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.

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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.

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Listen to Charlie Parker:

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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. 
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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.

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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. 
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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."