Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The lost trees of the Country Club Plaza

Once upon a Christmastime, when the American President was a local-boy-made-good, and the war-of-the-moment was in Korea, and the multicolored light bulbs were still incandescent and numbered only 20 thousand or so, the rooftops of the Country Club Plaza were decorated with fir trees. The fresh-cut trees, painted white and studded with lights, served as yuletide complements to the Spanish-motif towers and cupolas of the shopping district.

Since then, Harry Truman has left the planet; wars have not. The multicolored lights are now 200-some-thousand light-emitting diodes and the rooftop Christmas trees have moved on to wherever the 1950s-era Country Club Plaza went.

Recently the Plaza was put up for sale. People have been wondering whether a new owner would seek to keep the existing emphasis on high-end, corporate-chain retail stores and restaurants, or perhaps try to restore some of the shopping district's original home-grown flavor. The importance of that question to any one person apparently depends on their age and their Plaza experience.

*     *     *

Anyone old enough to remember the rooftop Christmas trees might envision something like this:

Let's say it's Christmastime 1951, the year after the death of the Plaza's creator, J.C. Nichols. His real estate company still owns and maintains the property from its Plaza offices on Ward Parkway. Although it's grown considerably in its first quarter century, the Plaza remains true to Nichols' dream, blending fine retail stores with neighborhood services for the residents of nearby apartments, duplexes and single-family homes.

In other words, you holiday shoppers can choose among several jewelers and fine clothiers and shoe stores and other specialty shops. You can do your banking and see your doctor or dentist or interior designer. Have a good meal at a nice restaurant.

But you can also fill your gas tank and have your windshield washed at one of a half dozen service stations. And shop for groceries at Muehlebach's or Wolferman's. Pick up a prescription at one of two Watkins drugstores. Drop off laundry at Monkey Cleaners. Bowl a few games and have a cocktail at Plaza Bowl. See a movie at the Plaza Theater. The 1951 Christmas week feature is An American in Paris, with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.

You can buy stocking-stuffers at Woolworth's or take the kids to see Santa at Sears. (Sears also has an auto service center and a farm store.) There are barber shops and beauty salons, florists and tailors, liquor stores and paint stores and a locksmith. There's the Plaza Fix-It Shop, the Melo-Tone Bird Shop, Wynne's Household Hardware. You can mail packages at the Plaza branch of the Post Office.

Then, in the midst of your nostalgic Plaza reverie, it's instructive also to recall other realities of the times you're revisiting. Specifically, it's a time when a Plaza business owner – let's just offer restaurateur Jud Putsch as an example – can get away with running a classified ad seeking "Counter women; white; must be alert and have pleasant smile," for his cafeteria. And one for a "Bus boy – colored, for one of Kansas City's finest dining rooms," that being the much-revered Putsch's 210.

Which is another way of remembering a certain ugliness of the past. Some things change; some things stay the same. Food for thought as you're gazing up at the brightly lighted Christmas tree atop the Plaza Time Building.

*     *     *

There were 50 of those white-flocked trees atop the various buildings, each one lifted to its perch by a crane and ridden into position by a workman employed by the Nichols Company. They must have been fire hazards, perhaps potential lightning rods in the rare December thunderstorm. In which case the lighting display would have been unusually spectacular, if not disastrous.

Still, the rooftop trees, seen from from this distance in time, seem to represent some earth-bound spirituality, something simple and decent that's been lost.

Maybe there's a way to adapt their spirit to the 21st century Country Club Plaza.

*     *     *

Friday, November 20, 2015

After Truman defeated Dewey

Hotel President, Saturday, November 20, 1948: Two blocks and seventeen days from Truman's victory and journalism's loss.

Sixty-seven years ago tonight – just a couple of weeks after what we now consider the biggest screw-up in the history of American newspaper headlines – 300 or so journalists filed into a ballroom at the Hotel President expecting to hear something about what had gone wrong.

"The newspapers' big job was and is to tell the news," the evening's speaker told them. "And, looking at the press as a whole, I believe we came through with flying colors."

The man was E. Palmer Hoyt, editor and publisher of The Denver Post, speaking to members of the Missouri Press Association at their annual dinner. This was happening two blocks down Baltimore avenue from the Hotel Muehlebach, where Harry S. Truman had celebrated 17 days earlier, on the morning of November 3, 1948, the same day the Chicago Tribune's front page prematurely declared DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.

The Tribune had gone to press before the returns were complete, but editors had decided to run with the widely expected outcome, as predicted in national polls.

