Friday, December 19, 2014

Ephemeral city: Christmas card, 1937

 It's another small treasure recently discovered in a West Bottoms shop, labeled a Photogravure Etching from photograph used by courtesy of T.W.A. Airlines.  One – the first? – in an annual series of Christmas cards featuring city landmarks, produced by and for the Siegrist Engraving Company (founded 1902, still at 924 Oak today), this arrived in mailboxes in December 1937.
Here at the end of 1937, we're looking back at a year of the Hindenburg and Amelia Earhart and civil
war in Spain. And in this card we're looking over a nighttime Kansas City skyline made brighter by a new 30-story City Hall building, part of what The Kansas City Star calls "The new order at Twelfth and Oak Streets ... something new in bright lights, more tranquil and more impressive than the night scenes on 12th Street to which Kansas Citians are accustomed." The Star might get an argument from patrons of nearby 12th Street joints like the Reno Club and Dante's Inferno and Bar le Duc, where the jazz music and the floor shows and the alcohol create heat that lasts all night, every night.

But it's Christmastime and all light seems heavenly, no matter the source. Down there in Union Station some of the glow in the windows comes from the huge chandeliers, some from the lobby's Christmas trees, some from the continuous hum of life within: overcoated travelers with leather suitcases weaving through clusters of folks awaiting trains delayed by subzero cold; the MU football team returning from a 13 - 0 loss to UCLA out on the coast; "Black Jack" Pershing, World War general, 77 but fit in pin-stripe suit and spats, en route to Tucson for the winter; shoppers perusing the best-sellers on the shelves of the Fred Harvey Bookstore or buying gift baskets in the Fred Harvey Fruit and Candy Shop or picking up a fruit cake or a sliceable cylinder of ice cream – green pistachio with a red bell-shaped center of strawberry – in the Fred Harvey Pastry Shop. From on high come carols sung by choirs of the eight city high schools, perched in the balconies surrounding the lobby. The all-black Lincoln chorus delivers a spiritual, "Wasn't That A Mighty Day." Seasonal warmth fills the cavernous room.

Outside in the parking lot a shadowy form with a pistol relieves a railway clerk of $60. Here or elsewhere a society matron also suffers loss and places a classified ad: MUFF – genuine mink, large flat style, between Union Station and 58th/Ward Parkway, reward.  Meanwhile the downtown skyline of the town owned by her neighbor, Thomas J. Pendergast, shimmers and pulses with the sounds of clicking dice and clinking glasses and jazz music. Somewhere out there a 17-year-old named Charlie Parker smiles and wraps his lips around a reed. Lights dance in the brassy curves of his saxophone, pointed toward the future.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Digging up Savoy history

Days after a recent fire in the historic Hotel Savoy I hurried down to the corner of Ninth and Central to have a look. Several doors stood lashed open with cautionary yellow tape, so I walked right in.

I'm ashamed to admit it was the first time I'd set foot inside the old place in probably thirty years. Apart from the spent-campfire smell and the workers cleaning up, nothing had apparently changed. The 19th-century time warp was intact: well-worn floor tiles, Art Nouveau stained-glass dome and windows, wall sconces and heavy oak paneling all seemingly undamaged. I wandered through the lobby and down a dark hallway to the oldest and – judging by longevity and historical significance – most famous restaurant in Kansas City. I wanted to check the condition of the Savoy Grill.

What most people mean when they say they've been to the Savoy is not the tired hotel, a section of which has operated for years as a bed-and-breakfast, but the grill. Over generations the grill's reputation was built on fresh Maine lobster and American Royal champion beef served by very old black waiters in white jackets. I'm afraid I hadn't been to the Savoy in so long mainly because I'd heard the food was no longer a reason to go.

Actually, quality has been suspect at least since the 1970s, when a Kansas City Times critic wrote of "messy salads, mushroom caps stuffed with what seemed to be ground onion and little else, and lobster broiled to a mush and burned around the edges." A current check of online reviews suggests the few good ones are heavily influenced by the old-school atmosphere, unmatched anywhere in town: Pre-prohibition bar; a dark-leather booth favored by Harry Truman; deep-green subway tile and white tablecloths; a dozen panels of romantic scenes on the old Santa Fe Trail, painted more than a century ago by muralist Edward J. Holslag. At least, it was that way before the fire shut everything down.

Now the hotel and its grill await renovation by prospective buyers 21c Museum Hotels. Here's hoping the deal still goes through and the Savoy gets some expert tender-loving care and a long-overdue 21st century makeover that somehow preserves the ancient otherworldly charm. And updates the history.

