Sunday, August 17, 2014

Memories of summer camp, 1969

Municipal Stadium, 22nd and Brooklyn Ave., during a Chiefs game, ca. 1969.

It was August 17, a Sunday in the summer before I turned 16. Twelve hundred miles east of Kansas City an estimated 300,000 people my age and a little older were sprawled across a farmer's field in Upstate New York, enjoying/enduring the final day of a rainy, muddy, trippy weekend billed as the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. But I was oblivious to that. I was headed to summer camp.

That afternoon my folks drove me from our suburban Johnson County, Kansas, home up to Liberty, Missouri, and dropped me off at a dormitory on the campus of William Jewell College. For the next two weeks I'd be an unpaid working member of the equipment staff at the preseason training camp of the Kansas City Chiefs.

*     *     *

The Chiefs were beginning their seventh season as Kansas City's team in the American Football League after moving here from Dallas. I'd been a fan for the previous three, since the late fall of '66. That November, my dad was going to take me to my first Chiefs game. Instead, they had to rush my baby sister to the hospital. When she died unexpectedly home life grew dark.

After that I began hanging out at a neighbor friend's house. We recently had moved to a new school district and I hadn't made a lot of friends, but he and I spent a lot of time tossing a football in his front yard. The Chiefs won the AFL championship that fall. I watched the first Super Bowl – Chiefs vs. Packers – in my friend's family room. The game was an emotional loss for me, but I was hooked.

 These, of course, were the Chiefs of Stram and Dawson and Garrett, Taylor and Pitts, Tyrer and Arbanas, Stenerud and Wilson, Mays and Buchanan, Bell and Lynch and Lanier and Robinson and on and on. Over the next two seasons they won no championships, but were larger-than-life heroes.

I didn't get to more than a game or two at Municipal Stadium until I learned of something called the Huddle Club, which allowed kids under 15 to attend home games for a dollar.

As Huddle Club members, my little brother, Pete, and I boarded the Chiefs Express bus at Prairie Village shopping center on Sunday mornings for the crosstown ride to Municipal Stadium. Once inside, we bypassed the designated Huddle Club area – seats down the third-base line partially obstructed by the north bleachers – and serpentined our way to the east end zone concession stand, on field level. There we stood for entire games, lined up with others along a low wall there, young Pete often perched atop a narrow ledge, watching the action through the chain-link fencing that separated the concession area from the field.

The area abutted the gold-colored end zone turf. When the Kansas City offense began, say, on its own 10-yard-line, we could hear the players' voices, and our view of the Chiefs' huddle would be something like this:

Focus On Sport-Getty Images
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I had read a story in a football magazine about a kid who worked at the New York Giants training camp. I wrote to Chiefs President Jack Steadman, telling him I would give anything for a similar job. A reply came in May from trainer Wayne Rudy: I was to report to William Jewell in August for the final two weeks before the Chiefs broke camp.

At Jewell I roomed with another two-weeker, Mike Swanson, who was about my age and whose mother worked in the Chiefs front office. (He's now a Royals vice president.) We reported to the equipment manager, Bobby Yarborough, and our basic jobs were the same: carry footballs and other equipment to the practice field, and after practice sort dirty laundry. 

It's funny, but things I remember most clearly from those two weeks have nothing to do with the team's on-field performance. The memories are smaller. Slivers of personal interaction:

– Yarborough warning me to trim my sideburns, because Coach Stram doesn't like sideburns ...
– Threading a red-white-and-blue belt into a pair of practice pants for rookie James Marsalis, the belt he wore a few weeks earlier as a member of the College All-Star team that played the champion Green Bay Packers ...
– Being cursed by Len Dawson for giving him an older football to use in a live scrimmage ...
– Sitting in the lounge with other assistants when Stram emerges from his quarters with a plate of  crumbs, leaving it on a table and telling us "There's some good cheescake left there" ...
– Being asked – begged – after player curfew by someone (Podolak?) whispering from behind a half-closed door to go out and get him a pizza and having to tell him I can't drive ... 
– Not getting to travel to Los Angeles for an exhibition against the Rams, but watching the game on the dorm TV with Bert Coan, the former Jayhawk running back recovering from off-season knee surgery ...
– Moving with Swanson from our spartan dorm room into a larger one we've discovered, one with wider beds and nicer furniture and carpeting, and being run out by Rudy, who tells us that's Lamar Hunt's room and he's arriving any minute ...
 And then it was over. Just before the final exhibition, against the St. Louis Cardinals, the team broke camp and I went home to start my junior year of high school.

