Friday, February 24, 2017

Prohibition project: the Cherry Blossom club

The old Cherry Blossom – nee Eblon Theater – is now just a facade at 1822 Vine. 

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This month and for the next several months Prohibition gets the spotlight here. Specifically, Prohibition in Kansas City, 1920 to 1933, those years the Eighteenth Amendment was in effect. Posts will take the form of encyclopedia entries about surviving buildings and other structures from that time that can tell stories about moonshine, bootlegging, speakeasies, "wets" and "drys," and associated events, activities and personalities.

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Cherry Blossom – Asian-themed night club at 1822 Vine. Technically it was not a speakeasy, because the club opened Saturday, April 8, 1933, the day after beer-drinking became legal again. But you can bet still-outlawed booze flowed discreetly from flasks carried in among the eleven hundred patrons there on opening night into Sunday morning to see “the finest night club ever opened for Negroes in this city.” So declared Ananias Buford, the designer and manager of the Cherry Blossom, responsible for transforming what had been a silent-movie theater – the Eblon – into a Far-East garden, complete with dragon motifs, Asian landscapes, a Japanese god towering behind the musicians, waitresses in kimonos and two Chinese cooks – the only two non-African American employees. Buford, who previously had created similar atmosphere at the Hawaiian Gardens, also delivered his promised “fast floor show and a good dance orchestra,” opening with George E. Lee and his Brunswick Orchestra (with sister Julia Lee at the piano). Later Count Basie led the house orchestra, (and this was the site, in December 1933, of the famous “cutting contest” between tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young.) In 1934 when “Both White and Colored Patronage” became new policy at the Cherry Blossom, the Journal-Post was skeptical. “Oh, oh … it works in New York’s Harlem where the races intermingle in hi-de-ho,” a reviewer wrote. “But will it work here? Not long, probably.” By the 1940s the Cherry Blossom had become Chez Paree. In 1984 an arson fire destroyed the building, then vacant for twenty years, but the fa├žade was used in Robert Altman’s film Kansas City.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

Remembering old rose and white

Remnants of the old sidewalk at Nineteenth and Tracy.
Eight years ago this week we were celebrating not only Martin Luther King Day but the imminent inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States. There was hope in the land, and good feeling about the future. Now as his service comes to a close, there is anxiety and anticipation of something very different ahead. In this light we revisit a post from that week, now a distant memory. It appeared in slightly different form in my book Paris of the Plains.

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It’s one of those industrial landscapes – in this case a concrete-and-razor-wire parking lot –  that have swallowed whole blocks between the Crossroads and Historic Jazz districts. No street signs exist here, but this used to be the intersection of Nineteenth and Tracy. The area is so bleak it’s hard to imagine anyone using the bus stop on the northeast corner, a vestige of the streetcars that would have stopped in front of the school that stood here. On maps it was sometimes identified as “Lincoln High School (Colored).”

Lincoln High was a predecessor of today’s Lincoln Prep Academy, up on the hill at Twenty-first and Woodland. Actually, the old Lincoln curriculum was preparatory, as well. Students took classes in science and history and English literature. In the vocational-training department they learned sewing and automobile repair, carpentry and brick-laying. Lincoln was well-known for its music education.

The Lincoln class of 1917 included Walter Page, who played the upright string bass, later founded the Blue Devils and eventually became part of the famed rhythm section in Count Basie’s Orchestra.

The class of 1920 included Maceo Birch, who became a local night club promoter, later road manager for the Basie Orchestra as well as Louis Jordan, and national booking agent for the Music Corporation of America's Negro bands.

Walter Page on the bass, far left, from the 1917 Lincolnian yearbook.

The summer before Maceo Birch's senior year had been especially bad for lynchings in America; more than seventy were reported. During the school year a black man was shot to death by a mob in a small Missouri town, 140 miles east of Lincoln High. Another was hanged by a mob in a small Kansas town, 120 miles south.

That year, children in an all-white Kansas City grade school put on a play, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” The play included a black character whose lines included:
But chile! Yo’ should hab seen dem rats when dat Massa Pied Piper come in dis ar town. Da’ followed dat man just like a lot o’ white trash after a hunk o’ lasses taffy.