*     *     *
The Savoy is proud of its past, as evidenced by a plaque on the brick facade at the corner of Ninth and Central streets. "The Hotel Savoy was constructed between 1890 and 1906," it begins, before describing its architectural significance. According to the hotel's current website the hotel was built "in 1888 by the Arbuckle brothers of the Arbuckle Coffee Company" and "In 1903 it was remodeled and the west wing was added along with the Savoy Grill dining room." Turns out the plaque, the website and the sign hanging out front – "Since 1903" – are incomplete at best, inaccurate at worst.

A little independent archival digging unearthed different details. Yes, the hotel began life in 1888, not as the Savoy but as the Hotel Thorne, named for Dr. Joshua Thorne, its builder and one of Kansas City's first physicians. Four years later Thorne sold the hotel, but the deal wasn't completed until 1894 with different buyers, William Jamison and John Arbuckle, partners in Arbuckle Coffee of New York. The hotel had been closed for some time, but after repairs it reopened at the end of 1894 as the Savoy.

In July 1905 The Star noted a six-story brick addition was going up at Ninth and Central "to double the size of the Hotel Savoy." Then in December that year the paper reported on "the grill room of the addition to the Hotel Savoy," being designed by the architectural firm of Howe, Hoit and Cutler. "The new grill room will be opened in March," the article said. In other words, though a restaurant surely had operated elsewhere in the hotel, the Savoy Grill that exists today dates to 1906.

A century ago this month the Savoy marked 20 years under that name and advertised directions from Union Station, which had just opened:

It's interesting that for a time in the 1930s the grill was called the Pioneer Grill, known as a good choice for a turkey dinner:

The Depression brought a brief closure before new owners reopened and the Savoy Grill name really took root. The new owners obviously recognized the value of history:

Which brings me back to that newspaper story of late 1905, the one about the design for the new grill. The architects had decided that the room would have a theme based on the Santa Fe Trail and that an artist, as yet unnamed, would be hired to paint a series of Western scenes. One of them revealed the inspiration:
"In digging the excavation for the addition to the Savoy the workmen unearthed a pair of wheels such as were used on the ox wagons years and years ago. They were fifteen feet below the street level. This really suggested the idea of the Santa Fe Trail pictures."
*     *     *
And so I was happy to see, as I squeezed past the stacked tables and chairs in the Savoy Grill after the fire, that Edward Holslag's murals were still there, looking fine. Still the inspired legacy of a pair of old wagon wheels dug up more than a century ago. May they live for a new century of diners.

*     *     *

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Game 7, October 1985

The last time "We Did It!"

When it became clear this wasn't just a dream, that the first game of the 2014 World Series really would be played tonight at Kauffman Stadium, I decided it was time to try to find those photos I snapped the night of the last World Series game played here, when the ballpark was called Royals Stadium. Twenty-nine years ago.

It was a lucky draw. A friend's father had somehow ended up with his company's pair of box seats for this final game of 1985. He really wasn't much of a baseball fan; you could tell by the way he gasped at every routine fly ball. The Chiefs were his team, and golf was his passion. But he was a great guy and for some reason no family members were available that evening so he wondered whether I would like to go.

As it happened, it wasn't my first Series game that year. I'd sat in upper-deck nose-bleeders for game 2, when the Cardinals scored four runs in the ninth off Charlie Liebrandt and took a two-games-to-none lead. Driving out of the parking lot I passed two drunk fans in red hooting and laughing from the top of their car, so I pulled up next to them and shouted, "Royals in six!" They laughed harder.

This night my vantage point, several rows up from the infield on the first-base line, was considerably better, and I'd brought my Nikon FM to record the experience. Besides the immediate post-game celebratory clutch of players and fans near the pitcher's mound, above, I also got MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth greeting fans, Darryl Motley's home-run trot after providing all the necessary Royal offense, and the fifth-inning hysterics of Cards pitcher Joaquin Andujar, who had come on in relief with his team down nine runs.

In the middle of the third inning I snapped a series of images of the whole scene before me, from left to right, beginning with the press box area ...

... where Fred and Denny are broadcasting and Mr. and Mrs. K are watching from their suite ...

... moving toward the Stadium Club ...

... and the Red Birds perched in their dugout ...

... up the third-base line, where home-plate umpire Don Denkinger watches ...

... starting pitcher John Tudor's warm-up tosses to catcher Darrell Porter ...

... and the scoreboard shows the results of Motley's two-run, second-inning homer ...

... to right field, where Motley will catch the game's final out.

*     *     *

The pictures bring back several things – the artificial turf, the old Royals "R" logo, the bare-bones look of the stadium compared to today's amusement-park version. Bret Saberhagen's complete-game shutout. Ultimately I'm reminded of those two beer-soaked, red-clad twits in the parking lot.

