Friday, January 15, 2016

Postmark: January 15, 1937

Friday morning arrives on a frigid northern breeze. Yesterday's storm has laid a fresh, two-inch blanket over the snow that fell last weekend but quickly turned sooty from coal smoke.

Jones advertises ice skates, sleds and wool ski caps. Adler's asks: Don't you think you'd better buy that fur coat now? and offers northern seal pelts dyed lustrous black. Ambrose & Company suggests a delivery of wine or champagne can Make being 'snowbound' a pleasure! Drug stores are pushing tissues and aspirin, liniments and nose drops. Don't cough your head off! Ask for Mentho-Mulsion.

Members of the Ministry of Gideons are arriving at the Hotel Bellerive today for their annual midwinter meeting. Presumably they'll be leaving some Bibles when they check out.

The Kansas City Cradle is holding open house to showcase its bright new headquarters at 43rd and Wornall and its new arrivals – 12 white baby boys and two girls – ready for adoption. On the other side of town, in a drafty room without heat shared by a family of five, a black baby girl dies of bronchial pneumonia. The coroner calls the place "unfit for human habitation." 

Snowball & Johnny, "the dancing demons," are performing at the Bowery club on 12th street. The State Line Tavern on Southwest Boulevard claims "Kansas City's Hottest Floor Show." The Hawthorn roadhouse out on Highway 40 promises a "Cozy and Warm" atmosphere.

A truck carrying 10 tons of coal arrives at 12th and Prospect. The driver slows to park as his partner opens the cab door and hops to the ground, slipping on ice and falling under the rear wheels of the still-moving machine. He tries to scream. "I told him to wait," the distraught driver tells police investigating the new year's 11th traffic death. "I told him I would stop as soon as we crossed Prospect."

A traveler remembers his mom back in Iowa. He buys a postcard – the Pioneer Mother statue in Penn Valley Park – and writes in pencil:

Fri morn 
Dear Mother
I got here at 8 o'clock and will wait here till tomorrow and leave at 10 o'clock. 
There is quite a lot of snow here and quite cold.

The high temperature today is 14. Too cold for Mrs. Thomas J. Pendergast. She's making plans to depart for several weeks in Arizona. Boss Tom is expected to join her later. Tomorrow should be warmer, near 20, after Harold leaves.

*     *     *

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The lost trees of the Country Club Plaza

Once upon a Christmastime, when the American President was a local-boy-made-good, and the war-of-the-moment was in Korea, and the multicolored light bulbs were still incandescent and numbered only 20 thousand or so, the rooftops of the Country Club Plaza were decorated with fir trees. The fresh-cut trees, painted white and studded with lights, served as yuletide complements to the Spanish-motif towers and cupolas of the shopping district.

Since then, Harry Truman has left the planet; wars have not. The multicolored lights are now 200-some-thousand light-emitting diodes and the rooftop Christmas trees have moved on to wherever the 1950s-era Country Club Plaza went.

Recently the Plaza was put up for sale. People have been wondering whether a new owner would seek to keep the existing emphasis on high-end, corporate-chain retail stores and restaurants, or perhaps try to restore some of the shopping district's original home-grown flavor. The importance of that question to any one person apparently depends on their age and their Plaza experience.

*     *     *

Anyone old enough to remember the rooftop Christmas trees might envision something like this:

Let's say it's Christmastime 1951, the year after the death of the Plaza's creator, J.C. Nichols. His real estate company still owns and maintains the property from its Plaza offices on Ward Parkway. Although it's grown considerably in its first quarter century, the Plaza remains true to Nichols' dream, blending fine retail stores with neighborhood services for the residents of nearby apartments, duplexes and single-family homes.

In other words, you holiday shoppers can choose among several jewelers and fine clothiers and shoe stores and other specialty shops. You can do your banking and see your doctor or dentist or interior designer. Have a good meal at a nice restaurant.

But you can also fill your gas tank and have your windshield washed at one of a half dozen service stations. And shop for groceries at Muehlebach's or Wolferman's. Pick up a prescription at one of two Watkins drugstores. Drop off laundry at Monkey Cleaners. Bowl a few games and have a cocktail at Plaza Bowl. See a movie at the Plaza Theater. The 1951 Christmas week feature is An American in Paris, with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.

You can buy stocking-stuffers at Woolworth's or take the kids to see Santa at Sears. (Sears also has an auto service center and a farm store.) There are barber shops and beauty salons, florists and tailors, liquor stores and paint stores and a locksmith. There's the Plaza Fix-It Shop, the Melo-Tone Bird Shop, Wynne's Household Hardware. You can mail packages at the Plaza branch of the Post Office.

