Friday, December 28, 2012

Back on track

Kansas City Public Service streetcar No. 778 – a PCC-type – on the Country Club car line in Brookside.

For the last post of 2012 let's digress a bit to celebrate the return of streetcars to Kansas City in 2015, a dream made real by the recent special election, and to dream a little further ...

*     *     *

Out on the coast today Bay Area residents and visitors are marking the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco Municipal Railway, better known as Muni, the nation's first publicly owned transit system. In observance, rides today on all modes of Muni travel – diesel and trolley buses, light rail, streetcars and cable cars – are free.

And I can hear you saying, Yeah, so what? Well, I'll get to that. For now I'll just say that San Francisco seems to be a place where a mayor could never use the term "touristy frou-frou" and get away with it. (If you're drawing a blank on that, ask someone who's been around for the entire light-rail struggle in Kansas City. Or just Google it.)

*     *     *
The other day while wandering through my hard drive I encountered a nearly forgotten document tucked away in a folder labeled "odds & ends." It was a copy of a 2007 Star article, written by Kevin Collison, headlined "Old KC Streetcars Could Find Rail Use."

This was a few months after voters finally approved one of Clay Chastain's schemes for light rail. Collison was reporting on a panel discussion of how to get things going, but the real focus of the piece was on a guy in Pennsylvania, Ed Metka, who had 10 old streetcars parked on his land in the Allegheny Mountains. These same streetcars once ran on rails right here, in the extensive, bi-state system run by the Kansas City Public Service Company. Here's the money quote from the article:

"Metka said the Kansas City cars are restorable and could be brought back to life for about $1.5 million each, about half the cost of a new car. That price tag would include installing air conditioning and a lift to make them handicapped accessible."

*     *     *

Those Allegheny/Kansas City streetcars were of a style known as PCCs, after the Presidents' Conference Committee, a group of urban railway leaders charged with improving streetcar design in the 1930s. 

The streetcar on display outside Union Station – No. 551 – is a PCC car that ran in Kansas City from 1947 until the demise of the system in 1957. After decades of service in other cities and a stint as a museum piece, 551 came home, its partial restoration sponsored by the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance.

In June 2009 I posted on this blog about that relic (later included in Paris of the Plains: Kansas City from Doughboys to Expressways). Here's an excerpt:

"Streamlined ... that 1930s term for all things sleek. A design featuring flowing lines, described by copywriters of the time as 'symbolic of contemporary life.'

"Like a falling drop of water. The smooth gliding of the fish.

"There were streamlined pianos and streamlined passenger trains. Teakettles, vacuum cleaners, autos, flashlights, bicycles, refrigerators, golf clubs, beds, milk bottles. And streetcars.

"The streamlined streetcars of the late 1930s improved on their boxy, rigid predecessors: Lighter, faster, smoother, quieter, more comfortable. In 1941, Kansas City got 24 of them. Five years later, 100 more.

"Today out in California the diverse mass-transit options in the city of San Francisco include restored vintage streetcars painted in the colors of other cities' fallen fleets. My favorite is car 1056, a streamliner wearing the cream-and-black of the Kansas City Public Service Company.

"To ride on 1056 is to feel the electric whir of the motor, the metallic grind of the wheels, the brassy ring of the bell, and that je ne sais quoi that is Paris of the Plains. It is public transit with a sort of gritty elegance, a timeless blend of beauty and function, plus something essential that puts a smile on faces."

*     *     *

Kansas City's new two-mile downtown line – surely a starter line that will expand to other neighborhoods – will make use of the latest in streetcar design and technology, as it should.  I've been wondering why that modern line couldn't also include at least one restored vintage streetcar, a sort of fun and functional homage to this town's gritty, elegant past.  Other cities have done it, including Philadelphia, Dallas and Kenosha, Wisconsin (which bought a few of Ed Metka's Kansas City streetcars for its 2.5 mile line). Why not us?

So I recently put that question in an email to City Councilman Russ Johnson, chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and a strong force behind the starter line. He responded, saying the idea has been kicked around and seems favorable so long as the project is a private venture. The budget does not now include a vintage streetcar. Johnson wrote:

While I am open to, and would be excited about, the possibility, other folks would also have to agree, such as the Streetcar Authority. The idea hasn't been widely discussed, but probably should be. Keep in mind that a vintage streetcar would have to be modified to conform to safety standards, modern electrical propulsion standards and station height standards. If it is possible and as long as it is a private vehicle, sounds good to me!

*     *     *

If it sounds good to you, here's some food for thought: 

The old streetcars in San Francisco are owned and run by Muni but acquired and maintained by the Market Street Railway, Muni's "nonprofit preservation partner."

Also, there are companies who specialize in preserving and modifying vintage streetcars for use in modern systems, including the Brookville Equipment Corporation in Pennsylvania and Historical Railway Restoration in Washington state (which did the display-quality restoration on the Union Station streetcar).