What you get from St. Louis fans most often about the 1985 Series, of course, is the bad call Denkinger made at first base in the sixth game. You seldom if ever hear anything from them about  subsequent Cardinal misplays in that ninth inning – the pop foul first baseman Jack Clark let drop or Porter's passed ball – or their complete failure in the seventh game or the fact that the Cardinals hit .185 for the Series.

So I suspect Denkinger is what those two from the parking lot remember, and not my bold prediction to them. OK, so I was off by one game.

*     *     *

Slide right for the panorama. Go Royals.

*     *     *

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Novelty Club

The second story of 406 E. 18th street, in the East Crossroads.

The other day I went down to the Crossroads, looking for the spirit of Boss Tom Pendergast.

One of the things I like most about visiting the Crossroads district, where plenty of fresh creative energy percolates, is that I'm never far from the Pendergast era – for better or worse the most colorful years of this city's political and cultural history. The district is still chock-full of low-rise brick buildings that date to that era in the first half of the Twentieth Century. 

There's 1908 Main, of course, the former upstairs headquarters of the Jackson Democratic Club, where Pendergast ran his political kingdom and doled out favors. There's the former T.J. Pendergast Wholesale Liquor Company building at Twenty-first and Central, one of his numerous business interests. And there are numerous places with forgotten stories to tell about Tom's Town.

The place I was looking for stands near the corner of 18th and Oak, in the heart of the relatively gritty East Crossroads where industrial suppliers share their neighborhood with metalsmiths and glassmakers and traveling musical acts who perform in an outdoor venue. 

Diagonally across the street from Grinders pizza is the new home of the Border Brewing Company one of two craft-beer operations soon to open in this area. The folks at Border may or may not be aware that they occupy what for many years was home to several auto-service businesses. Or that the stairs next door at 406 E. 18th street lead to a second-floor space that was once a Prohibition-era speakeasy known as the Novelty Club.

The Novelty Club had a very short life and was notable for three things: Its ornate bar came from the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair; one of its employees (though he later claimed he had owned it) was a young man named Milton Morris, who would eventually become a minor legend among Kansas City nightclub owners; and after being open just a few brief months, the place was raided in a citywide sweep of speakeasies by federal prohibition agents in the early-morning hours of September 28, 1932.

The building in 1940.

According to the Star's reporter, the agents broke in the front door with an ax and ran upstairs, where "The orchestra just had begun a snappy tune and the floor was filled with dancing couples, some of the women in evening dress, others in street and sports wear, and men in dress and business suits."

After the raids of several clubs, government moving vans hauled away tables, chairs, rugs, curtains, slot machines, glassware and liquor as well as the entire 1904 World's Fair bar. All of it was stored away to be auctioned.

And that's the story of the Novelty Club. Not particularly exciting, unless you appreciate long-forgotten stories, as I do. And the fact that the place still exists, to date under-appreciated as a remnant of the city's colorful past.

The day I visited I saw that the upstairs space – or rather, part of the original 4,000 square feet of the Novelty Club – was for lease. A real estate flyer showed photos of a rather bland office – carpet, mini-blinds, florescent lights – that required imagination to envision a speakeasy.

Outside, however, around the corner and across a parking lot, peeking over the top of a portable outhouse from the wall of a neighboring building, Boss Tom Pendergast smiled back at me in assurance. He's still around.

*     *     *

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Memories of summer camp, 1969

Municipal Stadium, 22nd and Brooklyn Ave., during a Chiefs game, ca. 1969.

It was August 17, a Sunday in the summer before I turned 16. Twelve hundred miles east of Kansas City an estimated 300,000 people my age and a little older were sprawled across a farmer's field in Upstate New York, enjoying/enduring the final day of a rainy, muddy, trippy weekend billed as the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. But I was oblivious to that. I was headed to summer camp.

That afternoon my folks drove me from our suburban Johnson County, Kansas, home up to Liberty, Missouri, and dropped me off at a dormitory on the campus of William Jewell College. For the next two weeks I'd be an unpaid working member of the equipment staff at the preseason training camp of the Kansas City Chiefs.

*     *     *

The Chiefs were beginning their seventh season as Kansas City's team in the American Football League after moving here from Dallas. I'd been a fan for the previous three, since the late fall of '66. That November, my dad was going to take me to my first Chiefs game. Instead, they had to rush my baby sister to the hospital. When she died unexpectedly home life grew dark.

After that I began hanging out at a neighbor friend's house. We recently had moved to a new school district and I hadn't made a lot of friends, but he and I spent a lot of time tossing a football in his front yard. The Chiefs won the AFL championship that fall. I watched the first Super Bowl – Chiefs vs. Packers – in my friend's family room. The game was an emotional loss for me, but I was hooked.

