Sunday, October 28, 2018

Return of the blackbirds

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Late October, 1933: For weeks hundreds of blackbirds have been returning each evening to one block – the high ground of Olive between 35th and 36th streets. They roost nights in trees, clacking and squawking and irritating residents to the point of action. One, a streetcar driver by day, has been losing sleep at night.

“One shot with a small-gauge shotgun at random into the dark brought three out of a tree,” he says. “The others flew, but returned.”

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Streetcars run on Brooklyn, two blocks west of the blackbirds. That’s the Brooklyn-Sunset Hill line, the city’s most democratic. It links east-side working-class neighborhoods to captains-of-industry Ward Parkwayvia what’s known as “the colored district” around 18th and Vine.

One day a Brooklyn-Sunset car stops at 36th and Broadway. Passengers board and a dog jumps in. A male German shepherd, gray with black markings. The operator lets him stay, but on the return trip, when no one has claimed him, the dog is put off where he got on.

During his ride the dog picks a newspaper off the floor and drops it in a man’s lap.

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The newspapers carry ads for nightclubs. The Paramount Club (Kansas City’s Smart Night Club). The Pla-Mor (Tables for 1,000). The Silver Slipper (Spectacular Fan Dance!). The Hey-Hay Club (Hot-cha Negro Band). The Beetle (The Party’s On Till Dawn). The Harlem Nite Club (Exclusively White Patronage. Spend Your Halloween at the Harlem).

There are ads for Halloween party favors and costumes: Clowns and pirates and devils and bats. Puritans and Mexicans. Daniel Boone and Felix the Cat and Popeye.

There’s an article about someone on Olive Street, lighting Roman candles and shooting them at blackbirds in trees.

And a story about a man who lives in Midtown, a short walk from the Brooklyn-Sunset line, with a sick relative who’s lost her companion – a dog named Duke. The man has been delivering hand-bills all over town. Three thousand hand-bills describing Duke: Male police dog, dark-gray streaked with black. Black face. Front legs scarred from surgery. Missing some teeth. Small in stature. Carries head high. Playful. Reward: $10.

And stories about pre-Halloween vandalism. Gangs of boys soaping car windows, tipping garbage cans, cutting clothes lines, setting fires, slashing tires, throwing rocks and eggs, shooting out streetlights with .22-caliber rifles. About a man answering his doorbell, finding two small boys who offer to get their gang to quit bothering him if he will give them some candy. The man says he thinks he’ll call the police instead.

Halloween costumes, 1933.
Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.
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Down at police headquarters the mail brings a handwritten letter. “Dear chief of police,” it begins. “I promise you I will not soap any cars or windows. I will tell the other children not to do it too.”

The letter is from an 8-year-old boy whose parents have told him the Spirit of Halloween doesn’t approve of vandalism. Only harmless pranks. Knocking on windows, ringing doorbells. That sort of thing. The return address on the letter is the Emerson Apartment Hotelon Linwood Boulevard, a 10-minute walk from the chattering trees of Olive Street.

* * *

The day after Halloween, the 8-year-old says he and his group of friends tapped on a few windows and rang some doorbells. Says he convinced some other boys they shouldn’t set fire to some leaves in a yard, and stopped some older girls from soaping car windows.

The police name him an unofficial assistant chief-of-police. They’ve had another busy night, answering 75 reports of vandalism, from the east-side working-class neighborhoods to the well-to-do blocks of the Country Club District. Almost citywide. Almost. The Kansas City Call reports “not a single such call was received in the colored district.” 

One family in that district – they live near 16th and Troost, a few blocks from the Harlem Nite Club and its all-white patronage – is now $10 richer, having dialed a midtown telephone number to report a gray-and-black German shepherd at their home.

Duke, 15 pounds thinner, is headed back to his sick companion.

And out on Olive Street, the fire department has answered a call and aimed a high-pressure stream of water into the densely populated trees there. Finally, the blackbirds have flown. One firefighter is not convinced.