 Finally, get a sense of being a pedestrian in a streetcar town as No. 1056, in Kansas City colors, glides past like a huge, steel fish:


*     *     *

Monday, November 26, 2012

Ephemeral city: Lucky Tiger bottle

Lucky Tiger hair tonic was produced first at 544 Delaware and later at 29th and Fairmount.

If you search for "Lucky Tiger Mfg. Co. Kansas City, Mo." you'll probably come across a website for a company based in Milwaukee. There you'll find a page devoted to "The Lucky Tiger Heritage," which tells you that

Lucky Tiger's roots go back to 1927 when P.S. Harris, an amateur scientist and popular barber in Kansas City, Missouri, created a tonic for the hair and scalp in his basement. He called it Lucky Tiger Tonic. Everyone who visited P.S.'s barbershop would look forward to their shave, haircut and a generous splash of Lucky Tiger Tonic. It was different and better than other tonics used in those days, and customers from miles around would rave about its soothing effect. As the story goes, P.S. began to sell the tonic out of his shop, and a few years later a business associate convinced him that his special tonic would be a hit in barbershops across the country. So in 1935 Lucky Tiger was trademarked and a classic American brand was officially born.

This empty bottle probably dates to around that time, when the advertising looked like this:

The online history continues with cultural references from the 1950s, when "Lucky Tiger was there to give guys that sultry, just-right flip as dictated by the heroes of the day: Dean Martin, James Dean, Brando and Elvis."  By then the marketing had morphed into something a bit different –

The website claims "the barber industry was forever changed" by the long-haired Beatles and '60s pop culture, but "Lucky Tiger maintained a fiercely loyal following." And so the Milwaukee company still sells the stuff today as part of its line of "Barbershop Classics." Presumably a nod to that popular barbershop in 1927 Kansas City, where P.S. Harris snipped hair and massaged scalps with the soothing tonic he mixed up in his basement.

Nice story. Except the record shows that in 1927 Pleasant Stephen Harris was president of not only the Lucky Tiger Remedy Company, but also the more established Harris-Goar Company, jewelers and clothiers with stores in downtown Kansas City and several other midwest cities. He lived in a spacious prairie-style mansion in the Sunset Hill neighborhood, his wife was active in women's clubs and the Philharmonic, and they sent their kids to the finest private schools. He had a law degree from the University of Michigan and enjoyed golf and hunting and his membership in the Kansas City Club.

When he died in 1944, his Mr. Harris' obituary mentioned that Lucky Tiger manufactured and marketed cosmetics nationally. Nothing about dabbling in science, operating a barbershop or whipping up batches of hair tonic in his basement.

I guess it's possible. Just hard to imagine, maybe, unless you're trying to sell a line of "Barbershop Classics."

Friday, October 26, 2012

1940: 30 West Pershing Road

Another in a series of posts based on the tax reassessment photos of 1940. Learn more here

*     *     *

Yes, some take the bus or drive cars, and more are flying than ever before. Still, Union Station is the portal of choice for travelers entering and leaving Kansas City.

They come and go via 12 passenger railroads, riding Rockets, Fast Mails, Pacific Limiteds. (Finest in Deluxe Travel, the ads promise.) Scouts, Rangers, Chicagoans. (Bigger, Roomier, More Powerful.) Chiefs, Super Chiefs, El Capitans. And – new this year – Eagles, Southern Belles and Silver Streak Zephyrs.  (Streamlined for Speed, Styled for Beauty, Designed to Provide the Most Luxurious Travel Service in the World.)

They are families, vacationers, folks looking for work. Politicians, businessmen, movie stars like Edward G. Robinson (starring this year in Brother Orchid) and Mickey Rooney (Young Tom Edison).  Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, with plans for a new church at 46th and Main. Hoofer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, starring in the road production of The Hot Mikado, the all-black stage revue from The New York World's Fair. Singer Marian Anderson, whose lovely contralto carried from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington last Easter, after a whites-only policy kept her from performing in Constitution Hall.

And an expectant mother from Chanute, Kansas. Her train pulls in at 10:30 p.m. At 10:45 she lies in the station's first-aid room. Next morning a paragraph in the Times carries the tiny headline:

Chanute Negro Is Mother of the Child

No names provided, but no matter. Another traveler – a boy, 7 pounds – has arrived in Kansas City.

*     *     *
Watch the Kansas City Southern Railway's Southern Belle:

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

1940: 13th and Central

Another in a series of posts based on the tax reassessment photos of 1940. Learn more here

*     *     *

The hot topic downtown: What to do with the former site of Convention Hall, now a weedy, vacant, city-owned lot across 13th Street from its five-year-old replacement, Municipal Auditorium. 

More accurately, the question is: Parking or park

Members of the Downtown Committee, a group of business and property owners, would like a new parking lot there to accommodate events at the auditorium. Owners of existing parking facilities say: Not so fast.

"I do not believe that it is necessary to open the auditorium lot for parking. Only on a very few occasions are the present facilities filled to capacity," says the chairman of the garage and parking division of the Automotive Trades Association. "And if the lot should be opened, it would be likely to drive some of the present stations out of business."