 These, of course, were the Chiefs of Stram and Dawson and Garrett, Taylor and Pitts, Tyrer and Arbanas, Stenerud and Wilson, Mays and Buchanan, Bell and Lynch and Lanier and Robinson and on and on. Over the next two seasons they won no championships, but were larger-than-life heroes.

I didn't get to more than a game or two at Municipal Stadium until I learned of something called the Huddle Club, which allowed kids under 15 to attend home games for a dollar.

As Huddle Club members, my little brother, Pete, and I boarded the Chiefs Express bus at Prairie Village shopping center on Sunday mornings for the crosstown ride to Municipal Stadium. Once inside, we bypassed the designated Huddle Club area – seats down the third-base line partially obstructed by the north bleachers – and serpentined our way to the east end zone concession stand, on field level. There we stood for entire games, lined up with others along a low wall there, young Pete often perched atop a narrow ledge, watching the action through the chain-link fencing that separated the concession area from the field.

The area abutted the gold-colored end zone turf. When the Kansas City offense began, say, on its own 10-yard-line, we could hear the players' voices, and our view of the Chiefs' huddle would be something like this:

Focus On Sport-Getty Images
*     *     *

I had read a story in a football magazine about a kid who worked at the New York Giants training camp. I wrote to Chiefs President Jack Steadman, telling him I would give anything for a similar job. A reply came in May from trainer Wayne Rudy: I was to report to William Jewell in August for the final two weeks before the Chiefs broke camp.

At Jewell I roomed with another two-weeker, Mike Swanson, who was about my age and whose mother worked in the Chiefs front office. (He's now a Royals vice president.) We reported to the equipment manager, Bobby Yarborough, and our basic jobs were the same: carry footballs and other equipment to the practice field, and after practice sort dirty laundry. 

It's funny, but things I remember most clearly from those two weeks have nothing to do with the team's on-field performance. The memories are smaller. Slivers of personal interaction:

– Yarborough warning me to trim my sideburns, because Coach Stram doesn't like sideburns ...
– Threading a red-white-and-blue belt into a pair of practice pants for rookie James Marsalis, the belt he wore a few weeks earlier as a member of the College All-Star team that played the champion Green Bay Packers ...
– Being cursed by Len Dawson for giving him an older football to use in a live scrimmage ...
– Sitting in the lounge with other assistants when Stram emerges from his quarters with a plate of  crumbs, leaving it on a table and telling us "There's some good cheescake left there" ...
– Being asked – begged – after player curfew by someone (Podolak?) whispering from behind a half-closed door to go out and get him a pizza and having to tell him I can't drive ... 
– Not getting to travel to Los Angeles for an exhibition against the Rams, but watching the game on the dorm TV with Bert Coan, the former Jayhawk running back recovering from off-season knee surgery ...
– Moving with Swanson from our spartan dorm room into a larger one we've discovered, one with wider beds and nicer furniture and carpeting, and being run out by Rudy, who tells us that's Lamar Hunt's room and he's arriving any minute ...
 And then it was over. Just before the final exhibition, against the St. Louis Cardinals, the team broke camp and I went home to start my junior year of high school.

That season, Pete and I returned as Huddle Clubbers to Municipal Stadium and to our corner of the east end zone. I can't recall outcomes of specific games we saw, just slices of time spent clinging to the chain-link fence with my brother, the peanut shells and cigar smoke, the trumpet flourishes of Tony DiPardo, the intent faces on the field, flashes of violent color, the roar of the Wolf Pack.

It turned out to be a good year for the Chiefs, 1969-70, one like no other since then.  Just sayin'.

*     *     *

Monday, July 28, 2014

Postmark: July 28, 1938

Postmarked 4 p.m., July 28, 1938.

It's a remnant of one July day in Depression-era Kansas City, perhaps the brief record of a boy's summer vacation, written on the back of a postcard view of the Liberty Memorial to family members in Salina, Kansas, postmarked 4 p.m. A Thursday.

It begins ...

Dear Mom, Dad and Jerry,
Having a fine time. Auntie Guss and Tom were at the station ...

The  names and address on the postcard and a bit of archival research can provide a skeletal set of facts about these people. Mom is a 36-year-old housewife. Dad, 38, is a popular butcher at a Salina market. Jerry is baby brother, age 3. (There's another brother, Dorman, who is 7 and unmentioned on the postcard. Perhaps he's also along on this summertime journey.) Auntie Guss is Mom's older sister,  Augusta, and Tom is a young cousin, age 6. They live in a rented five-room bungalow in the 3700 block of Bales Avenue on Kansas City's east side with U[ncle] Con, who works at the Sheffield steel plant. The writer is 10-year-old Bob.

The station is most likely Union Station, meaning Bob came from Salina by train, possibly aboard the Union Pacific Railroad's City of Salina. Perhaps it's a first trip to the big city without parents.

