Friday, December 27, 2013

Three things I'd want to do on New Year's Eve

See some vaudeville. There's an early show at the Orpheum. The unlikely headliners are Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy. Between the newsreels and the dancers and the comics, they tell the story of how Helen learned to speak despite being deaf and blind since infancy.

Hear some music. First, the latest records demonstrated on Victrolas down at the J.W. Jenkins Sons Music Company on Walnut. Selections like "April Showers" by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, and "Anchors Aweigh" by the United States Marine Band and "I Want My Mammy" by the Peerless Quartet. Jazz is still pretty new and dangerous. But then I'd hop the streetcar over to the White Rose Club at 18th and Brooklyn where they promise "music by the Jazzland Novelty Orchestra" and "Everybody will have a good time."

Toast the new year while staying out of jail. "Drinking intoxicants in public places is prohibited by law, and no exception is to be made on New Year's Eve," according to the chief of police. "Police officers in uniform and plain clothes will be stationed at all of the hotels and other dining places to see that this order is enforced." So I think I'd find a quiet place to sneak a hip flask and reflect, perhaps some outdoor spot with a view of the city. At midnight I'd be in Penn Valley park with the "Scout" – his second day atop his new permanent pedestal – sipping bootleg whiskey while a symphony of steam whistles and car horns and streetcar bells heralds 1922. I'd be thinking about Helen Keller's garbled voice, translated for the Orpheum audience by Anne Sullivan:

Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much. Only love can break down the walls that stand between us and our happiness.

*     *     *

Friday, November 29, 2013

Spirits in the basement

It's one of those brick-and-limestone residences common to the North Hyde Park neighborhood, where large houses went up on small lots in the first years of the 20th century. This one is three stories facing Armour – blending handsomely with the vintage apartment buildings being renovated along that boulevard – with a basement garage and driveway entrance on Campbell.

In an era when garages – where they existed  –  typically were detached from the home, this one promised convenience and security.

A fine place, say, to squirrel away your liquor during Prohibition.

*     *     *

In 1919 this was the home of Samuel E. Sexton and his wife, Theresa, both near age 50, and their live-in maid. Sexton was a builder. He and his partner, George Hucke, had constructed several substantial homes in the blocks bracketing Troost between 26th and 34th streets, as well as the Heim Brewery and its Electric Park in the East Bottoms, downtown's Dwight Building – then seven floors – and the six-story Hotel Sexton.

The Sexton, at 12th and Baltimore, was a favorite of traveling cattlemen doing stockyards business, and it featured a popular bar operated by Samuel Sexton. But the previous January had brought ratification of the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the production, transport and sale (but not private possession or consumption) of alcohol. Although real enforcement would not begin until January 1920, supplies of liquor began dwindling and bars began closing. That summer Sexton shut the hotel bar and remade it as a 300-seat restaurant that opened in September.

When he closed the bar he packed up the remnants of his liquor stock and trucked it home to his house on Armour, stashing it in a basement storeroom off the garage.

*     *     *

The Sextons had one son, Ernest, who lived with his wife in Denver and made a living as a stock broker. The families visited each other in summer and on holidays.

The night after Thanksgiving Theresa Sexton was feeling ill and her husband called for a doctor to stop by the house on Armour. The rest of the family had sat down to dinner when the doorbell rang. But instead of the doctor, a half dozen men with handguns burst into the dining room. All but one hid their faces behind overcoat collars. The leader wore a mask and ordered everyone upstairs.

The intruders drew shades, doused lights and ransacked the upper floors. Then the leader grabbed Sexton and demanded to know where the booze was. While the others held his family upstairs, Sexton led him to the basement storeroom.

A truck was backed into the driveway off Campbell and down into the garage. The two loaded it, the masked man whistled to his pals and soon the thugs were driving off with the high-octane booty – bottles of wine and cordials, ten cases of gin, and fifteen jugs plus three barrels of whiskey. Value: $5,500. (In today's money, that's almost $75,000.)

From things that were said Sexton suspected at least one in the group knew him, but he hadn't seen them clearly enough to identify anyone.

