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.