*     *     *

It's a Thursday afternoon. The front page of The Kansas City Star calls for temperatures near 90 degrees and a chance for thunderstorms.

Inside, The Star carries an ad for the City of Salina. The streamliner runs back and forth each day between Salina and Kansas City, making ten stops along the 180 or so miles. It's air-conditioned, a buffet breakfast is served, and the ad assures "deep-cushioned comfort." Depart Salina at 7 a.m. and arrive at Union Station at 10:30 a.m.

This morning about 10 o'clock, according to the front page of The Star, the eastbound City of Salina rounded a curve in Leavenworth County and hit a farm truck driven by a 14-year-old boy. He was killed.

Elsewhere on the front page, a 17-year-old boy is under arrest in Indianapolis after riding from New York City lying face down atop the arched roof of another streamlined passenger train, the City of St. Louis. And a young man, 23, is here today in General Hospital with a crushed foot suffered when he slipped while riding on the coupling between boxcars of a Missouri Pacific freight train. He's been drifting around the country from job to job, most recently at an airplane factory in California.

In fact, the front-page news seems to be themed: Two car accidents have taken three lives;  one small plane, thought lost, has landed safely in the Yukon Territory of Canada, but another has crashed in France, killing five French aviators; four men in rafts have successfully navigated the turbulent Colorado River; the trans-Atlantic flier Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan is returning from Ireland to the U.S. aboard the luxury liner Manhattan; and President Roosevelt is fishing the Pacific Ocean from the Navy cruiser USS Houston somewhere near the Galapagos Islands.

*     *     *

The page-one events of July 28, 1938, suggest a time when travel had a newsworthiness based on wonder and danger and the many varieties of modern transportation.

We don't know whether young Bob's journey to visit his Kansas City relatives came aboard that deathly morning run of the City of Salina. He doesn't mention it in his message. But he seems to have caught the wonder of the day. And that's what he wants to share with the folks back home in Salina. His postcard concludes (with his hesitant closing) ...

... I rode on a street-car. U. Con took us to the TWA field and we saw 4 planes land and six planes take-off.
With my sincere love,

*     *     *

Friday, June 27, 2014

'You will never find another Mayfair'

The Star called it "probably the most elaborate and expensive night club between Kansas City and the Pacific Coast."
*     *     *

Most fans of Kansas City's jazz history know about the long-ago steak-and-chicken roadhouse near 79th and Wornall Road (and later in other locations) when that was just outside the southern city limits. It was a place run by a former motorcycle cop named Matthew "Tootie" Clarkin, not much more than a white barn with tables and a bandstand. Tootie's Club Mayfair, it was called.

Compared to its ill-fated namesake, Tootie's Mayfair was a bare-bones dive.

The original, exponentially more fantastic and glamorous Mayfair preceded Tootie's by a few years, and sat on 10 acres near 79th and Holmes, also beyond the city limits. When it opened The Kansas City Star called it "probably the most elaborate and expensive night club between Kansas City and the Pacific Coast."

Picture one of those Hollywood musicals of the era, Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell flashing across a streamlined set, tiers of white-clothed tables full of tuxedos and gowns and cocktails, and nearby a full orchestra providing a lush soundtrack. You're conjuring the Mayfair. 

It cost $200,000 to build in 1935; nearly $3.5 million in 2014 dollars. Its facade was Spanish Mission style – stucco with a tile roof, ornate arched doorways and flowers in urns. Inside, a huge circular dining room, 90 feet in diameter, had terraces of tables. At one end was the stage. A circular dance floor, beneath a dome of multicolored lights, was of inlaid hardwood. The soaring ceiling had no visible supports and the walls, where not mirrored, were enameled black and ivory. Furnishings were of chrome and blue leather. A separate taproom held a circular bar. In the lounge a 10-foot-high tiered fountain of silver-and-blue glass sprayed water on a revolving statue. Murals depicted Western mountain scenes. The kitchen included an open range and several charcoal broilers. There was an extensive sound system. Air conditioning kept things cool. Other rooms offered casino gambling, including a Midwest exclusive: roulette. The club could handle 500 patrons. A parking lot held 300 cars. Including the orchestra and floor-show entertainers, 100 people worked at the Mayfair.

It opened on August 1, 1935, after a week of press previews. Ted Weems and his orchestra, national favorites from the Prohibition era, headlined. The floor show featured singers, dancers and veterans of Broadway and vaudeville. A large newspaper ad announced the opening: Go where you will – travel in any direction of the compass, you will never find another Mayfair!

And today, if you go looking around 79th and Holmes, you'll find no trace of the original. The Mayfair lasted less than a year.