The parking-garage establishment finds itself in league with lovers of natural beauty. 

"Kansas City has the dirtiest, ugliest and scrawniest downtown section of any city its size in the world," says one. "A few shrubs stuck around there to camouflage the parked cars will be no more beauty than three or four feathers stuck into the tail of a naked turkey. When I think of what could be done with that lot I think of John Keats who said, 'A thing of beauty is a joy forever.'"

The City Council agrees, favoring instead a new city park. And, of course, the Building Owners and Managers Association passes a unanimous resolution against that idea.

"The idea of a public and decorative park at this point [is] declared abhorrent, wasteful of the public funds, serving no useful purpose, requiring maintenance and expense to the city to keep up, and adding generally to the policing job of public authorities," it says.

In the meantime, the weedy lot is acting naturally, as weedy lots will do. At least until the cops arrive. Which they do one morning in June as part of their effort to rid the city of a particular type of weed. 

The city health department promises the marijuana plants will be destroyed before they go to seed.

*     *     *

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Antlers Club

The Antlers Club, 1717 W. Ninth Street, in the summer of 1940.

Had such a great time at the 2012 Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival, talking about nightclubs of the Pendergast era, that we ran out of time before we got to some of the good stuff. With the help of the 1940 tax photos, I've been posting the best of the festival leftovers. This is the fifth and final piece.

*     *      *

It was once part of what was known in the 1890s as "the Wettest Block in the World," the block of West Ninth Street between Genessee and State Line in the West Bottoms. So named because almost every storefront on both sides of the street were saloons that served the roughneck stockyards cowboys and workers from nearby meat-packing plants.

Around that time the second floor of the building at 1717 W. Ninth became home to a young Thomas J. Pendergast, just come to town from his native St. Joseph, Mo., to work in the family business. The Pendergast Brothers Saloon, on the street level, was owned by his older brothers Jim and John. 

In their 1997 book Pendergast!, Lawrence H. Larsen and Nancy J. Hulston describe the scene of that era:

"The West Bottoms, a Kansas City version of San Francisco's famous Barbary Coast and the Bowery in New York, contained large and prosperous vice interests. Cowboys, travelers, transients, and townspeople provided ready customers for numerous bawdy houses and gambling dens. Well-known madams with glamorous images achieved celebrity status. 'Hell dances,' which featured half- and totally naked women who mingled with male audiences, took place openly night and day in dance halls. Almost anything was available for a price. Gaming was a way of life. Flamboyant professional gamblers were local heroes, routinely fleecing country bumpkins. Bunco, floating crap tables, and even the old shell game flourished ... Saloons offered roulette and poker. Almost every evening a carnival atmosphere prevailed along the crowded streets."


 Fast forward to the 1930s, the peak of power for Tom Pendergast's political machine, when the wide-open town has overflowed the West Bottoms and covered other parts of town. The former Pendergast Brothers Saloon has become the Antlers Club, remaining a place where almost anything goes: booze, gambling, women and jazz music. One musician later recalled playing there for stag parties that featured live sex performances.

The Antlers Club in the 1930s.

After Count Basie left town for New York City in the late Thirties, two of his band members stayed behind, Jesse Price and Buster Smith, and formed their own group. For a time the band, including a young Charlie Parker, played the Antlers Club.

Today the building at 1717 W. Ninth is the sole survivor of the former "Wettest Block in the World."

The former club in 2012.

*     *     *

Listen to Charlie Parker:

*     *     *

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Stork Club

The former Stork Club, "for lease" a year after it closed.
Had such a great time at the 2012 Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival, talking about nightclubs of the Pendergast era, that we ran out of time before we got to some of the good stuff. So this week, with the help of the 1940 tax photos, I'll be posting the best of what's on the cutting room floor. 

*     *      *

When he died in 1978, Salvatore "Tudie" Lusco's obituary highlighted the fact that he had been the proprietor of a restaurant at the corner of 31st and Holmes, The Majestic Steak House. The obit mentioned that The Majestic had been popular with players from the Kansas City Athletics and other teams, and that Tudie Lusco had therein entertained such baseball luminaries as Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle.

The story also said that Lusco had been in the business since 1930 and involved with numerous clubs and restaurants over the years, including the Casa Fiesta, the Club Royale, the Wayside Manor, and a place identified as "the Vanity Fair at 17th and Baltimore." Obituaries tend to be selective with the facts of the lives they are summarizing.

As the Vanity Fair the club had been a spacious haven for jazz groups too large for the smaller clubs in town, bands such as Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy. One story, recounted in Ross Russell's book Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest, told of the Clouds returning to Kansas City in 1933 from a tough road trip on which they found hard times for touring bands. Kirk remembered:

"When we got back home, there was no Depression. The town was jumping! We got back Friday night and the following Monday went into the Vanity Fair night club, a plush spot right in the center of town, and did good business."

