Monday, October 24, 2011

Ephemeral city: the Snooker Club

Detail, matchbook cover, ca. 1935.
In the early spring of 1935, during the wide-open heyday of the Pendergast political machine, Future, a local anti-machine weekly newspaper, described one aspect of Boss Tom's town:

"Gambling is one of, if not the most, profitable side lines of the political machine here," the article said. "Probably in no other city is gambling so wide open. Games are in most every downtown block; in night clubs and in the residential sections. Suburban shop centers all have their gambling places."

The suburban shops along the Prospect Avenue streetcar line near 31st included a neighborhood movie theater, a five-and-dime, several grocers and – tucked between a dry cleaner and a barber shop – a pool hall. It was the pool hall that concerned one reader in the same 1935 issue of Future

If you do not know, this will advise you that one of the largest gambling casinos in Jackson County is located at 3037 Prospect – known as the Snooker. This place also has a large sign out in front to this effect ...

The letter writer said the Snooker Club also was connected to a neighborhood dance hall "where patrons may drink, dine, and dance to their heart's content," and attributed its continued success to management handpicked by "Mister Jimmie Pendergast," nephew of the Boss.

At the time such establishments had, according to Future, "No doorman to identify visitors; no curtains make any sham at concealing the joints. They are as open as the flowers in spring."

According to city directories, the Snooker Club's life spanned a few years in the late Thirties. By 1939, the year Boss Tom Pendergast was convicted of tax evasion, it was gone. Today a contemporary strip mall occupies the site.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Limestone cowboys

I can't pay homage to "The Scout" (see previous post) and ignore his adversarial brothers-in-sculpture. If the bronze Indian on horseback is this town's most recognized art piece, these bas-relief cowboys on horseback might be among the least. At treetop height on the limestone exterior of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, riding north from the museum's southwest corner, they're easy to miss. 

Sculptor Charles Keck created them in 1933 as one of 23 historical panels representing, in the words of The Kansas City Star, "an allegory of Civilization's conquest of this section of the West." (I'm guessing "The Scout," if he could protest, would put it differently.) Keck, who also gave us the Andrew Jackson on horseback outside the County Courthouse downtown, described this panel as "An incident from the great early cattle drives." 

But, like "The Scout," Keck's cowboys incited controversy among fastidious Westerners. The details were all wrong, they said – bedroll too neat, bridle too British, stirrups misaligned, posture too relaxed. "Like mail-order catalog cowboys," said the governor of Oregon when he saw photos of the then-new Nelson museum. Keck's response: He had researched cowboys at a rodeo in his native New York City. Which, of course, confirmed the Western suspicions. "Rodeo cowboys," wrote one Nevada editor, "play the cowboy role to the public's taste. Life on the range is not a rodeo any more than it is a picnic." 

Probably not, I was thinking the other day as I squinted at Keck's limestone rodeo cowboys high overhead. And just above them, one of those quotations that ring the museum's walls: Art still has truth. Take refuge there. It was early autumn, the breeze was cool, the sun warm, the sky a deep blue. One of those painfully gorgeous days, actually, that give life the feel of a picnic.