That season, Pete and I returned as Huddle Clubbers to Municipal Stadium and to our corner of the east end zone. I can't recall outcomes of specific games we saw, just slices of time spent clinging to the chain-link fence with my brother, the peanut shells and cigar smoke, the trumpet flourishes of Tony DiPardo, the intent faces on the field, flashes of violent color, the roar of the Wolf Pack.

It turned out to be a good year for the Chiefs, 1969-70, one like no other since then.  Just sayin'.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Ephemeral city: postcard, 1938

Postmarked 4 p.m., July 28, 1938.

It's a remnant of one July day in Depression-era Kansas City, perhaps the brief record of a boy's summer vacation, written on the back of a postcard view of the Liberty Memorial to family members in Salina, Kansas, postmarked 4 p.m., July 28, 1938. A Thursday.

It begins ...

Dear Mom, Dad and Jerry,
Having a fine time. Auntie Guss and Tom were at the station ...

The  names and address on the postcard and a bit of archival research can provide a skeletal set of facts about these people. Mom is a 36-year-old housewife. Dad, 38, is a popular butcher at a Salina market. Jerry is baby brother, age 3. (There's another brother, Dorman, who is 7 and unmentioned on the postcard. Perhaps he's also along on this summertime journey.) Auntie Guss is Mom's older sister,  Augusta, and Tom is a young cousin, age 6. They live in a rented five-room bungalow in the 3700 block of Bales Avenue on Kansas City's east side with U[ncle] Con, who works at the Sheffield steel plant. The writer is 10-year-old Bob.

The station is most likely Union Station, meaning Bob came from Salina by train, possibly aboard the Union Pacific Railroad's City of Salina. Perhaps it's a first trip to the big city without parents.

*     *     *

It's a Thursday afternoon. The front page of The Kansas City Star calls for temperatures near 90 degrees and a chance for thunderstorms.

Inside, The Star carries an ad for the City of Salina. The streamliner runs back and forth each day between Salina and Kansas City, making ten stops along the 180 or so miles. It's air-conditioned, a buffet breakfast is served, and the ad assures "deep-cushioned comfort." Depart Salina at 7 a.m. and arrive at Union Station at 10:30 a.m.

This morning about 10 o'clock, according to the front page of The Star, the eastbound City of Salina rounded a curve in Leavenworth County and hit a farm truck driven by a 14-year-old boy. He was killed.

Elsewhere on the front page, a 17-year-old boy is under arrest in Indianapolis after riding from New York City lying face down atop the arched roof of another streamlined passenger train, the City of St. Louis. And a young man, 23, is here today in General Hospital with a crushed foot suffered when he slipped while riding on the coupling between boxcars of a Missouri Pacific freight train. He's been drifting around the country from job to job, most recently at an airplane factory in California.

In fact, the front-page news seems to be themed: Two car accidents have taken three lives;  one small plane, thought lost, has landed safely in the Yukon Territory of Canada, but another has crashed in France, killing five French aviators; four men in rafts have successfully navigated the turbulent Colorado River; the trans-Atlantic flier Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan is returning from Ireland to the U.S. aboard the luxury liner Manhattan; and President Roosevelt is fishing the Pacific Ocean from the Navy cruiser USS Houston somewhere near the Galapagos Islands.

*     *     *

The page-one events of July 28, 1938, suggest a time when travel had a newsworthiness based on wonder and danger and the many varieties of modern transportation.

We don't know whether young Bob's journey to visit his Kansas City relatives came aboard that deathly morning run of the City of Salina. He doesn't mention it in his message. But he seems to have caught the wonder of the day. And that's what he wants to share with the folks back home in Salina. His postcard concludes (with his hesitant closing) ...

... I rode on a street-car. U. Con took us to the TWA field and we saw 4 planes land and six planes take-off.
With my sincere love,

*     *     *

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.
*     *     *

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.

*     *     *

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.

*     *     *

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.

*     *     *

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

Then, The Andrews Sisters ...

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