One fact omitted from Tudie Lusco's life story: the club at 1706 Baltimore had a succession of names – the Paramount Club, the Eighty-Five Club and the Stork Club. 

Another omission: Tudie Lusco had been the brother of Joe Lusco, a one-time rival of Pendergast henchman Johnny Lazia. Joe Lusco, the owner of the infamous Dante's Inferno night club, had once harbored Pretty Boy Floyd in rooms above his Lusco-Noto flower shop on Independence Avenue. It was a hideout whence Floyd shot his way out during a raid by Prohibition agents, killing one of them. Joe Lusco, himself, was victim of an attempted shotgun assassination late one night in front of his home on Olive Street. He survived after he was rushed to the hospital by his brothers James and Tudie.

Joe Lusco was crippled in the shooting but kept Dante's Inferno, even moving it from Independence Avenue to East 12th Street, next to the new police headquarters. He also maintained an interest in the Stork Club, with his little brother Tudie. 

In 1939 the Stork Club ran afoul of Missouri Governor Lloyd Stark, who had begun a crackdown on the wide-open nightlife in Kansas City. After having been cited earlier for illegal gambling, the club was one of several closed down for liquor law violations.

The former Stork club in 2012.

Before its life as a Pendergast-era night club, the building at 1706 Baltimore had been home to United Artists, in keeping with other film-related businesses in the neighborhood. Today the former club has corporate owners, but its practical use appears dormant. 

It looks like an excellent candidate for a Crossroads District retro-makeover, something in line with its Paris-of-the-Plains pedigree.

*     *      *

Listen to Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy:

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Oriental Club

The building's brick facade still wore its "Oriental Club" sign in 1940, a year after closing.
Had such a great time at the 2012 Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival, talking about nightclubs of the Pendergast era, that we ran out of time before we got to some of the good stuff. So this week, with the help of the 1940 tax photos, I'll be posting the best of what's on the cutting room floor. 

*     *      *

Not all Kansas City's nightclubs of the 1930s hugged 12th Street. Clubs were clustered all over town and beyond:  around 18th and Vine, along Southwest Boulevard, in the West Bottoms, in the North End and "out in the county" – outside the city limits – among other places.

The North End was the Italian part of town, the area most closely associated today with the City Market. Night spots there could be found along 5th Street and on Independence Avenue, among them the original Bar Le Duc (at 5th and Main before moving later to 12th and Charlotte), the original Dante's Inferno (at Independence and Troost before moving to 12th and Locust) and the Oriental Club, 414 E. 5th Street. 

Both the Bar Le Duc and Dante's Inferno offered floor shows that specialized in female impersonators, in addition to jazz. Not much is known about the Oriental Club, other than it was owned by a man named Tony Bengimina and was among several clubs that were shut in the 1939 crackdown on illegal night life. The Oriental had its liquor license revoked after being cited for "sales after hours and being a disorderly house."

The former Oriental Club in 2012.

 Today the building that housed the club – it appears to be serving as a warehouse – is owned by Joseph P. Mandacina, a cinematographer whose body of work includes, appropriately, Robert Altman's 1996 movie Kansas City. It stands on the north side of 5th Street between Oak and Locust, just east of Le Fou Frog, perhaps waiting to be returned to full-time nightclub duty by some enterprising soul with a strong sense of what once was.

*     *     *
Watch a clip based on the music from Robert Altman's Kansas City:

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Reno Club

The Reno  Club – "The House of Swing"–  had been closed a year when the tax photos were taken.
Had such a great time at the 2012 Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival, talking about nightclubs of the Pendergast era, that we ran out of time before we got to some of the good stuff. So this week, with the help of the 1940 tax photos, I'll be posting the best of what's on the cutting room floor. 
*     *      *

It's been called "the queen of the Kansas City nightclubs." The club that put Count Basie on the national  map. The place where a young Charlie Parker sat in the balcony and soaked up the sounds of Basie saxophonists Lester Young, Herschel Evans and Buster Smith. Where the cramped bandstand led Young to his trademark method of holding his horn sideways. Said to be the place where both Parker and Basie received their famous nicknames.

The Reno Club, at 602 E. 12th, two doors east of Cherry Street, was owned by Sol Stibel, a Polish Jew who had immigrated in 1913. Stibel had a barber shop on the east side of town, but was said to be involved in the Pendergast machine. and in the early 1930s he opened the Reno and closed the shop. Perhaps he saw his chance for a piece of the action in the no-limits night life.

The Reno, writes Ross Russell in Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest

was a long, narrow barn of a place that catered to both black and white customers. Racial mixing was discouraged by a divider that ran down the center of the club; ... The floor shows were staged at nine, twelve, two and four, lasted about an hour each, and between them the band furnished music for dancing.

In Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop – A History, authors Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix describe

a long bar in the front that buttressed a modest oyster-shell bandstand tucked beneath the balcony in the back. Prostitutes from next door, arrayed in shades of scarlet, perched in the balcony like exotic birds, dispensing knockout drops to unsuspecting cattlemen.

