Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Novelty Club

The second story of 406 E. 18th street, in the East Crossroads.

The other day I went down to the Crossroads, looking for the spirit of Boss Tom Pendergast.

One of the things I like most about visiting the Crossroads district, where plenty of fresh creative energy percolates, is that I'm never far from the Pendergast era – for better or worse the most colorful years of this city's political and cultural history. The district is still chock-full of low-rise brick buildings that date to that era in the first half of the Twentieth Century. 

There's 1908 Main, of course, the former upstairs headquarters of the Jackson Democratic Club, where Pendergast ran his political kingdom and doled out favors. There's the former T.J. Pendergast Wholesale Liquor Company building at Twenty-first and Central, one of his numerous business interests. And there are numerous places with forgotten stories to tell about Tom's Town.

The place I was looking for stands near the corner of 18th and Oak, in the heart of the relatively gritty East Crossroads where industrial suppliers share their neighborhood with metalsmiths and glassmakers and traveling musical acts who perform in an outdoor venue. 

Diagonally across the street from Grinders pizza is the new home of the Border Brewing Company one of two craft-beer operations soon to open in this area. The folks at Border may or may not be aware that they occupy what for many years was home to several auto-service businesses. Or that the stairs next door at 406 E. 18th street lead to a second-floor space that was once a Prohibition-era speakeasy known as the Novelty Club.

The Novelty Club had a very short life and was notable for three things: Its ornate bar came from the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair; one of its employees (though he later claimed he had owned it) was a young man named Milton Morris, who would eventually become a minor legend among Kansas City nightclub owners; and after being open just a few brief months, the place was raided in a citywide sweep of speakeasies by federal prohibition agents in the early-morning hours of September 28, 1932.

The building in 1940.

According to the Star's reporter, the agents broke in the front door with an ax and ran upstairs, where "The orchestra just had begun a snappy tune and the floor was filled with dancing couples, some of the women in evening dress, others in street and sports wear, and men in dress and business suits."

After the raids of several clubs, government moving vans hauled away tables, chairs, rugs, curtains, slot machines, glassware and liquor as well as the entire 1904 World's Fair bar. All of it was stored away to be auctioned.

And that's the story of the Novelty Club. Not particularly exciting, unless you appreciate long-forgotten stories, as I do. And the fact that the place still exists, to date under-appreciated as a remnant of the city's colorful past.

The day I visited I saw that the upstairs space – or rather, part of the original 4,000 square feet of the Novelty Club – was for lease. A real estate flyer showed photos of a rather bland office – carpet, mini-blinds, florescent lights – that required imagination to envision a speakeasy.

Outside, however, around the corner and across a parking lot, peeking over the top of a portable outhouse from the wall of a neighboring building, Boss Tom Pendergast smiled back at me in assurance. He's still around.

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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
*     *     *

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'.

*     *     *

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,

*     *     *