“We’ll be getting a call from some place about six blocks away,” he says.

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This is a slightly different version of a post from October 2009.

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Sunday, September 30, 2018

Retouched by time

A matchbook cover made use of the famous paintings.
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The green art-deco barstools still swivel in what used to be the Savoy Grill of the Hotel Savoy, now the bar/lounge of a chef-driven restaurant called the Savoy at 21c. There was the recent complete edgy makeover by the 21c Museum Hotel group, which calls itself “North America’s only multi-venue museum dedicated to collecting and exhibiting art of the 21st century.” For anyone curious about what that might mean for a beloved old-school room originally inspired by a pair of 19th-century wagon wheelsA swiveling art-deco barstool is a good place to see how time changes history. 

 “’Untouched by time’ would be an understatement,” said Anthony Bourdain when he brought an episode of “No Reservations” here in 2012. “They don’t make rooms this beautiful anymore.” 

So today it’s satisfying to see the room still exists. Much of the old remains. The dark-clubby feel, the wood-and-tile details, the booths where old U.S. presidents dined. And the murals – a dozen paintings of the old Santa Fe Trail journey from Westport Landing to New Mexico, scenes of riverboats and wagons, plains and mountains, an Indian attack. Not exactly art of the 21stcentury.

A corner barstool is close to the artist’s signature at the edge of the first mural:

As a young artist Edward J. Holslag had worked on the decorative painting staff at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and created ceiling murals for the new Library of Congress building in Washington, D.C. He eventually made a name for himself as an interior decorator of public spaces – banks, courthouses, theaters, and hotels.

In 1899 Holslag designed the interior of the grand new Hotel Baltimore here in Kansas City. The Baltimore's proprietors also ran the Hotel Savoy. Which probably is how he was selected to create murals for the new grill.

Edward J. Holslag
When he painted these scenes Americans still romanticized the Old West, still celebrated the pioneer spirit of 19thcentury expansion. When the restaurant was briefly known as the Pioneer Grill, the murals were used in advertising. One scene of wagons crossing a stream appeared on matchbook covers and postcards. 

The years were hard on the murals. Grease, dirt and neglect turned them into dark and dingy wallpaper. The Old West eventually became more kitschy than heroic. But to longtime customers the paintings were symbols of something meaningful and essential, so in the 1980s a restoration specialist was hired to clean the murals. He worked for six months, using oversized cotton swabs and trisodium phosphate. When he was done they threw an unveiling party with a jazz band. 

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Edward Holslag died at 54 in 1924. An obituary remembered him as “a great artist – a really great artist, with the temperament and sensitiveness which are ever associated with the artist soul.”

Just a few years earlier, the Fine Arts Journal had published a review of an exhibition of his work. “The paintings of this artist are contemporary, they are modern, but not faddish,” it said.  “They are of today, and yesterday, yet they are neither prophetic nor inventive of some unusual and generally unaccepted tomorrow.”

And now, in yesterday’s tomorrow, the lounge of the Savoy at 21c has a sculptural installation by New York artist Brad Kahlhamer, who is of Native American descent. It comprises many silvery dream catchers – traditional Native American protectors against nightmares. And it hangs in front of the Holslag scene of the wagon train crossing the creek. The accompanying description reads:
The work highlights the role of the artist as healer or shaman, bringing a sense of balance, compassion, and inclusivity to a space originally designed to celebrate European-American expansion and the mythology of manifest destiny, as illustrated in the historic murals in the historic Savoy lounge. … [It] transforms a space of the past into a forward-focused one of the present, acknowledging the complexity of history and the potential for progress, a reminder of the advances made since the restaurant’s first incarnation – visual confirmation that art is the highest form of hope. 
As someone with the artist soul, Holslag would probably welcome how the new hotel has brought him into the 21stcentury. He might even forgive the restaurant’s website naming Edward Holsang as the mural artist. Because time changes things. 