The sign above the men's room lists the drinks menu: Manhattan, Martini, Bacardi, Bronx, Alexander, Perfect, Side Car,  Whisky Sour, Tom Collins. The door behind the bass player leads out back. The stairs on the left lead to the balcony.

Out back there was an open area where musicians took their breaks between sets. Nearby on Cherry was an after-hours food stand serving crawdads, chicken thighs and sandwiches made from chicken wings, brains, pigs' feet and pigs' snouts. The teenage Parker was said to have picked up the nickname "Yardbird" here, from his love of the chicken thighs.

The food stand out back, on Cherry Street.
In 1935, after bandleader Bennie Moten died, Basie formed a nine-piece group that became the house band at the Reno. They played seven nights a week, earning $15 each. Performances were broadcast on a local experimental radio station, W9XBY. (One version of the story behind Basie's nickname came from an evening before a broadcast, when the announcer, noting Earl Hines and Duke Ellington, thought "Count" sounded better than "Bill" Basie.)

The W9XBY signal was strong enough to reach the car radio of New York record producer John Hammond, who loved what he heard from the Reno Club. In May 1936 Hammond made the trek to hear the Basie band there, an experience, he later wrote, that he would never forget. Hammond signed the band to a recording contract, which ultimately took them away to the big time.

As the Pendergast machine's power crumbled, the Reno Club fell victim to the 1939 crackdown on the city's wide-open scene. Stibel lost his license for selling liquor after hours.

Years later,  Basie's arranger and tenor man Buster Smith remembered that the Reno Club

wasn't nothin' but a hole in the wall. Just mediocre people mostly went in there, a lot of prostitutes and hustlers and thugs hung out down there. And the house was packed.

*     *      *

Listen to Count Basie and Lester Young doing "Lady Be Good."

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Sunset Club

What had been the Sunset Club, 1715 E. 12th Street, now vacant in 1940.
Had such a great time at the 2012 Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival, talking about nightclubs of the Pendergast era, that we ran out of time before we got to some of the good stuff. So this week, with the help of the 1940 tax photos, I'll be posting the best of what's on the cutting room floor. 
*     *      *

In the 1930s, the block of East 12th Street between Highland and Woodland avenues – just east of the celebrated corner of 12th and Vine – was home to one of the storied jazz clubs in town.

The Sunset Club at 1715 near Woodland was also known at various times as the Sunset Crystal Palace and the East Side Musicians Club. As Ross Russell says in his 1971 book, Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest:

"In appearance and interior decor the Sunset was just another club, in fact a rather modest one ... The bandstand was of a modest dimension and the house band at this famous club consisted of exactly two pieces – a drummer ... and a remarkable pianist named Pete Johnson ... who had taught himself to play blues and boogie-woogie piano. ...  Fellow musicians said of Pete Johnson that his left hand was so strong and so distinct in marking the beats, and so percussive in quality, that the band at the Sunset didn't really need a bass player. They were so effective and popular with jazz musicians that the Sunset became one of the earliest and most popular places to jam."

And there was another who stood out at the Sunset. Russell continues:

"A tall, handsome man worked there as a bartender, and when the spirit moved him, he burst into blues song. His name was Joe Turner ... One of the first public address systems in town was installed behind the bar for Joe Turner's use, although he didn't really need it because he had a voice with the quality and dynamics of a trumpet, enough to fill a club larger than the Sunset. When Big Joe, backed by the two-man rhythm section, burst into song, the entire neighborhood knew it ... On some occasions, Turner would dispense with the amplifying system and, stepping into the street, begin 'calling his children home.'"

The Sunset was managed by a guy named Piney Brown. Chuck Haddix and Frank Driggs describe him in their 2005 book, Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop, A History: as –

"... a trim, dashing gambler well-known for his generosity to musicians, (who) lorded over the nightly festivities ...  'Piney was a patron saint to all musicians,' recalled saxophonist Eddie Barefield. 'He used to take care of them. ... If you needed money to pay your rent, he would give it to you and take you out and buy booze. He was a man you could always depend on for something if you needed it, as a musician.' In turn, musicians repaid Piney's generosity by lining up for the after-hour jam session at the Sunset. Often by sunrise, as many as fifteen musicians crowded the bandstand at the Sunset."

Listen to Joe Turner, Pete Johnson and others doing "Piney Brown Blues."

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

1940: 2409 E. 39th

Another in a series of posts based on the tax reassessment photos of 1940. Learn more here.

*     *     *
Late-July heat wave. Paper says it's going over 100 here, but it's hot all over. Nationwide at least 48 people have died. They're telling housewives in North Carolina to put fresh eggs in the fridge to keep them from hatching. A radio station in Texas is trying to stay cool by playing Christmas music. Yesterday a bus driver in Cleveland stopped and bought ice cream for all 11 of his riders.

