gift Show, thousands of midwestern retail buyers filing through the Exhibition Hall of Municipal Auditorium, placing orders for the coming gift-giving season: handmade puppets from Germany, dolls from China, jewelry from Thailand, music boxes from many countries. Remote-controlled knights on horseback, hi-fi sets built to look like Edison's gramophone, new novelties like a Christmas tree of green plastic that breaks down for storage in a small box.

But it's tough to imagine December in August, and out-of-towners might be thinking ahead to the possibilities for one last evening in Kansas City. 

There's "Damn Yankees," of course, but there's also the real thing out at the ballpark: the real Berra-Mantle Yankees against the Zernial-Cerv A's in game two of a three-game series. (KC shut 'em out last night.) Both options mean finding a ride to Swope Park or Municipal Stadium. And this town is still getting used to having no streetcars, gone now two months.

No need for rides if you're staying downtown, the pedestrian's delight. The premiere of the wide-screen Cinerama production of "Seven Wonders of the World" at the Missouri Theater, 14th and Main, is sold out (former President and Mrs. Harry Truman have their tickets). But the Paramount, two blocks north at 12th street, has Elvis Presley in "Loving You." And on stage at the Folly Theater is Lily Shawn, Fiery Flame of Burlesk. And Eddy's supper club, 13th and Baltimore, has Tony DiPardo's Orchestra backing up the Hilltoppers, four twenty-something males who apparently have many teen fans here, according to a story in this morning's Times.

"You take girls who will cry, or come pretty close to it, when they hear a real nice ballad and that's the kind who will join a Hilltoppers fan club," says one member. "There's nobody in these clubs has any use for Elvis," says another. "Only one girl even likes Pat Boone and she only likes him a little bit."

Someone weary of night life might prefer a quiet dinner in the hotel followed by an evening in front of the radio (Edward R. Murrow, Amos 'n' Andy, Top 40 or Country Swing) or the television (Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, I've Got A Secret).

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. First, a few words to the folks back in Kinderhook, Illinois, on a postcard of the Hotel President ("Close to shopping district, theatres and one block from Municipal Auditorium") ...

Hi –
  Am spending my other 3 days vacation
here. Came down with Jean Collier 
to the gift show.
  Will hate to go back to work. 
The weather is wonderful.

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Monday, July 18, 2016

Ephemeral city: Drive-in theater matchbook

A version of this post first appeared in July 2009.

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This matchbook, with five red-tipped matches, is a relic of the Crest Drive-In Theatre in south Kansas City, featuring an illustration of a stylized Buick of the late 1940s. At the Crest’s debut, in July 1948, newspaper ads proclaimed:

Gala opening tonight, 7 p.m. Something new under the moon. The Crest, a drive-in theatre with the tops in entertainment.

The birth of a single flickering star in the expanding universe of 1948 American drive-in theaters …

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Announcing the Opening of the 1948 Season of the Marion Drive-In Theatre. The Merrimack Park Drive-In theatre will open for its eighth season tomorrow. The Motor-Vu ... Motor-In ... El Cerrito Motor Movies ... The Alamo ... The Elmwood ... Grand Opening Lakewood Drive-In Theatre. Come Early and Enjoy a Gala Evening.

On 71 Highway at 114th. On State Road 17, one mile north of city limits. On U.S. Highway 91. Route 20. Route 76. Route 50, 7 miles west. Near railroad bridge. Over top of College Hill. One mile west of the new General Motors plant.

A 10-acre project. Comprises 15 acres. A 20-acre site. Built on 32 acres. A 350-car capacity Capacity 500 cars. Will hold 700 cars. Room for 880 automobiles. Will accommodate 900 cars.

The Drive-In with the Giant Steel Picture Tower. A huge picture 50 feet wide and 40 feet high. A screen 71 feet tall and 81 feet across. A screen tower over 70 feet high, the equivalent of a six-story building. The world's largest screen and also the safest! Anchored in tons of concrete, and built with tons of steel! Tilted, to provide undistorted sight lines. Perfect visibility from any part of the theatre! Brilliant projection. Finest Quality Sound. Individual speakers for every car. Adjust your own volume!

