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."
*     *     *

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 ...

*     *     *

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.

*     *     *

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."

*     *     *

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.'

*     *     *