The Germans are bombing England. Japan's bombing China. The corn crop is withering in the heat. Phil Rizzuto, shortstop for the Blues, is being called "the standout of all the minors at any position." Stores are advertising specials on electric fans and clearance sales on men's summer-weight suits. The Glenn Miller orchestra is coming this weekend to Municipal Auditorium. Positively only appearance within 200 miles of Kansas City. And the auditorium is air-conditioned.

Many movie theaters are Refrigerated or Ice-cooled or Healthfully Cool. Downtown at The Cool Regent you can see the Midwest premier of a film called "Hitler – Beast of Berlin" – Civilization on the brink of disaster as a monster ravishes a continent.

A giant, ten-cent malt would lower the temperature, at least temporarily. Still, the local Ritz Personality Ice Cream Company advises you to Eat Ice Cream Four Times a Day -- Builds Energy for Work and Play. The company, based in the North End, has more than a dozen retail outlets scattered primarily through working-class neighborhoods on the East Side.

This one on 39th Street, tucked into four blocks of shops and homes between Brooklyn and Prospect, is a simple shack with screen doors and a neon-lighted, double-dip cone. It sits directly in front of the bungalow home of the Fred T. Copas family. Fred is a pressman at a print shop; his wife, Myrtle, manages the shack for Ritz. Someone – perhaps teenage daughter Betty – provides the free delivery. Just telephone WAbash 9853.

The other day a guy who works for the water department cashed his paycheck, paid his water bill and pocketed the remaining $105. When he got home the money was missing. He retraced his steps three times with no luck. He thinks it must have fallen out of his pocket when he stopped to buy a ten-cent ice cream cone for a little girl.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

1940: 520 Delaware

Another in a series of posts based on the tax reassessment photos of 1940. Learn more here. 

*     *     *

Unemployment is just below 15 percent, down nine points in the eight years Franklin D. Roosevelt has been president. Congress is appropriating less this year for the Works Projects Administration payroll, so thousands of Americans will lose their road-building jobs, or their ditch-digging jobs, or their tree-planting jobs. (Kansas City has about 9,000 WPA workers.) Some of them, in light of another war escalating overseas, will hire on in factories devoted to the new military buildup.

If you need a job, you might check the windows of the Big 4 Employment Agency, 520 Delaware Street, which display the hand-lettered possibilities for putting food on your table – or perhaps someone else's.

Among the listings you'll find: Farm hand, (seems appropriate, just a block from the new City Market), truck driver, dishwasher, and waitress. Notice, too, each necessary distinction: "married" farm hand, "Mexican" truck driver and "white" dishwasher. Apparently you can be any sort of waitress, assuming you're a good one.

You also should check the help-wanted ads in the Sunday newspaper. If you're a boy of 14 or 15 you can earn room, board and clothing in exchange for unspecified work. Men are sought to pick potatoes in Levasy, Missouri, to rebuild wrecked autos in Great Bend, Kansas, to drive dusty highways in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, peddling ruffled curtains on commission. If you're a "Couple, Colored" willing to stay nights, you can cook, clean, chauffeur and do yard work in another couple's home. Girls over 18 are needed to provide curb service at the Phillips 66 at Swope Parkway and Benton.

And a restaurant on Troost is looking for a waitress. Age, race unspecified. Pays three dollars a week.

*     *     *

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

1940: 1908 Main Street

*     *    *
Another in a series of posts based on the tax reassessment photos of 1940.  Learn more here.
*     *     *

For more than a dozen years the second floor of this simple yellow-brick building on Main has been ground-zero for political power in Kansas City and beyond. Has been. Downstairs, the Southwest Linen Company is still dispensing hotel tablecloths and such, and next door you can still grab a bite at the Ever-Eat Cafe, just like Boss Tom. But Boss Tom has been locked up in Leavenworth and the center of civic gravity has shifted north, back to City Hall.

Since 1927 this has been the home of the Jackson Democratic Club, presided over by Thomas J. Pendergast, successful businessman and corrupt political boss. Although his official place of business is the Ready Mixed Concrete Company on West 25th Street, this is where you can come with your request for a favor – be you unemployed laborer or member of Congress – three days each week from 6 a.m. to noon. Or you could, once upon a time. Boss Tom has been doing 15 months in prison for income tax evasion, a result of his gambling obsession.

Now he's free, three months early for good behavior. Just a couple months ago, before the April election for mayor and city council, the Kansas City Star worried about the goings-on inside "1908 Main Street, from which Kansas City was ruled these fourteen years past, and which has been spoken of only in whispers in recent days ... Sitting on the dusted-off throne seat of the imprisoned boss was his nephew, Jim Pendergast – receiving reports from the ward leaders, giving the last-minute instructions ..."