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The Lima ... The Riverdale ... The Van Nuys ... The Berkshire ... The Roselawn Auto Theatre ... The Ace ... Cactus ... Organ. ... Gala Opening Tonight! The New! Modern! Baseline Drive-In Theater.

Two ticket booths, canopies, a projection booth and canteen building in the center of the parking area. Outdoor seats for people living close who wish to walk to the theatre. The true beauty of the theatre won't be fully realized until the newly planted shrubs and grass spring up in all their natural green splendor. You'll thrill at the sight. You'll gasp at the immense capacity. Wonderful. Superb. Words can't adequately describe the beauty.

Rest Rooms. Playground for the Kiddies – let the kids have fun! Refreshment Stand Centrally Located. Finest Refreshments! For the pause that refreshes, soft drinks, ice cream, popcorn, hot dogs, cigarettes, candy and other confections are available. Can also be purchased at no advance in prices from the Butcher Boys who come to your car. Baby Bottles Warmed at the Snack Bar. Serving Iowa Farm Meat Products. Have You Tried Our Hamburgers? They're Super-Duper!

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The Super 71 ... Super Castle ... Valley ... Mountain-Air ... Mount Ogden ... Starlite ... Tri-State ... Hi-Land ... Midway ... White-Way ... Skyway ... Skyline Auto Theatre. Grand Opening Tonight. The new, modern Sky-Hi Drive-In Theatre.

Here the family can come as a group in one car, and with no parking worries can enjoy their favorite entertainment. A low admission policy of 25 cents for adults, children under 12 free. Admission for adults will be 50 cents. Children under 6 will be admitted free while children between 6 and 12 will be charged only 9 cents. Costs Less Than A Baby Sitter. Two shows nightly, rain or clear. Midnite show every Saturday night. Wholesome movies and adequate lighting discourage open romancing and if that is still insufficient there is a uniformed policeman and 10 ushers whose duties keep them moving through the ramps of cars.

Adventure – excitement – spectacle – the story of the old Chisolm Trail. Howl-arious Laugh Hit of the year to be enjoyed by the entire family! There's Music, Love and Laughter when Betty goes low-down, Barry goes high-hat, and Don goes batty over Betty! The picture with a heart as big as all outdoors. They're through with the Army but the Army isn't through with them! The funniest picture since the laugh was invented. Thrilling Saga of the Old West. The dramatic story of a killer and a girl who taught him to love! Please Don't Tell Anyone What She Did! A Picture for the Whole Family! For a woman like Gina – even a life wasn't too much to give. Hit With 1000 Kisses, and A Laugh for Every One. They're screwy as a nut and bolt factory! See fiery action, adventure, spectacle, romance, two-fisted renegades. Also two cartoons, plus news shorts.

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Free! Giant fireworks display 10 p.m. Free! Key cases to adults. Balloons for the children! Tuesday nite someone will get a Philco 1001 television set or a Philco home freezer. Big bargain night – $1 carload. As Many As a Car Will Hold. Individual In-Car Speakers enable you to close your windows for Cozy Comfort and Privacy.

Smoke, talk and enjoy refreshments while viewing your favorite movie from the secluded comfort of your car. No parking worries. Enjoy the cool of the evening and the beautiful sunset. Just hop in your car dressed as you are and drive on out. See a feature picture sitting in the comfort of your own automobile. Smoke if you like. Dress as you please! There are no "dress-up" problems. Complete privacy – your neighbors won't bother you! No Parking Worries! Just drive in!

Come as you are! Don't worry about your clothes! Smoke when you like! Bring out that shut-in!

Just drive in! You'll love it! 

Always the Best at the Crest.

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Sunday, June 19, 2016

A "most tiresome" drive

All set for an auto tour of Kansas City, June 1926.

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Ninety years ago this evening a car covered in hand-lettered advertising slogans nudged up to the Baltimore Avenue entrance of the Hotel Muehlebach, shuddered and quit. The exhausted driver, his wrists handcuffed to the steering wheel, slumped forward, eyes shut.