•     •     •

Flogging the news media for perceived political bias is sort of an American tradition. In the last few decades most such criticism has come from Republicans finding a liberal Democratic slant in news coverage, a charge we've already heard in these early days of the 2016 presidential campaign. It's interesting to recall a time when print media ruled and when that shoe was on the opposite foot.

"The Republicans have nearly all the newspapers and magazines on their side," President Truman said in 1952, citing figures that showed only about 10 percent of the nation's 1700 or so daily newspapers supported him in 1948. "Newspapers – especially daily newspapers – have become big business, and big business traditionally has always been Republican."

•     •     •

As Election Day 1948 dawned, newspapers of all political stripes had predicted victory for New York Governor Thomas Dewey. The New York Times, which had endorsed Dewey, saw a probable 345 to 105 electoral-vote advantage for the Republican nominee. Like other news outlets, the Times had deferred to public opinion polls. The final Gallup Poll showed a 5 percentage-point edge for Dewey.

"We have never claimed infallibility," George Gallup had said a week before. "But next Tuesday the whole world will be able to see down to the last percentage point how good we are."

Not so good, actually. As it turned out, polling had stopped weeks too soon and did not track the last-minute swing in Truman's favor, which gave him a 4.5 percentage-point margin of victory. The news media also stopped too soon, apparently content with the truth of the polls.

Afterward The Kansas City Star editor, Roy Roberts, who like many other editors had endorsed Dewey, did some soul searching.

"Frankly, the mass public doesn't like to be told by newspapers or anyone else, for that matter, what they should do and think," he said. "I have sort of come to the conclusion that you serve your purpose more effectively by setting forth the facts and letting the public make up its own mind than by overstressing your own conclusions and expecting the mass public to accept your opinions."

•     •     •

Down at the Hotel President on November 20, E. Palmer Hoyt offered his defense of the press.

"The answer to those who scorn us because the people, in their votes, flouted our editorial judgment is to ask them simply, 'Well, where did you get the information on which you compared the position of President Truman to that of Governor Dewey?" Hoyt told his audience.

"The American people voted on the basis of the campaign expressions of the two candidates as reported in their newspapers. I think that any honest critic must give the responsible press credit for fair and accurate news coverage of the campaign."

What Hoyt didn't say was that the news coverage included a lot of stories about the coming Dewey victory the polls were foretelling. Nor did he speculate on whatever effect those polls might have on democracy.

But he added:

"We need less reliance on mechanical substitutes. We need more plain, down-to-earth reporting with insight and human understanding."

•     •     •

Monday, October 26, 2015

Johnny Kling: Of baseballs and cue balls

Kansas Citian Johnny Kling was a star catcher and a billiards champ.

Last night the Royals became World Series champions for the first time in 30 years. This at the expense of the New York Mets, who won the National League pennant by sweeping the Chicago Cubs. Mets fans no doubt feel great sadness today, but in reaching the Series their team continued the 107-year sadness of Cubs fans.

So here's maybe a small consolation for those transplanted Chicagoans in Kansas City: The star catcher for the 1908 Cubs – think Tinker to Evers to Chance, until 2016 the most recent World Series champs in Cubs uniforms – was a Kansas Citian. His name was John G. Kling.

Johnny Kling was considered a top defensive catcher of the so-called "dead-ball era." As such, his statistics are modest by today's standards. Yet some think him the best of his day. And perhaps the first great Jewish star in Major League Baseball. I won't dwell here on his playing days, and instead recall his business career in Kansas City, where he was born in 1875 and where he died 71 years later.

 Kling was also a champion billiards player, as was his nephew, Bennie Allen. The two of them became business partners in a Kansas City pool hall at 1016 Walnut downtown. After that building burned, Kling built the Dixon Hotel at 12th and Baltimore, across from the Hotel Muehlebach.  The second and third floors housed the Kling & Allen pool hall for decades and was known as one of the country's finest, attracting top players such as Willie Mosconi.

Hotel Dixon, 12th and Baltimore.

Kling's pool hall occupied two floors in the Dixon.
In 1933, long after his baseball retirement, Kling bought controlling interest of the minor league Kansas City Blues, and was responsible for desegregating the fans at Muehlebach Field. In 1937 he sold the team to Col. Jacob Ruppert, owner of the New York Yankees. Kling died in 1947.

Kling is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame, though some think him deserving. If his baseball pedigree isn't in question, the reason could have been the presence in the basement of the Hotel Dixon of a gambling joint known as Baltimore Recreation, a place in which Kling was a partner. It was said to have paid protection money to Johnny Lazia, Boss Tom Pendergast's associate and enforcer.

Gambling and Cooperstown don't mix well, as Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson learned.

A matchbook cover from the 1940s.