At an all-white Kansas City high school, the play was a comedy called “Alabama.” A reviewer remarked of one character: “No one would ever have thought that George Pratt could make such a good ‘nigger’ as Decatur until he saw ‘Alabama.’ George’s wobbly legs and ‘nigger talk’ brought much laughter from the audience.’”

At Lincoln, the 1919-1920 seniors were imagining the future. They shared their ambitions in the Lincolnian.  To become a nurse, was one. A milliner, said another. An expert typist, an athlete second to none, a great businessman. Or a first-class contractor, a first-class cornetist, a first-class cook, a first-class stenographer, a first-class dentist in Chicago. To be bantam-weight champion prizefighter, chief cook for Fred Harvey, cartoonist for the New York Tribune, leading soprano in Tolson’s Jubilee Concert Company, president of Petty Business College. To become a lawyer, an oil magnate, a drum major in a great band. A vamp, an old maid, Mrs. Miller. To teach English at Wilberforce, travel with Bradford’s band, have a fancy art shop on Petticoat Lane, own a first-class garage on Vine Street. To live as royal as a king. Maceo Birch wanted “to own and operate a sporting goods store.”

The original Lincoln High School.
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Under the bus stop sign at Nineteenth and Tracy lies an old suggestion: a remnant of sidewalk and some brick pavers, cracked and broken. In 1920, Lincoln High, itself, was a handsome brick building. It’s not known whether any member of the class of 1920, in his or her heart of hearts, ever imagined being sworn in as President of the United States.

What is known is that the class colors were old rose and white. Its flower was the sweet pea. The class motto was Vestigia nulla retrorsum – No steps backward.

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Saturday, December 24, 2016

Ephemeral city: Season's Greetings

It's a matchless matchbook cover offering "Season's Greetings" from the 1940s, courtesy of the restaurant inside Municipal Airport, what we know today as the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport. In its day, the restaurant was described this way:

As orderly as the cabin of a Constellation, as neat and well-groomed as the pretty airline hostess who drops in for sandwiches between hops, and just as popular with the Kansas City paddle feet as it is with the flying clientele. Stopover celebs may be your eating companions any time of the day or night. Owned and operated by True Milleman and Joe Gilbert.

That's a blurb from nightlife listings in a 1940s-era issue of Swing, a general-interest magazine published by radio station WHB, then at 880 on your dial. More on that in a minute, but first a bit more on the restaurant.

Joe Gilbert, the founder of what became Gilbert-Robinson restaurants, had started out in the business with a hamburger joint at Ninth and Main streets. In 1940, according to Andrea Broomfield's Kansas City: A Food Biography, he and Truman "True" Milleman, formerly manager of the Fred Harvey Union Station restaurants, partnered in the new concession at the airport. Milleman and Gilbert found success by borrowing ideas from the Harvey company's playbook, like "travel follows good food routes." Eventually they became the country's first airline caterer, and after Milleman left the business the restaurant was reimagined as the Four Winds. 

A postcard from the original Milleman-Gilbert Airport Restaurant.

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The monthly Swing magazine published its first issue in January 1945, as World War II was grinding to its conclusion. By Christmas it had been just months since the first atomic bombs ended it. In her December editor's column, Jetta Carleton attempted to reconcile Christmas past and present with the brave, new Christmas future. Here, 70-plus years into that future, is her message:

This is Swing's first Christmastime. We wanted to wish you something special by way of Merry Christmases. But we shopped around and found we could do no better than to wish you Merry Christmas in all its old accoutrements: the stars, the whiff of cedar, the colored lights; the dash from the cold dusk into the warm sweet house; the rumbled stack of greeting cards; the crowded trolleys; the readiness to forgive, to kiss, to buy a drink, to love thy neighbor ... the Salvation Army bells ringing the reminder of the poor and the hungry; the carols, the big, languorous poinsettias, the stampede, the egg-nog … and the Christmas Story, the sudden fierce and earnest yearning to believe … this is Christmas.
Even though Santa Claus forsakes Donder and Blitzen for a B-29 this year; even though what Russia really wants for Christmas is the secret of the atomic bomb; even though Santa Claus turns out to be that Man from Missouri; even though shepherds watch their flocks by flood lights, and the wise men bring gifts of uranium – even so, Christmas comes again as beautiful as ever in our hearts. And we wish you peace on earth – with those across the room from you, the folks next door, and the men and women of six continents.

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