It was 5 p.m. on a Saturday, four days and nights from the previous Tuesday afternoon, when the cuffs snapped shut and the gearshift was locked into “high” position, when he raced the engine, popped the clutch and lurched away from an auto dealership at 26th and Grand. Exactly 100 hours and 1,212.6 miles of Kansas City later, he needed a cigarette.

“You have some of the wildest drivers here I ever saw,” he declared, leaning on two straw-hatted men who carried him back to the car company. Four hours of sleep awaited in the showroom window.

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Rosser Julius Newman was a handsome, 26-year-old Jewish cab driver from Dallas, and this was the heart of the Roaring Twenties. The era of Prohibition, yes, but also of oddball pursuits. Think endurance, as in flagpole sitting or marathon dancing. In June of 1926 R. J. Newman had recently set endurance records in dancing (117 hours), roller skating (72 hours) and automobile driving (168 hours).

Rosser J. Newman

Newman’s Kansas City gig was a money-making routine, essentially the same 100-hour stunt he was performing in and around other towns and cities in the region. It required the cooperation of a local newspaper and several businesses. The Journal-Post was a sponsor here, providing exclusive press coverage and selling ads to other sponsors.

There was the Co-Operative Dairy Company (“Rosser Newman Drinks 2 Quarts of Co-Operative Milk a Day”), Faultless Washer Stores (“Rosser J. Newman says ‘I Keep Cool With a Diehl Fan’”) and Falls Rubber Products (“Rosser J. Newman, famous endurance driver, selects Dunlop Balloons above all other tires on the market!”). The Globe Department Store would award a $10 gift certificate for the best guess of the miles Newman could fit into 100 hours. The Kansas City Flint Company would supply his auto, a 1926 Flint 55 touring car from their “guaranteed” used-car inventory.

The stunt’s attention-grabbing gimmicks had him locked to the wheel the entire 100 hours, transmission frozen in high gear, a clear challenge at stop signs and hills. News accounts said he would eat meals as he drove, but failed to reveal anything about bathrooms. Perhaps those were part of the regular stops for gasoline at the Diamond Refining Company, a sponsor. Once a day he would stop for a shave (“Jack Pickett of the Board of Trade Barber Shop Will Shave Newman at 1:30 o’clock”) and once each evening he would drive for an hour around the Hodge Realty Company’s new residential development in North Kansas City (“Let Newman lead you to Kansas City’s Most Ideal Suburban Addition – Oakwood.”)

Despite a sudden downpour the afternoon of the first day, things were going well after 24 hours of driving. A big crowd at 10th and Wyandotte enjoyed seeing him lathered up and shaved outside the Board of Trade Barber Shop. Picnickers watched him circle the streets of the Oakwood development.

"Ive climbed most the big hills in town and I've been over nearly every street," Newman reported on one of his stops. "I guess I'll have to go over them all again and again before I'm through."

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In places where he staged his endurance driving stunt Newman often gave a critique of the host city and its motorists. After completing a similar 100-hour event in Lincoln, Nebraska, later that summer, for instance, the Lincoln Star reported that Newman “expressed the opinion that the Lincoln motorists were more careful than those in the average city.” And in Springfield that autumn, where he drove a record 195 hours through the southwest Missouri countryside, he declared that “Ozark folks are the most hospitable in the world.”

But this was Prohibition-era Kansas City, a world apart from cornfield Nebraska and Ozark mountain Missouri. And so as Rosser J. Newman drove endlessly around our streets and over our many hills, a group of young thugs beat up a minister who in his weekly sermon had dared condemn their regular gambling game. Another day a man was charged with luring teenage girls to his apartment for “immoral purposes.” And the Kansas City police department was engaged in one of its many “cleanups” of speakeasies around town, padlocking 25 of them that week.

Some of our “wide-open” reputation got Newman’s attention.

“I found there is lots of late-night driving in Kansas City,” he said as he staggered out of the Flint 55 that Saturday. “After midnight many intoxicated drivers can be found on the boulevards. I have had drivers cut in on me at 50 miles an hour.

“Altogether, this has been one of the most tiresome endurance drives I ever had, largely because of the many hills and the careless drivers.”

And then, cigarette in hand, he allowed the straw-hatted men to put him to bed in the Flint Company display window. Bedroom suite courtesy of the Hotel President.

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