And so perhaps in the coming years of Prohibition he was able to enjoy the Hotel Sexton's stolen spirits as anyone else might have – by buying them from his local bootlegger.

*     *     *

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Hope of a Nation

Left to right, the Mainstreet Theater (opened in 1921), the Power & Light Building (1931) and the Hotel President (1926).

*     *     *

It was Halloween 1931 and things were looking scary.  In September 305 U.S. banks had closed; 522 more in October. Corporations were cutting wages. Workers were telling their wives the next household paycheck would be smaller. By the end of the year more than ten million – in a nation of 124 million people – would be out of work.

October had been warm in Kansas City, but by Halloween it turned cold. And dark. A milk deliveryman was arrested for injecting gasoline into a competitor's products with a syringe, hoping to create bad-tasting milk and subsequent new customers. There were a couple of bombings linked to a strike of motion picture operators. Boy Scouts formed a vigilante group to head off Halloween pranksters, wandering neighborhoods with nightsticks in search of other boys cutting clotheslines or slicing garden hoses. A syndicated newspaper columnist insisted Halloween, once a holiday of good deeds, had been ruined by "swarms of masked boys and girls," primarily immigrants from Eastern Europe, ringing doorbells to "beg for gifts of food, money or clothing" and destroying property if rejected.

The city's annual charity drive was falling short. "In these abnormal times normal giving does not meet the great need," the Star pleaded. "The poor are here in greater number than ever before. They must be taken care of and it is the responsibility ... of every citizen in Kansas City."

In those pre-Rooseveltian days no government programs existed to rescue the poor. For some, charity was the only hope.

*     *     *

Halloween fell on a Saturday night. There were masquerade dance parties at the Pla-Mor and El Torreon and Valentine's Winter Garden. Speakeasies – Prohibition was still the law of the land; less so in wide-open Kansas City – were hives of illicit activity. Perhaps a few more ghouls than usual mingled with the gamblers and jazz musicians and ladies of the evening.

The city's elite gathered at Convention Hall to complete the charity drive and celebrate each other's generosity. Big names had come through and the Star had listed their gifts. Powell Groner, president of the Kansas City Public Service Company, gave $100 – roughly $1,500 in today's money. City Manager Henry McElroy gave $250. Bankers E.F. Swinney and W.T. Kemper each gave $500. Grocer Fred Wolferman and lumberman R.A. Long each gave $1,000.

Three blocks away, the RKO Mainstreet Theater offered its usual combination of a motion picture and vaudeville entertainers to a less-well-heeled crowd. The movie was a deep-sea diving romance, 50 Fathoms Deep, and the vaudeville comprised four acts touring the country on the RKO theater circuit. Four times each day, Madie and Ray, a young couple, performed acrobatic tricks with a lariat; Nell Kelly, from the Broadway stage, sang and danced; an animal trainer named Joe Peanuts presented his all-monkey orchestra.

The headliner, who doubled as master of ceremonies, was a 28-year-old song-and-dance comic who had been half of a two-man show and now worked solo. His comedy was built on one-liners, such as "I wish I was an acrobat so I could stand on my head and watch the stocks go up." And he engaged the audience in his routine: "Let's all have a good time, make it a big party. All the men lean over and kiss the ladies in front. And the men in the front row kiss the ladies behind."

 It was Halloween in the early years of the Great Depression, when charity was some folks' only hope. But this guy billed himself as "The Enemy of Depression and the Hope of a Nation."

*     *     *

Friday, September 27, 2013

1940: 1411 Wyandotte

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

*     *     *

In September of 1940, as German bombs fell on London, the Ryan Building was for sale or rent. The building had stood empty for two years. A sign at the corner of the third floor advertised its availability. Another, painted across the red bricks, paid homage to an old magazine title. And a third sign, above the streetside entrance, identified the enterprise that once produced the magazine: United Printing Company.

The Ryan Building had been named for its first owner, J.B. Ryan, president of the Kansas City Furniture & Bedding Manufacturing Company, which did business here just after the turn of the century. Later, United Printing published The Home Friend here until 1939, when the company moved to the Graphic Arts Building at 10th and Wyandotte. The Home Friend featured short fiction and articles about domestic life primarily for rural readers. 