Still, Kling remains a Kansas City link to faded Cubs glory.

And now, for Mets fans everywhere, something to perhaps make you smile through your sorrow. Recall the manager of the very first Mets team, the hapless 1962 model that won 40 games and lost 120, was another Kansas Citian: Charles Dillion "Casey" (as in KC)  Stengel.

•     •     •

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Ephemeral city: Cigarette package

Several years ago I gutted and renovated a 1924 bungalow just west of the Country Club Plaza. As the old plaster walls and ceilings came down they surrendered little reminders of former residents: Rusty tools, broken toys, shoes and brittle pieces of clothing, tarnished costume jewelry, etc. Individual items led me to research their times and places, and I wrote about many of the them. An empty package of Chesterfield cigarettes carried a blue tax stamp dating to 1943. This piece, which riffs on events and advertising from that year, appeared in slightly different form in an early version of this blog.

*     *     *

In Kansas City two men approach a third and ask for cigarettes. He says he has only one. They call him selfish, then beat him senseless. In the ambulance he smokes his cigarette.

In New York, exiled Archduke Otto of Austria takes a deep drag on a cigarette. Says, "Churchill smokes, Roosevelt smokes, I smoke, but not a puff out of Hitler, Goebbels or Hirohito. Perhaps that is what makes them vicious."

In Sicily the Nazis allow their fighting men six cigarettes per day. One German soldier pulls a wounded American from a shell hole, carries him to a command post, gets him medical treatment, gives him black bread, water, wine and a cigarette.

In San Francisco, ship workers walk off the job because of a ban on smoking.

The Unparalleled Record of America's 1,000,000 Ship Workers, Breaking New Records ... Winning More And More Smokers With Their Milder Better Taster. In Thousands More Pockets Every Day you will find CHESTERFIELD ...

*     *     *

 In Washington the War Production Board bans glycerine from cigarettes; it's needed to make explosives. The Office of Price Administration says rumors of cigarette brands being reduced of eliminated are baseless. President Roosevelt marks 10 years as Commander in Chief. Photographers want pictures. He strikes the pose cartoonists favor: Chin out, cigarette holder clenched rakishly between his teeth. Says, "Let's make one this way, boys."

There's No Busier Place than Washington, D.C. It's the Control  Room of America's Mighty War Machine. And CHESTERFIELD is the Busiest Cigarette in Town. It's On the Job Every Minute Giving Smokers What They Want.

*     *     *

 In the Bronx Zoo a penguin's egg rests on a nest built of sticks, Crackerjack boxes, fish heads, peanut shells, matchbook covers and cellophane cigarette wrappers.

In Nigeria doctors dress wounds with sterilized cigarette wrappers.

In New Guinea's jungle an American soldier touches a glowing cigarette to the leech on his arm.

In the United States high blood pressure kills thousands each year.  A new book recommends moderate exercise, weight loss, rest. Quit work early. Don't worry. Avoid arguments and Turkish baths. Sex is beneficial; however, chronic low-grade sexual excitement is not. Moderate daily alcohol is fine. Also, two and a half cups of coffee and ten cigarettes.

But not at night. Bomber pilots are said to be able to spot a glowing cigarette from several thousand feet.

*     *     *

 Ezio Pinza, in costume as Boris Godunoff, strides through the wings of the Metropolitan Opera House, scatters stagehands, snuffs out the butt of a cigarette.

Fats Waller slouches at a piano in an empty theater, running notes around a languid "Tea for Two." He wears a blue shirt, two-tone suit, rainbow tie, Alpine hat. His eyes are half closed against ribbons of smoke from his cigarette.

A Hollywood stripper, billed as The Redheaded Ball of Fire, dances her backside too close to an irate wife's burning cigarette.

You've Got To Be Top Quality To Get Your Name Up In Lights. That's Why You'll See CHESTERFIELD'S Famous White Pack All Along The Great White Way ...

*     *     *

In a cheap Houston hotel 48 persons, mostly old men, die in a fire ignited by a smoldering cigarette.

In California a woman driving through a remote forest is pulled over by the highway patrol for tossing out a lighted cigarette.

In Idaho a farmer, using gasoline to clean a water pump, lights a cigarette. At the hospital he tries lighting another. Bandages on his hand, soaked in medicine, catch fire.

Hats Off To America's 6,100,000 farmers ... They Give You What Counts Most. Food for our Fighting Men, Food for our Workers, Food for All of Us. CHESTERFIELDS Deliver the Goods to Smokers Who Know What They Want.