August 1, 1935: a grand opening.
*     *     *

The Mayfair's four-man ownership group was led by Gus Pusateri. Pusateri's experience in the hospitality business was extensive and notorious. During Prohibition, he and his brothers had run several well-known speakeasies downtown and near the City Market. Gus eventually did time in jail for selling liquor. Since repeal, Gus and his brother Jim had become legitimate restaurateurs with a steakhouse near 12th and Baltimore.

The Pusateris' speakeasies had been especially popular with younger folks from the Country Club district. Perhaps the Mayfair, situated near that district, was created with that relatively well-off clientele in mind.

*     *     *

The Mayfair was a seasonal place, spring and summer. As in most such clubs nationwide, an orchestra of note routinely topped the bill for several weeks, with a floor show that changed periodically. The 1936 season had opened April 11 with a show headlined by Sophie Tucker of vaudeville fame. In May, Leon Belasco brought his orchestra to the Mayfair.

On May 18, the floor show changed. During a previous gig at a hotel in St. Paul, Belasco had heard the tight harmonies of three singing sisters from Minneapolis, and he asked them to join this new show at the Mayfair. They were billed as "The Three Andrews" and they proved to be crowd pleasers. When the floor show changed again in June they stayed on.

June 26, 1936: the final night.

After the show of Friday, June 26, the Mayfair was dark, save for the lights of the kitchen where one employee was closing up, and the taproom where Gus Pusateri and a couple of partners lingered in the pre-dawn hours. Just before 4 a.m. someone caught a whiff of something burning. They hurried to the basement, saw nothing and returned upstairs. Smoke billowed everywhere. Flames followed.

Five fire companies answered the call and found the closest hydrants were two blocks away, inside city limits. Water pressure was low. The Mayfair burned to ashes, twisted steel and a stone foundation. For some reason the place had been insured for only $35,000, little more than the cost of the kitchen alone.

June 27, 1936: the morning after.

*     *     *

Gus Pusateri talked about rebuilding the Mayfair, but nothing came of it. Instead, he and his brother enjoyed continued success with Pusateri's. 

Leon Belasco lost just about everything in the fire – all the band's instruments (including his rare antique violin he had purchased in Paris) and his 600 arrangements. Still, he was back in business by the end of summer, when his orchestra was booked for an extended job at the Hotel Muehlebach. 

The Three Andrews – who had lost their only gowns and publicity photos in the fire – remained with Belasco for the Muehlebach gig and beyond, to New York and big-time success as The Andrews Sisters. Years later Maxene Andrews would recall the summer of 1936:

 Leon offered us a job for $150 a week, and of course we jumped at that. The first date was the Mayfair Club in Kansas City. This was our first crack at a real high-class supper club, and I was sure we were on our way. We were going to become very successful.

After the fire temporarily stole his livelihood, Belasco talked about the experience:

 The Mayfair was unique among night clubs in the United States. It was the most roomy, the most comfortable. There is nothing like it in New York. That is not my opinion only, but that of every performer who came to Kansas  City. It was a tragic thing, this fire.

*     *     *

Watch a few of the performers of that last Mayfair season. First, Sophie Tucker ...

Then, The Andrews Sisters ...

*     *     *

Friday, May 30, 2014

Ephemeral city: World Book Encyclopedia

Volume 6 of the 1931 edition: "Husband to Leo."

Made my way down to the West Bottoms early one recent First Friday to see how the antiques merchants had replenished stock over the previous month. I arrived just as business began. The morning was fresh, the coffee black and steaming. The vintage things awaited.

Until seeing it, I seldom know what vintage thing I need to own.  This time there were two such things: a sweet backyard springer chair (immediately hauled to the nearby Industrial Services company for sandblasting) and a single volume of The World Book Encyclopedia – the sixth of 12 in the 1931 edition, covering all of the letters I, J and K as well as parts of H and L. Specifically, it spans entries from "Husband and wife" to "Leo the lion."

That familiar blue cover. Those blue covers filled a shelf of my 1960s childhood bookcase, a full set my grandparents had bought new in the 1920s for my aunt and mother. Their old World-Book world view seemed foreign to me then, and these pages brought back those encyclopedic charms and oddities. Again, how much has changed.

References to the World War. As in the entry for "League of Nations" ... a world wide union of great and small countries designed as an international force which should guarantee justice to all peoples and make future wars unnecessary.

At "Key, Francis Scott" it becomes clear that his famous lyrics have become a favorite national hymn – 'The Star Spangled Banner' – but not yet the official national anthem. (President Hoover signs that law in 1931.)

Under "Illiteracy"– referring to all persons ten years of age or over who are unable to write in any language (not necessarily English) regardless of ability to read – you discover Kansas is fifth most literate among the 48 states and Missouri ties for 15th.