After World War II the Ryan Building became headquarters of the Continental Display Advertising Company and remained so until it was demolished in the early 1970s. 

*     *     *

Today few people remember Continental Display Advertising or United Printing or The Home Friend. But the Ryan Building still intrigues. Or part of it does – the part that remains as brick-and-stone urban ruins, perched on a hill behind the Mainstreet Theater and across the freeway from the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

The south exterior wall of the ruins blends into a limestone bluff that drops 30 feet to Truman Road ...

In another 1940 tax photo, the Ryan Building looms above the old Greenlease-O'Neill used-car lot on Baltimore, part of the neighborhood that was clear-cut for the downtown freeway loop ...

The top of Municipal Auditorium peeked over the roof of the Ryan Building.

 In 1975 the Ryan Building met the familiar fate of so many old downtown buildings – it became a parking lot. Today, Kansas City Power & Light owns the ruins. The small irony: No parking. 

*     *     *

Thursday, August 29, 2013

1940: 1500 Cleveland

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

*     *     *

Sears Roebuck and Company was the merchandiser of everything from Jitterbug pajamas and Royal Purple nylon stockings (French heels, extra fine seams, dainty picot tops) to Kenmore vacuum cleaners and Craftsman electric saws (the modern way to build – eliminates tedious hand sawing), from Silvertone tabletop radios (with a cabinet of solid polished walnut and newest type automatic tuning) to Elgin deluxe bicycles (Tail light flashes RED the second you apply the brake!) to ready-to-build Sears Modern Homes (The Fulton – a regular blue-blood of American Colonial design.)

Thirty years earlier New York newspaper columnist Franklin Pierce Adams had written a brief poem titled "Baseball's Sad Lexicon," about the Chicago Cubs' double-play combination of "Tinker to Evers to Chance." The Kansas City Blues' answer the past two seasons had been "Rizzuto to Priddy to Sturm." The league-champion Blues were built on speed and defense, and these guys were being called the greatest double-play combination in the minors.

Sears made use of these local sports celebrities for a summer advertising campaign. Shortstop Phil Rizzuto, second baseman Jerry Priddy and first baseman Johnny Sturm all modeled new Fashion-Tailored All-Wool Tropical Worsted summer suits from the men's department. The coolest suits in town ... the best looking! The fabric is sturdy, resilient, pure virgin wool that requires little pressing ... ingeniously woven with thousands of tiny little holes to catch the breezes and "air-condition" your body!

If you were in the market for a new summer suit you could choose from three-button, single-breasted drapes, double-breasted or conservative models. The best double-play combination in the minors probably received theirs free, but you paid $15.95. If you made a small down payment Sears would let you pay as you wore it. There was no charge for alterations.

Like the suits, the store was fully air-conditioned and it was open until 9 p.m. on Thursdays and Saturdays. You had to remember that streetcars no longer ran to Sears, having been removed from Fifteenth street in March. But you could ride one of the new trolley buses, or you could drive. The free parking lot held more than a thousand cars.

*     *     *

Sunday, July 28, 2013

1940: 100 E. 63rd Street

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

*     *     *

 The three-story house just east of the Brookside shops sits on a spacious lot that spans the width of the block between 62nd Street Terrace and 63rd Street. The back yard faces the front yards of other homes in the Morningside subdivision.

For this reason – its unique size and presence in a quiet residential neighborhood – the neighbors have objected to the house's recent identity: a chicken dinner place called the Twin Pines Inn.

*     *     *

Beyond the hamburger joints and barbecue stands, this is a steak-and-chicken-dinner town. You can eat a fine meal at the Southern Mansion downtown or the Westport Room in Union Station or any number of restaurants where the menus are diverse, with items ranging from fresh rainbow trout to broiled lamb chops to liver and onions. And you can grab a good meal at simpler places like the Ever Eat Café or Walker’s Lunch or the Forum Cafeteria.

