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."
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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Then, The Andrews Sisters ...

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