*     *     *

A man tumbles through the sky under a crescent moon. His parachute flowers, pops, plucks him back. Overhead, more pops, one after another. Below, an arc of pale flowers drifts toward tiny rings of fire on the stony surface. Moments earlier he'd been crouching in a bucket seat, staring at a light bulb, flying 500 feet above the Mediterranean Sea. There was some flak, not much. Then the red light. Stand, hook to the wire, wait: Green light. He carries a machine gun, bayonet, grenades, medical equipment, rations, and cigarettes.

Another man tumbles through the sky under a cold sun. Below, a swirl of shadows and yellow taxis. He wears a gray suit, brown shoes, tan overcoat, and he carries papers: 22 years old, five feet ten and a half inches, 157 pounds, brown hair, blue eyes, former sailor, medically discharged. Moments earlier he'd been standing on the observation platform of the Empire State Building, almost a quarter mile above the streets of Manhattan. Just before climbing the parapet and raising his hands over his head, he tossed away a cigarette.

Here's Real Smoking Ammunition Tucked in the Pockets of our Fighting Men, Ready for Instant Service. Where a Cigarette Counts Most, CHESTERFIELD Serves Smokers Well ...

*     *     *

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Ephemeral city: Jefferson Hotel sign

It's another obscure treasure from the cluttered crannies of the West Bottoms antiques malls. A time-stained cardboard placard in a cheap frame, listing hotel "Rules and regulations" for "persons engaging rooms" in the Jefferson Hotel. Presumably it once hung on a door or wall of a guestroom in the hotel, which long ago stood on the southeast corner of an intersection that no longer exists, Sixth and Wyandotte streets.

The rules include a few era-specific references, like "cloak room" and "servants" and 25-cent room service, but they provide few hints of the Jefferson's infamy as "one of the leading and most notorious vice resorts in the city."

*     *     *

The Jefferson had a relatively short life – one decade – after replacing an office building in 1910. It fancied itself "Not the biggest – just the best" and featured a cafe with four-bit lobster dinners, cocktails named "Chorus Girl" and "Leading Lady," live music and "other entertainment." The early ownership group included Dan Shay, then also the hot-tempered manager of the Kansas City Blues who later in an argument fatally shot a black waiter in Indianapolis (and was acquitted). The Jefferson's primary owner was one Thomas J. Pendergast.

An advertisement from 1911.
In those years Boss Tom worked out of an office in the hotel. His "Goat" faction competed for political power with fellow Democrat Joe Shannon's "Rabbits." By the time America entered the World War even out-of-town newspapers were referring to the political machine being run by "the Hotel Jefferson gang."

At the same time the hotel's reputation among upstanding citizens had deteriorated. Beatings, robberies, even murder took place at the Jefferson. Gamblers rented rooms for games. The cafe flaunted liquor laws. And "other entertainment" might have been what Army Sanitary Corps investigators meant when, in seeking to protect the manhood of wartime soldiers and sailors, they investigated the local scene and reported widespread vice. Thus the "leading resort" quote above and the accusation that

On every occasion the Jefferson Hotel was visited, assignations were observed in the cafe. The parties followed upstairs were seen to register and go to rooms.

Reformers used this report ahead of the 1918 city election to try to rid the city of vice and corruption. They failed. Law required bars to close Election Day. The cabaret at the Jefferson Hotel was open for a victory celebration.

*     *     *
With the arrival of Prohibition in 1920 Boss Tom found it easy to close the Jefferson. Especially with the deal he received from the city to vacate for a new Sixth Street trafficway: a check for $79,550 for his property at Sixth and Wyandotte.

Ninety-five years ago today the newspaper headlined its story

Hotel Famous in Politics And
Crime Being Torn Down Today

Not quite accurate, as demolition was yet to come. The actual event of August 12, 1920, was the removal of stuff bought at auction a day earlier – "furniture, carpets and fixtures," said the classified ad. Also, according to the news story, unwanted junk like empty whisky cases, beer kegs, "old registers, account books and ledgers that might have revealed tales of sorrow or joy."

And perhaps at least one framed room sign, a reminder that the place did have some rules and regulations.

*     *     *

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Postmark: July 23,1917

It's a Monday, hot. Mid 90s by noon. Circus Day.

The Ringling Brothers big top is set up on the grounds at 16th and Indiana, hard by the Belt Line railroad tracks. 1250 Actors. 300 Dancing Girls. 100 Musicians. Five Great Trains of Circus Marvels Including Scores of Foreign Features Never Before Seen in America. Childhood's Golden Dreams Come True. Half a mile back toward downtown the Blues and the Columbus Senators are taking batting practice at Association Park, trackside near 20th and Prospect.