An old green barstool is a good place to raise a glass to change, to hope, to remembrance. All in the strange comfort of knowing that sooner or later we’ll all be forgotten.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The day the world got smaller

All eyes were on the western sky.

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By morning, most of the best vantage points had been grabbed, occupied for hours. A day earlier, when the estimated time of arrival was sometime around midnight, people began positioning themselves on downtown rooftops, on the hill opposite Union Station, in cars parked along the mall leading to the Liberty Memorial. WDAF radio had put an announcer on top of the Kansas City Star building, broadcasting nonstop into the night. Floodlights were aimed skyward. All eyes and ears strained toward the southwest. Is that a constellation there? Is that a locomotive rumbling or ...?

But Texas headwinds kicked up down in El Paso. Kansas City would have to wait until daylight. Skywatchers dozed in place. The radio played musical interludes between progress bulletins. It would be sometime between 7:30 and 9:30 a.m., said the announcer.

At 9 o'clock the temperature was 70 degrees, the sky hazy-cloudy, laced with smoke from the railyards and factories. Visibility was poor for the thousands now stationed on blankets and rooftops. The two-hour window passed. Then at 9:35 the big whistle blew loud from the Armour packing plant in the stockyards. Three minutes later the nose of a giant emerged from the mist above Southwest Boulevard and Summit street. Then the whole giant, dark gray, three city blocks long, a thousand feet overhead, engines roaring, cruising northeast towards Union Station. Small airplanes circled the giant, appearing to one observer like "mosquitoes buzzing a colossal bumblebee."

The pale disc of the sun briefly managed a few bright shafts, turning the giant silver. From the ground, those with field glasses could make out tiny figures in cabin windows. Large red letters on the silvery sides were clear: Graf Zeppelin.

The Graf Zeppelin over Union Station, August 28, 1929.
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For three weeks Kansas Citians, like the rest of the world, had been reading about the great journey of the Graf Zeppelin – around the world in record-breaking time. Leaving Lakehurst, New Jersey, on August 8, 1929, the airship had flown across the Atlantic Ocean, Europe and Asia, across the Pacific Ocean and half of the United States by August 28, when it broke through clouds above Kansas City. In another day the adventure would end back in Lakehurst. Twenty-one days, five hours, twenty-five minutes, the fastest any humans had circled the globe.

Two days before the arrival in Kansas City.

The ship, a German accomplishment, carried forty crew members and a multinational passenger group of twenty, including one woman. Lady Grace Drummond-Hay was a well-known British journalist whose daily dispatches were read in newspapers worldwide. On that Wednesday she wrote:

Kansas City waved us a welcome this morning as we sped overhead and circled about, preparatory to setting our course for Chicago, which will be our turning point and our own special gateway toward the East. A score, it seemed, of welcoming airplanes soared about this giant silver ship, greeting us and photographing from all conceivable angles. It was ten minutes ahead of schedule, at 9:40 o'clock, that we flew over Kansas City, and it was ten minutes later that we left it, to the accompanying sounds of whistles and sirens below.

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The Graf Zeppelin's circle here appeared to center on the three-year-old Liberty Memorial – from Union Station east to about Prospect, south and west over Linwood boulevard, north along Broadway – before it continued downtown, over the Missouri River and vanished again into the clouds.

Headed north, over the Missouri River.

A few shouts arose when the airship was first sighted, but for the most part spectators fell silent as they watched the massive thing, propelled by five great engines, soar over them. At the time the fastest they could travel from coast to coast was via train-plane combo – plane in daylight, train overnight – in forty-eight hours, weather permitting. Air travel was shrinking the planet, but perhaps that was just now dawning on some.

As one Kansas Citian later said, “How amazing it was! How altogether incredible! But one short week ago this ship was forging her way across the lonely, unexplored wastes of Siberia.” 

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