*     *     *

The title page shows The World Book Encyclopedia was a local production, something I hadn't noticed in my childhood set. The Roach-Fowler Company, with headquarters at 1020 McGee Street, had been collaborating with a Chicago concern on the books since 1917.

Roach-Fowler, headed by Arno L. Roach, marketed The World Book as "The only encyclopedia equally useful to children and adults, calling it "an outstanding achievement in American book making. Twelve volumes; over 9,000 pages; more than 14,000 illustrations; 288 pages of maps."

*     *     *

Colored maps of the U.S. states are among the charms of the series, and there are six states in my Volume Six. They show elevations, railroads, counties and county seats, towns and cities and each state capital.

Three calendar months are included, and three U.S. presidents, as well as Robert E. Lee, Lenin and Jesus Christ, the Man who, of all that have lived, has influenced humanity most profoundly.

There are instructions for building a "Kite" and tying "Knots." And rules for "Hygiene" – Exercise in open air. Bathe frequently. Drink plenty of pure water. Keep the feet warm and dry.  Sleep eight hours a day.

No "Internet" exists, nor "Integration," and you'll not find "King, Martin Luther." But under "Ku Klux Klan" you learn that Although the organization exceeded legal bounds, it did much in bringing law and order to the South.

Fifteen pages are devoted to "Kindergarten," the developmental institution that fills the gap between the home and the school. Twenty-eight pages cover everything "Indians, American," the 'redskins' of romance and history. Twelve pages profile a great empire under the rule of Great Britain, "India."

Ireland gets 13 pages and Italy 19, but Iraq, a new kingdom on the border of Asia Minor, gets just three, and Iran is worth a single paragraph ending with See 'Persia.'

And then there's the reason I chose Volume Six over the other World Book on the table of vintage items for sale: "The Story of Kansas City." Three pages and a half dozen illustrations of our town,  noted primarily as a grain and livestock market. Nary a word about machine politics or sin industry or jazz music, all of which comprised a big chunk of the story of Kansas City in 1931.

Still, "Jazz" does have its own one-paragraph entry, where you learn Its effect has been objected to by the moralist, on conventional grounds. There are those who feel that, in its more modified forms, jazz may yet prove the basis for a distinctly American type of music. See 'Music.'

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Prime location, near streetcar line

Though never built, Armour Center was designed to profit from proximity to the existing streetcar line.

Another brief side trip into current events, sort of ...

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If somehow you haven't noticed, running the downtown streetcar line into other neighborhoods is an idea that gets under some folks' skin. To them, streetcar supporters are naive dreamers demanding a "toy train" accessory for a hipster lifestyle. Some anti-expansionists are bursting with anger at public meetings, putting a coat of ugly on legitimate questions about cost and aesthetics and whether Kansas City needs a streetcar.

It was interesting this week to read The New York Times architecture critic's case for bringing streetcars to sections of that city the subways don't reach. Sure, buses would work, he says ...

But where's the romance? A streetcar is a tangible, lasting commitment to urban change. It invites investment and becomes its own attraction. ... Today, a city that attracts young entrepreneurs who favor old, mixed neighborhoods and industrial buildings, and whose employees like to ride bikes, take public transit and live near work is thinking ahead. So is a city that doesn't leave behind its poor citizens in neighborhoods that have long had meager access to public transit.

Yes, it's New York City. But those dynamics would seem to apply here, too.

No surprise: I tend to look at lots of things through the prism of the past. To me, building out the starter streetcar line is a restoration project.

The standard historical narrative about streetcars is that they fell victim to "our love affair with the automobile," especially after World War II. But that's only part of the story.

In 1940, downtown business leaders were actively lobbying the Kansas City Public Service Company to remove streetcars from city streets. Never mind that their own survey showed that 60 percent of downtown shoppers rode streetcars or buses and only 24 percent drove cars. The people in cars spent more money.

There was a growing attitude nationally, fueled by General Motors' vision of "The World of Tomorrow" at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, that the future was not about public transportation, but about the automobile and lots of speedy, multiple-lane freeways. Well, that's what we got.

But I wonder: Why throw the baby out with the bath water? Why did seemingly no one consider the possibility of a peaceful co-existence between autos and streetcars? In 1940, the three most popular of the many streetcar lines crisscrossing town were Troost Avenue, 31st Street and Country Club. It's not hard to imagine a different city if just those three lines had been preserved for the future. Meaning us.

So this effort to expand beyond the starter line really is a kind of restoration project. And with that in mind, let's revisit a time before hipsters. When no one thought of a streetcar as a "toy train," but as how you got to work, to the store, and back home. And when home's value was enhanced by its proximity to a streetcar line:

There are hundreds more where these came from. But you get the idea ...

