Saturday, February 21, 2015

How we became Plains Parisians

Even if you've just stumbled across this blog for the first time,  chances are good – if you know something about Kansas City – you recognize the name.  It's also the name of a cocktail festival and a song by a local band and an online cultural retrospective and a little saloon inside one of the antiques emporia down in the West Bottoms. It's an old nickname that seems appropriate for the city's recent urban revival.

You might also have heard that the name is rooted in the quote above, the opening sentence in a news feature written by reporter Edward Morrow – not to be confused with famed CBS broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow – and published February 27, 1938, by Morrow's employer, the Omaha World-Herald. It was headlined this way:

To get the story, Morrow and his photographer visited Kansas City and toured its red-light district, night clubs and gambling houses. Morrow's opening line is pithy and quotable, but it wasn't original. He might even have "borrowed" the tour idea and the Parisian image from another journalist. Six days before the World-Herald's article appeared, newspapers around the country published the second in a series of syndicated columns datelined Boss Tom Pendergast's town, written by the conservative scold Westbrook Pegler.

In his second paragraph, after trashing the state of Kansas, Pegler made his French connection:

Apparently in the 1930s debauchery was the image most closely associated with Paris, not ex-pat artistes. (Perhaps, in Hollywood terms, more Moulin Rouge than Midnight in Paris.)

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After Pendergast served a year in prison for income-tax evasion, after the reformers took over City Hall and set about cleaning up Tom's town, Pegler came back and wrote about what had transpired in the five years since his 1938 visit. This is how his March 15, 1943, column began:

Fast forward to the late 1950s. John Cameron Swayze had been a reporter here in the 1930s with the old Journal-Post, as well as a radio broadcaster. Later he became an NBC television news anchor and eventually a pitchman for Studebaker cars and Timex watches. In 1958 he wrote the liner notes for this Capitol Records jazz album:

Album cover detail, courtesy of Richard E. Logan.

In them Swayze recalled his time in Boss Tom's wide-open town, and tweaked Pegler's descriptive label:

And so let's give Westbrook Pegler most of the credit for his colorful metaphor for a sinful town, a nickname we now attach with love to various creative endeavors. Pegler, with an editorial assist from this man:

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Past life on the Boulevard

In the summer of 1940 windows at 2860 Southwest Boulevard showed the place was empty and "For Rent."

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Eighty-seven years ago today, in the early hours after midnight,  a small group of regulars were minding their own business at the bar of a "soft drink" place at 2860 Southwest Boulevard when the door burst open and five men wearing dark overcoats, caps and handkerchiefs over their faces crashed in and raised sawed-off shotguns at the startled imbibers. One of the intruders actually shouted Stick 'em up! before forcing the owner, Eddie Nettle, to open a safe; the bartender, Frank Addy, to open the cash register; and the eight customers to empty their pockets. Then they piled into a black Buick and laid rubber with about $900 and change.

That was 1928, deep in the dark heart of Prohibition, when pouring corn whisky in a so-called soft-drink place was, of course, against the law. So Nettle and Addy had to tidy up the joint before reporting the robbery to police. It was sort of routine for Nettle, then 30 years old. His place had been robbed before, and it would be robbed again in years ahead.

Then came repeal, and many of the dives and joints that had operated as soft-drink parlors or drug stores or cigar stands or other types of speakeasies transformed themselves into legitimate night clubs. Or legitimate clubs that operated illegally, in violation of gambling and liquor laws the state passed when Prohibition ended. Eddie Nettle's place became the Sportsman's Club, known as a gambler's haven.

In February 1934 Nettle's former business partner and the croupier of his crap game were found dead on the floor of the Sportsman's Club, both shot in the head. "They were going to kill me," Nettle reportedly told the cops. "But a man has to defend himself, doesn't he?" He was charged with second-degree murder, but the case was dismissed when the only witnesses asserted it was self-defense.

At the end of the Thirties, after Nettle ran afoul of tax laws, the place became the Perkins Club:

Alas, the state finally got tough on clubs in 1939, closing down several of the worst offenders. The Perkins Club, after being fined for gambling and for selling liquor after legal hours, had its liquor license renewal refused.

For several years, until he dropped dead of a heart attack at age 53, Eddie Nettle ran another business out of his building on the Boulevard, the Music Service Company, which leased and serviced juke boxes and pinball machines and other barroom paraphernalia. Later it was home of something called the Industrial Abrasive Company, and the old memories began to fade.

Today, however, a little imagination and tequila will provide access to the dark past of 2860 Southwest Boulevard. The place still exists – since the 1970s it's been part of Ponak's Mexican Kitchen – and you can go there and pull up a bar stool, order a margarita and conjure this town's wide-open days of bootleg liquor and armed robberies, dice and violent death.

For the last 40 years it's been the home of Ponak's.
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Friday, December 19, 2014

Ephemeral city: Christmas card, 1937

 It's another small treasure recently discovered in a West Bottoms shop, labeled a Photogravure Etching from photograph used by courtesy of T.W.A. Airlines.  One – the first? – in an annual series of Christmas cards featuring city landmarks, produced by and for the Siegrist Engraving Company (founded 1902, still at 924 Oak today), this arrived in mailboxes in December 1937.
Here at the end of 1937, we're looking back at a year of the Hindenburg and Amelia Earhart and civil
war in Spain. And in this card we're looking over a nighttime Kansas City skyline made brighter by a new 30-story City Hall building, part of what The Kansas City Star calls "The new order at Twelfth and Oak Streets ... something new in bright lights, more tranquil and more impressive than the night scenes on 12th Street to which Kansas Citians are accustomed." The Star might get an argument from patrons of nearby 12th Street joints like the Reno Club and Dante's Inferno and Bar le Duc, where the jazz music and the floor shows and the alcohol create heat that lasts all night, every night.

But it's Christmastime and all light seems heavenly, no matter the source. Down there in Union Station some of the glow in the windows comes from the huge chandeliers, some from the lobby's Christmas trees, some from the continuous hum of life within: overcoated travelers with leather suitcases weaving through clusters of folks awaiting trains delayed by subzero cold; the MU football team returning from a 13 - 0 loss to UCLA out on the coast; "Black Jack" Pershing, World War general, 77 but fit in pin-stripe suit and spats, en route to Tucson for the winter; shoppers perusing the best-sellers on the shelves of the Fred Harvey Bookstore or buying gift baskets in the Fred Harvey Fruit and Candy Shop or picking up a fruit cake or a sliceable cylinder of ice cream – green pistachio with a red bell-shaped center of strawberry – in the Fred Harvey Pastry Shop. From on high come carols sung by choirs of the eight city high schools, perched in the balconies surrounding the lobby. The all-black Lincoln chorus delivers a spiritual, "Wasn't That A Mighty Day." Seasonal warmth fills the cavernous room.

Outside in the parking lot a shadowy form with a pistol relieves a railway clerk of $60. Here or elsewhere a society matron also suffers loss and places a classified ad: MUFF – genuine mink, large flat style, between Union Station and 58th/Ward Parkway, reward.  Meanwhile the downtown skyline of the town owned by her neighbor, Thomas J. Pendergast, shimmers and pulses with the sounds of clicking dice and clinking glasses and jazz music. Somewhere out there a 17-year-old named Charlie Parker smiles and wraps his lips around a reed. Lights dance in the brassy curves of his saxophone, pointed toward the future.