But some of the most popular menus are headlined by chicken and steak, as in “Our famous chicken or steak dinners,” which is what’s featured at the White House Open Air Gardens out at 85th and Wornall, (where you can “Dance under the stars nightly.”) Nearby, Tootie’s Club Mayfair also serves music suitable for dancing along with its steak and chicken dinners. And the Harrison Chicken Dinner Farm on U.S. Highway 50 has “Family style fried chicken! Fried in butter!  All you can eat!”

There’s the Green Parrot just across the state line in Kansas (“Our Specialty – Fried Chicken Dinners”) or Stroud’s at 85th and Troost (“Complete chicken dinner 55 cents – Club steak dinner 50 cents”) or go a block north to the air-conditioned Richey’s (“Chicken and steak complete dinners 55 cents”) or to Sni-A-Way Gardens, Highway 50 near the city limits  (“Steaks, chicken dinners and sandwiches”) or the Old Plantation out east on 40 Highway (“Chicken or steak dinner, $1– Drive out where it’s cool!”)

Other than chicken and steak, the common denominator is location: These places are found just outside the city limits, not in proximity to upper-middle-class homes.

*     *     *

Earlier this year twenty-five residents of Morningside filed suit against the owners and operators of the Twin Pines Inn, charging violation of city zoning laws. A judge granted an injunction, and now the house with two small pine trees flanking its entrance is once again a private residence in a quiet neighborhood.

*     *     *

Friday, June 28, 2013

1940: 115 Brush Creek Boulevard

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

*     *     *

The filling station on Brush Creek Boulevard, just east of the Country Club Plaza, is typical of many "Red Crown" franchises across the Midwest affiliated with the Standard Oil Company of Indiana: brick with a red-tile roof.
The name refers to both the roof and the popular brand of gasoline the company dispenses from pumps topped with glass crowns.

"Red Crown" is the regular grade; there's also a budget brand and a high-octane, premium-priced brand. Standard promises that Red Crown is "High in anti-knock and loaded with carefree, thrifty miles." 
As the ads say: Today’s the day to join the millions of motorists whose theme song is “Let’s swing along with Standard!"
If you're swinging into Brush Creek Standard today for five gallons of Red Crown, you'll find Atlas brand accessories, free road maps, a clean rest room, and a glimpse of the construction going on next door. Workers are building a new drive-in style restaurant, named for the two small-town-Missouri  sisters who are opening it this fall: Winstead's.

*     *     *

Monday, May 27, 2013

1940: 3335 Harrison Street

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

*     *     *

 Harriet "Hattie" McKim lives here, alone. She turns 60 this year, though she tells people she's seven years younger, even the census taker.

The house was a bequest to Hattie from H.D. Lee, founder of the wholesale-grocery-and-overalls company that moved its headquarters here from Salina, Kansas, just before the World War. Lee, who divorced his wife in Ohio before coming to Kansas in 1889, died 12 years ago. He had kept an apartment at the Sophian Plaza, and Hattie here on Harrison street. Twenty-seven years younger, she was his longtime companion, having moved with him from Salina. In polite company, she was referred to as his "ward." But that's another story.

Hattie McKim is an animal lover, especially dogs, and is known to take in strays. She would say her favorite was Don, a Belgian shepherd who died eight years ago. Don had been a gift from Lee, who bought him in 1919 from George Constantino, an Army lieutenant who had served in France during the World War.

The story of shepherd dogs in the war is familiar to fans of the late Rin Tin Tin, the German shepherd brought to the states from France and a subsequent star of silent movies. Unlike Rin Tin Tin, who was rescued from an abandoned German encampment as a puppy, Don the Belgian shepherd actually saw active duty in France. Constantino had been his master.

On the battlefield, Don wore a first-aid kit around his neck. His duty was to venture into "no man's land" looking for wounded soldiers, and either let them treat themselves from his kit, or bark so that help would come. Once, he left the trenches for two days, returning with an empty kit.

When the war ended, the Army's policy was to destroy all service dogs not fit for peacetime duty. Don, having been gassed and shell-shocked on the battlefield, was among the doomed until Lt. Constantino smuggled him aboard a troop ship returning to the United States.