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Watch the General Motors promotional film from the 1939-40 World's Fair:

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Whistle stop at Grand Avenue

Storage buildings and propane tanks occupy the former site of the Grand Avenue Station .

Before there was a Union Station there was a ravine and a stream called OK Creek and tracks belonging to the Kansas City Belt Railway. Trains of three railroads – the Rock Island, the Milwaukee Road and the Santa Fe – ran on those tracks and stopped at a lovely four-story brick depot with a graceful roof topped by a wooden cupola at the edge of Grand Avenue. Or rather, just below and just east of the Grand Avenue Viaduct.

The station, designed by John Wellborn Root (then an associate of architect Daniel Burnham in Chicago) and built in 1889, served as a convenient alternative to the Union Depot in the West Bottoms, two miles away at the end of a steep cable car ride. On Grand, you could pull right up to the viaduct-level entrance and either descend the double staircase or ride the gasoline-powered passenger elevator down to the waiting room on track level. Outside, up a terraced slope rising to 23rd Street, a bed of red and yellow flowers spelled out Grand Avenue Station.

The station sat between the Grand and McGee viaducts. Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
Each day about twenty trains pulled in and out of the Grand Avenue Station. On March 23, 1910, one of them – officially a Santa Fe train – consisted of two guys on a gas-powered handcar following an old man, who was walking along the tracks. The old guy had departed Los Angeles on February 1, hoping to arrive in New York City in ninety days. On foot. He was ahead of schedule.

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The old man was Edward Payson Weston, and he'd done this sort of thing many times. Long-distance walking had become a competitive thing, often followed in newspaper sports pages, and Weston had been a pioneering pedestrian. A year earlier, at age 71, Weston had walked through Kansas City going the opposite direction, trying to get to San Francisco from New York in 100 days. Plagued by bad weather, he fell short by five days.

Out west, where auto roads were scarce, railroads provided the most direct routes and Weston made use of them. A year before, on Union Pacific tracks. This time he had planned to walk the Santa Fe to Chicago, then other roads east. The railroad gave special permission (dispatchers kept tabs on his progress) and took advantage of the coast-to-coast press coverage, placing ads in newspapers along the route that suggested Weston chose the Santa Fe tracks for their comfort:

Weston was averaging 3.5 miles per hour, more than forty miles a day in mostly good weather, through deserts, mountains, plains and small towns where huge crowds came out to meet him and walk with him awhile. He slept six hours a night, either in Fred Harvey hotels or in farmhouses. He ate only breakfast, usually eggs, and rested Sundays. When he needed water, he signaled the trailing handcar with a small green flag he carried. Occasionally he stumbled and fell, scraping knees and elbows, and once near Lawrence he collapsed in unseasonal heat. But he kept going. A week before Kansas City he had celebrated his 72nd birthday by doing 72 miles through western Kansas.

 Weston hiked into Kansas City after spending the night near DeSoto, Kansas, reaching the platform of the Grand Avenue Station just before 2 p.m. as locomotives blew their steam whistles and thousands cheered. Santa Fe officials escorted him to a private home nearby to rest a couple of hours.

One thing local reporters wanted to know: Would Weston be visiting his wife and daughter while in Kansas City? As it happened, his daughter and son-in-law lived here, and his wife was staying with them in their home on Highland Avenue.

"My father is eccentric in his ways," the daughter had told the Post. "My mother is an old woman and when my father started out on his long walk she didn't want to remain at home alone."

For his part, Weston had previously told reporters that he was not married. Here, he was asked whether he had heard his "former wife" was in town.

"That is a subject which is taboo with me," he said. "I never discuss it. There is a skeleton in everybody's closet, you know."

After his two-hour nap in the private home, Weston resumed his journey. He stopped for the night at a farmhouse about seventeen miles east of Kansas City.

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Forty days later, on May 2, 1910, Weston walked up the steps of city hall in New York, twelve days ahead of schedule. In later years he continued to walk long distances, and he lived to be 90, though he was in a wheel chair his final two years after being struck by a taxi in the streets of New York.

Grand Avenue Station lived to be 70. Perhaps its most memorable day came two years after Weston walked by, when the station was moved to make room for a new viaduct. Jacked up and resting on trucks, it was dragged half a block east by a single team of horses turning a winch. Its days as a train depot ended when Union Station opened in 1914, and it lived out its time primarily as a warehouse for various industries. 

In 1912 the station was moved nearer the McGee Street Viaduct.

"Intermittently, the station, blackened from soot of old coal-burner locomotives, had stood vacant, grass growing from its copper gutters, a home for countless pigeons, its windows targets for boys while adults cast verbal stones at its continued existence – a landmark, yet an eyesore," said a 1959 article in the Star.

That year, it was demolished for – you guessed it – a parking lot.

Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library

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