All for naught, as it turns out. A new regime of reformers has taken over City Hall. And 68-year-old Boss Tom is spending his days not at the Jackson Democratic Club, but at the Ready Mixed plant, banned from politics by the terms of his probation, telling the Kansas City Journal that "I intend to be on the job attending to business every day. My office is open to those who desire to discuss business and personal matters, but not politics."
*     *     *
For what's been happening in 2012 at 1908 Main, see this article in the Star

*     *     *

Monday, April 30, 2012

The 1940 project

Longtime readers with good memories might recognize this photo from a September 2010 post about what today is "an old movie house, long-shuttered and streaked with graffiti like countless other east-side structures" – the Colonial theater, on Woodland near 39th street. The photo was snapped in the spring or summer of 1940.

That was the year the Nazis marched into Paris and later began bombing London, even as some people here at home worked to keep the United States out of the war.  President Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term. Harry Truman was re-elected to the U.S. Senate and his old mentor, Tom Pendergast, was released from the federal prison in Leavenworth.

In 1940 Kansas Citians finally ran the Pendergast machine out of power, electing John Gage mayor, and a reform-minded city council hired a new city manager, L.P. Cookingham. Besides cleaning up the machine's financial mess at City Hall, civic leaders were hot to tackle a growing problem: traffic congestion.

It was the year the City Market and the Kansas City Museum opened. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a new church at 46th and Main. Charlie Parker left for New York, then briefly returned. Barbecue king Henry Perry died, leaving his restaurant to his employee Charlie Bryant, who worked alongside his  brother, Arthur. The Winstead sisters from Sedalia opened a drive-in restaurant just off the Country Club Plaza. Workers demolished the still-grand Hotel Baltimore.

In April 1940 two sets of government employees fanned out across the city. One canvassed for the National Census. The other, largely made up of pool laborers from the Work Projects Administration, began a months-long effort to produce Jackson County's first systematic property tax reassessment.

Part of their job was to photograph every taxable structure in the county, residences and commercial buildings. WPAers methodically walked each street of every neighborhood, posing for their photographers in front of each address while holding a signboard with numbers that would identify the property.

The photos were then made into tiny prints and glued to cardboard sheets, simple illustrations to accompany the extensive data gathered on each property. Late that year the reassessment was completed and presumably the photos and data began gathering dust somewhere inside county courthouse file cabinets.
*     *     *

Decades later, the story goes,  the cardboard photo sheets were found in a dumpster. A few entire  neighborhoods were missing – as if someone perhaps "saved" them for personal use  –  but overall the photos were in decent shape. Many represented the only surviving images of long-lost buildings.

For some time the tax photos were available to the public through the Landmarks Commission. Recently they've been moved to Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library, where staff members are working to catalog and upload the photos to their website.

Today begins a new series here at POTP: the 1940 project. Each post will feature a separate image from the 1940 tax photos and tell a story about that place. The hope is that the stories and photos will eventually create a mosaic of a moment in time: pre-war, post-Pendergast, Paris of the Plains.
*     *     *

So here is the Colonial theater, once again open for business along the Woodland streetcar line, tucked between the Home Bakery and the neighborhood Mobil filling station. In 1940 the Flathers boys lived two blocks down Woodland. It was here to the Colonial that young Walter Flathers, age 8, came with his older brothers Bobby, 9, and Raymond, 13, one Sunday in October.  It was a triple feature, including Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes.

On Sundays, if you wanted, you could sit through the movies several times. After a while you might get drowsy and fall asleep. Often this happened to the Flathers boys, and occasionally someone would wake up in a closed theater. This time when Bobby tired and got up to go home, he warned Walter to keep his eyes open. Walter could not.

When the police found him fast asleep inside the locked theater at 2:30 a.m. they took him home. Walter went to bed without a word. His mother thanked the policemen. Usually when this happens, she said, they wake up and go out the exit door.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Ephemeral city: Carey's Modernistic Cocktail Bar

Detail from a matchbook, ca. 1940.
Given its brief lifespan in the late 1930s and early '40s – the streamlined era – Carey's Modernistic Cocktail Bar sounds like the kind of place where you'd find plenty of chrome, vinyl upholstery, sleek, round edges and maybe a cool blonde sipping a Sidecar or a Pink Lady at the end of the bar. Phone VAlentine 9959.

The former bar today.

Opened in 1938, Carey's Bar lasted only about five years, until the outset of World War II. The subsequent tenant at 3223 Troost, gained longtime, gender-bending fame – first at this location and later on Main Street. But Carey's, although perhaps "Famous for Steaks," would become infamous for its owner.

Carl Carramusa, then in his 30s, was a dark, slender son of Italian immigrants. He was born Carlo in Chicago, but had lived in Kansas City's north-side Little Italy since he was young. He Americanized his first name, and as a bar owner he was known as Carl Carey.

When Carlo was about 10, an extortionist killed his younger brother. As author Frank Hayde writes in The Mafia and the Machine: The Story of the Kansas City Mob, "Carramusa’s father was a fruit peddler who couldn’t put together enough money to pay the Black Hand what they said he owed them."