Although his war experiences left Don in fear of thunderstorms and airplanes overhead, he enjoyed a long retirement as a Kansas Citian. On Armistice Day and Memorial Day, he would join the other vets for ceremonies at the Liberty Memorial, wearing his first-aid kit and showing off the "feather step" he had learned as a young military trainee.

He died one October, at age 18, in an animal hospital on Main street, where he was boarding while Hattie McKim was traveling back East. Per her instructions by telephone, Don was put into a flag-draped casket. He was buried when his mistress returned home, with full military honors. A uniformed veteran played taps over his grave.

And now Don is a memory in the house on Harrison. And in four years Hattie McKim will take the secret location of his gravesite to her own final resting place.

Don, veteran of the Great War.
*     *     *

Friday, April 26, 2013

Ephemeral city: streetcar advertisement

From The Kansas City Star, May 3, 1928.

*     *     *

Offered without comment ...

*     *     *

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Postmark (redux): March 24, 1941

March 2013 came in like a lion and this morning looks as if it's going out like a snow leopard. To smooth the edges of early spring, here's a rerun from 2010 – about a gentle day, if not a gentle world.

*     *     *

Am going for a ride and expect to see this beautiful fountain.
– Woman's message on a postcard picturing the Meyer Circle fountain, addressed to Lincoln, Nebraska.
*     *     *
What could possibly ruin her expectations?

Probably not the weather – partly sunny and near 50 this Monday afternoon.

I suppose she could get sidetracked somehow, perhaps seduced by the pie-dough demonstration at the All-American Food Fair in Municipal Auditorium. Or delayed by the astrologer's advice: "Get deals done before 3:48 p.m."

Hunger could drive her to the 40-cent hot turkey sandwich at the Hotel Phillips. Or the 40-cent matinee – "Gone With the Wind" – could lure her to the Apollo Theater on Troost.

Maybe she'll succumb to the new fragrance advertised at Woolf Brothers ... as sweet and fresh as a field of wild flowers mingled with clover. Or the bodywork at Kline's beauty salon ... Reduce where you want to reduce! No tiresome diet necessary! No heat; no violent vibrations!

Might she linger too long in Swope Park? The zoo's white swans, Sigurd and Sigrid, are building a nest.

One thing is for certain: The warplanes won't stop her. They're dropping their payloads of death on London and Berlin, a world away from this beautiful fountain.

*     *     *

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Ephemeral city: Jim Lee's menu

According to the menu cover, the "Dollar Dinner" lived at Jim Lee's, 12th and Baltimore.

In 1940 a woman named Beulah Jester lives with her husband and 12-year-old son in a rooming house in a working-class neighborhood near 25th and Troost. Times are still hard and Beulah, 33 years old with an 8th grade education, holds down a job to help her hotel-chef husband pay the bills. The Jesters, whose monthly rent is $15, probably are the kind of folks for whom even a one-dollar dinner ($16.45 in today's money) would strain the budget.

But Beulah is quite familiar with "the Dollar Dinner" as a waitress at Jim Lee's restaurant downtown. Its menu promises dinner for a dollar.

*     *     *

The location – 1211 Baltimore – is a prime one for a restaurant: across the street from the Orpheum Theater and the Hotel Muehlebach, close to numerous other hotels and theaters and within a block of the center of the universe – 12th and Main. (It's an easy streetcar commute from 25th and Troost.)

Before opening his downtown place, Jim Lee had gained experience as manager of a gas-station restaurant outside Platte City, the Red Crown Tavern. The Red Crown is perhaps best known as the site of a 1933 shootout between lawmen and the Clyde Barrow gang. (Lee's son, Don, later will become owner of the Savoy Grill and the Hotel Savoy, downtown KC landmarks.)

*     *     *

The Jim Lee's menu is pretty extensive, offering everything from soup to cheese, from ham and eggs to spaghetti and meatballs to T-bone steaks with mushroom sauce. It's interesting to note that most of the dinner specials cost well over a dollar. There's no liquor, but restaurants often have separate menus. (For example, the liquor menu at the Southern Mansion, two blocks south on Baltimore, offers a champagne cocktail for 80 cents, the same price as liver and onions at Jim Lee's.)

