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).

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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.

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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."

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