It's ironic, then, that in February 1943 federal narcotics agents arrested Carl Carramusa, having traced a large stash of high-quality heroin discovered in the East Bottoms to the former owner of Carey's Modernistic Cocktail Bar. Carramusa, who had enlisted in the Army when the war began, gave up the names of his conspirators in Florida, St. Louis, and Kansas City.

Hayde writes: "When he testified at the trial, Carramusa looked into the front row of the federal courtroom and saw Paul Catanzaro, the same man who had murdered his little brother 24 years earlier, casting menacing stares and flashing the devil's horn death sign." For his testimony, Carramusa received a reduced sentence and probation. By 1945 he was living in Chicago.

One day he found his tires slashed. Later he noticed someone in a car with Florida tags lurking nearby. He called one of the federal agents, begging for protection. "They're after me," he said. "I'm being followed and watched."

A few days later, as Carramusa was arriving home, a car pulled up and unloaded blasts from two sawed-off shotguns, removing the head of the former owner of Carey's Modernistic Cocktail Bar.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Steam dreams on Walnut

If you're walking on Walnut between Seventh and Eighth streets, you might notice – pedestrians see so much more, no? – a small building on the east side of the block. The one with the pre-Prohibition-era second story and the Jetsons-style street facade. A building angled slightly to allow for northbound Walnut's dogleg right, toward the City Market.  

Flanked now by surface parking lots, this structure is all that remains of the block where Kansas Citians bought train tickets in the time of Harvey Girls and steam locomotives. 

In 1916, when it was built, this was an annex to the newly renamed Railway Exchange Building at Seventh and Walnut, previously the Midland Hotel. Together with a smaller existing building near Eighth, they presented a string of storefront ticket offices for 11 different railroads, from the Burlington at one end to the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific at the other. 

In between, this building housed four roads: the Missouri, Kansas & Texas (better known as the Katy), the Chicago Great Western, the Chicago & Alton, and perhaps the most famous (or at least the most lyrical), the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. The Santa Fe occupied the south end, at the angle in the street.

*     *     *

Today, the strolling time-traveler might pass this way and imagine a visit to the Santa Fe office in, say, the late 1920s. Inside, pick up a few brochures and begin dreaming. Perhaps a West-Coast vacation ...

Or a tour of the Southwest ...

Fred Harvey busses will meet the train.

Either way, book the newest, fastest conveyance ...

Chicago to Los Angeles – just 63 hours.
*     *     *
In the mid-1930s, with the advent of diesel-powered trains, most of the railroad offices moved to new locations around town. Soon all the Walnut Street ticket offices were vacant, and stayed that way until World War II. Then an old Kansas City general store moved into what had been the four offices in this building. Racket Merchandise, founded in 1891, relocated from its longtime headquarters near the City Market.

Today the company remains here on Walnut, sharing the building since last year with the American Black Hereford Association.

The Racket Group's website says the company has evolved from general store to restaurant supplier to "a global leader in the travel industry." Its products: pillows, trays, earphones, etc. for the airlines. (Perhaps explaining the street-level windows on this building.)

And so the story for this surviving building on Walnut – putting aside the Herefords –  arcs from rail travel to jet travel. Chicago to Los Angeles: from just 63 hours to four and a half.

*     *     *

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The granite ladies of Broadway

The big stone cats recline and gaze eastward, as they have since 1925. Their view used to be more interesting: Streetcars rattling past a busy Parkview Drug Store at the corner of Broadway and Armour, with its rooftop Coca-Cola clock and billboard. The Pause That Refreshes.

It must be the formal siting – the two granite lions flank steps leading to the stately headquarters of Kansas City Life – that puts me in mind of more famous cats: marble ones (completed in 1911) outside the New York Public Library; bronze ones (1893) at the Chicago Art Institute. Otherwise the similarities are few.

Those older, larger, big-city lions were creations of American-born sculptors, animal specialists of national repute. The Broadway lions came from the hand of a forgotten Kansas Citian, a native Norwegian with an eclectic local portfolio, including scantily clad men on West Pennway and sphinxes on Linwood Boulevard.

Chicago's lions go by their sculptor's descriptions: "Stands in an attitude of defiance" and "On the prowl." The New York lions were christened Leo Lenox and Leo Astor, for the library's founders, but the names that stuck were Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's idea of New York virtues during the Great Depression: "Patience" and "Fortitude." To my knowledge, the lions of Broadway are nameless.

And unlike their manly celebrity cousins, the Broadway lions are, well, lionesses. Mirror-image symbols of "maternal protection," according to Kansas City Life, for which they serve as corporate logo. 

The lionesses went to their pedestals on April 6, 1925. The day before, a Kansas City Star article revealed their ultimate distinction. "Jorgen C. Dreyer, the sculptor, used the lions at the zoo for his models," the article said. "He went there often, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes at night."

Almost 87 years later, the streetcars and Coca-Cola clock and Parkview Drugs are long gone. A lifeless facade now fronts Broadway, the result of an uninspired makeover after the building became a print shop. That shop is gone now too.

No matter. The big stone cats stare stoically ahead, waiting for their names.