And although you can probably put together a meal of, say, a goose liver sandwich, house salad and iced tea for 95 cents, the menu lists just two dinners that cost a dollar or less: a veal cutlet, salad and coffee for 90 cents or a waffle dinner for a buck.

Strictly speaking, I guess, Jim Lee's is the home of the dollar dinner.  But I wonder how often Beulah Jester hears a customer wonder aloud about its scarcity on the menu.

And I take note that Jim Lee has made it something of a portable trademark.  During his time there, the Red Crown Tavern advertised itself as "The Home of Dollar Dinners."

*     *     *

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Attention careless drivers

Three longtime sentinels: the Scottish Rite Temple (left), the St. Regis apartment hotel (right) and the stately traffic signal.

Count me among folks who don't care for the city's recent switch from traffic lights to stop signs at several intersections across town.  The ones on boulevards are especially unlikeable. Timid souls seem challenged by a four-way stop with multiple lanes. And I've seen clueless or distracted or just plain brazen drivers cruise through these stop signs at 35 miles per hour.

So I find it somewhat soothing to know this type of mayhem has a venerable past in Kansas City. The ancient, charming traffic light on a pedestal at Linwood and Paseo is a kind of monument to it.

*     *     *

In the beginning, driving was a laissez-faire activity: You took life and steering wheel in your hands on pretty much every outing. Speed limits were just suggestions, courtesy a parlor virtue. Caution was in the eye of the beholder.  Automobiles and confusion multiplied, and it was every man (or occasional woman driver) for himself. The boulevard intersection of Paseo and Linwood became particularly notorious for careless driving.

 Linwood and Paseo, out of control, in 1916 ...

That's why, in 1921, the city made this the first controlled intersection in town. Workmen built a wooden platform, two-feet high, topped with a four-sided semaphore with red and green arms, white letters spelling STOP and GO. During rush hours a cop would stand on the platform and rotate the signal as needed. The whole thing came with basic instructions, published in the Star:

Motorists are requested to keep in the right line or line nearest the curb if making a right turn or going straight ahead. If turning to the left, draw into the left line or inside line, one block from the intersection. Motorists making the left turn will turn on the near side of the platform and not around it, during the hours the traffic officer is on duty. When no officer is on duty, if the platform remains on the street, the long left-hand turn around the platform should be made.

*     *     *

In time, traffic control embraced electricity. One popular design for signals featured a headstone-shaped device with a lighted drum on top flashing DANGER or STOP at bridges and intersections. (One included its own explanatory inscription: FOR PUBLIC SAFETY/WHY TAKE A CHANCE?)

A four-sided design arrived here in 1924 after a successful run on Fifth Avenue in New York. It used lights in three colors – red, green and amber, the latter serving to warn drivers that either the red or the green was about to change. Linwood and Paseo got one of these signals on trial in 1927, mounted on a pole inside a circle.

When careless motorists battered similar poles in other locations around town, designers drew up a substantial tapered-concrete pedestal that could fight back.  This type, in 1931, came to support the permanent stone-and-bronze signal at Linwood and Paseo, after the park board chose it as a proper structure for the junction of two grand boulevards. Its designer was Edward Buehler Delk, the architect behind the Country Club Plaza and the Starlight Theatre.

... and controlled, in 1932.  Both photos courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Not that the confusion disappeared. The intersection remained one of the worst for accidents into the 1960s. The city's traffic director then admitted his department would prefer the old signal be demolished, but nearby residents wouldn't hear of it.  A decade later the light went into semi-retirement as strictly a left-turn signal.

*     *     *

These days I slow down to catch a red light at Paseo and Linwood, just to stop and admire the longevity and beauty of an antique traffic signal. And to smile at the words of one of those pioneering traffic engineers of the 1920s.

"This system of signaling is not necessary for the careful motorist," the guy said. "It is to compel the attention of careless drivers."

*     *     *