Then, in the midst of your nostalgic Plaza reverie, it's instructive also to recall other realities of the times you're revisiting. Specifically, it's a time when a Plaza business owner – let's just offer restaurateur Jud Putsch as an example – can get away with running a classified ad seeking "Counter women; white; must be alert and have pleasant smile," for his cafeteria. And one for a "Bus boy – colored, for one of Kansas City's finest dining rooms," that being the much-revered Putsch's 210.

Which is another way of remembering a certain ugliness of the past. Some things change; some things stay the same. Food for thought as you're gazing up at the brightly lighted Christmas tree atop the Plaza Time Building.

*     *     *

There were 50 of those white-flocked trees atop the various buildings, each one lifted to its perch by a crane and ridden into position by a workman employed by the Nichols Company. They must have been fire hazards, perhaps potential lightning rods in the rare December thunderstorm. In which case the lighting display would have been unusually spectacular, if not disastrous.

Still, the rooftop trees, seen from from this distance in time, seem to represent some earth-bound spirituality, something simple and decent that's been lost.

Maybe there's a way to adapt their spirit to the 21st century Country Club Plaza.

*     *     *

Friday, November 20, 2015

After Truman defeated Dewey

Hotel President, Saturday, November 20, 1948: Two blocks and seventeen days from Truman's victory and journalism's loss.

Sixty-seven years ago tonight – just a couple of weeks after what we now consider the biggest screw-up in the history of American newspaper headlines – 300 or so journalists filed into a ballroom at the Hotel President expecting to hear something about what had gone wrong.

"The newspapers' big job was and is to tell the news," the evening's speaker told them. "And, looking at the press as a whole, I believe we came through with flying colors."

The man was E. Palmer Hoyt, editor and publisher of The Denver Post, speaking to members of the Missouri Press Association at their annual dinner. This was happening two blocks down Baltimore avenue from the Hotel Muehlebach, where Harry S. Truman had celebrated 17 days earlier, on the morning of November 3, 1948, the same day the Chicago Tribune's front page prematurely declared DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.

The Tribune had gone to press before the returns were complete, but editors had decided to run with the widely expected outcome, as predicted in national polls.

•     •     •

Flogging the news media for perceived political bias is sort of an American tradition. In the last few decades most such criticism has come from Republicans finding a liberal Democratic slant in news coverage, a charge we've already heard in these early days of the 2016 presidential campaign. It's interesting to recall a time when print media ruled and when that shoe was on the opposite foot.

"The Republicans have nearly all the newspapers and magazines on their side," President Truman said in 1952, citing figures that showed only about 10 percent of the nation's 1700 or so daily newspapers supported him in 1948. "Newspapers – especially daily newspapers – have become big business, and big business traditionally has always been Republican."

•     •     •

As Election Day 1948 dawned, newspapers of all political stripes had predicted victory for New York Governor Thomas Dewey. The New York Times, which had endorsed Dewey, saw a probable 345 to 105 electoral-vote advantage for the Republican nominee. Like other news outlets, the Times had deferred to public opinion polls. The final Gallup Poll showed a 5 percentage-point edge for Dewey.

"We have never claimed infallibility," George Gallup had said a week before. "But next Tuesday the whole world will be able to see down to the last percentage point how good we are."

Not so good, actually. As it turned out, polling had stopped weeks too soon and did not track the last-minute swing in Truman's favor, which gave him a 4.5 percentage-point margin of victory. The news media also stopped too soon, apparently content with the truth of the polls.

Afterward The Kansas City Star editor, Roy Roberts, who like many other editors had endorsed Dewey, did some soul searching.

"Frankly, the mass public doesn't like to be told by newspapers or anyone else, for that matter, what they should do and think," he said. "I have sort of come to the conclusion that you serve your purpose more effectively by setting forth the facts and letting the public make up its own mind than by overstressing your own conclusions and expecting the mass public to accept your opinions."

•     •     •

Down at the Hotel President on November 20, E. Palmer Hoyt offered his defense of the press.

"The answer to those who scorn us because the people, in their votes, flouted our editorial judgment is to ask them simply, 'Well, where did you get the information on which you compared the position of President Truman to that of Governor Dewey?" Hoyt told his audience.

"The American people voted on the basis of the campaign expressions of the two candidates as reported in their newspapers. I think that any honest critic must give the responsible press credit for fair and accurate news coverage of the campaign."

What Hoyt didn't say was that the news coverage included a lot of stories about the coming Dewey victory the polls were foretelling. Nor did he speculate on whatever effect those polls might have on democracy.

But he added:

"We need less reliance on mechanical substitutes. We need more plain, down-to-earth reporting with insight and human understanding."

•     •     •