Two miles further west, at Union Station, a slender, brown-haired youth from rural Kansas is waiting for a train east. In the Fred Harvey restaurant he buys a postcard.

The great station is now three years old. Its lobby, pictured in the postcard, provides an ever changing scene for the voyeuristic traveler.  Just this month, Russian envoys touring America. Amateur baseball teams. A man seeking to trade his Steinway piano for a small car. Female job seekers entering Room 252 – Fred Harvey headquarters – hoping to become Harvey Girls in some distant western hotel. A mustachioed Kaiser Wilhelm lookalike in military handcuffs. A middle-aged woman meeting her much older pen-pal romance for the first time. Coroners accompanying a body, the 18-year-old victim of a self-administered version of what polite society refers to as "a criminal operation" – an abortion. Heat-stressed vacationers heeding the Secretary of the Interior's advice: It is even more important now than in time of peace that the health and vitality of the nation's citizenship be conserved. Rest and recreation must materially assist in this conservation ... New Army draftees, fresh from crash courses in French language, bound for training camps and French battlefields.

The young Kansan watches. He takes out his fountain pen and addresses his postcard to Rural Route 3, McLouth, Kansas. He writes:

Miss Elma Jones
Dear friend. Will drop you a card & let you know that I am still alive but am a long way off. I am in KC now but will go to Mt. Leonard, Mo., in about 3 hours so good bye from 
Ray Roark
Malta Bend, Mo
that is where I am staying
will write more next time dear.

Later his Chicago & Alton train pulls east, rolling past the Blues and Senators and the grandstand at Association Park, and then the circus grounds and the sidetracked Ringling Brothers trains with their elephants and marvels, their dancing girls and their childhood dreams. Ray Roark is just 17, ineligible for the draft until next year. A full year to dream about dancing girls and French battlefields.

*     *     *

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Still life on Gillis

In the darkness of early morning the men dug. There were four of them. They spaded Missouri clay from beneath the stone foundation, slowly carving out a dungeon-level space for hiding. Upstairs the children slept in apartments. The women dozed in cars outside. 

*     *     *

Down in the 500 block of Gillis street, just half a block north of the funky little Happy Gillis cafe, a row of old brick rowhouses wears a red, white and green banner celebrating LaPICCOLA ITALIA.

Little Italy. Time has brought significant changes. For one, an interstate highway long ago severed the neighborhood from downtown. The Italian character has faded since the 1920s, when it was called the North Side – the rough-edged home territory of Pendergast henchman Johnny Lazia and the Sicilian immigrants who ran groceries and fruit stands and a good chunk of the city's vice business in the shadow of the old city hall and police headquarters.

Still, it's not hard to imagine an early morning, 88 years ago today, when federal agents paid a visit to the red-brick row houses on Gillis street.

*     *     *

 It was 1927, the height of Prohibition. Liquor, though illegal, was nonetheless available just about everywhere in the United States through bootleggers. Law enforcement was spotty everywhere too – cops often were good customers of the drug stores, cigar stores, pool halls, soft-drink parlors and other places that sold booze. Public outcry from civic leaders brought periodic raids, and there were fines and jail time. Or not, depending on political connections. Especially in Boss Tom's town.

"The worst thing that ever happened to Kansas City was the putting into effect of the Volstead Act," said James R. Page, Jackson County prosecutor at the time. "In theory and practice that law is all right , but it is not enforced. The police department is not enforcing this law. It is reaping the benefits of it."

Despite lack of manpower, and sometimes poor cooperation from local police, federal agents made efforts to enforce the Volstead Act. Their prime targets were bootleggers.

In June 1927 the biggest bootlegger in Kansas City was said to be Frank "Chee-Chee" DeMayo. That month DeMayo was indicted (and eventually went to prison) for violation of the Prohibition laws, including the manufacture and sale of counterfeit revenue stamps. DeMayo was thought to have a client list that included some of the city's well-to-do citizens and to offer them the finest imported liquor through his connections in New Orleans and Detroit. It turned out much of his product was homemade moonshine, bottled and labeled to masquerade as the real thing.

Frank DeMayo

DeMayo didn't make his own hooch; he was smarter than that. He employed a network of small distillers, always personally checking for quality, but never at the source. He preferred the safe distance of his office, across the street from the federal building downtown.

*     *     *

 It had been a big year for still-busting in Kansas City, including a February raid on an ersatz feed-and-seed company in the West Bottoms that housed a 1,500-gallon apparatus. That month federal agents seized a record 40 local stills. It was a record that stood until June, when 51 bit the dust. 

That number included eight taken in the early morning hours of June 28, when agents raided the red-brick row houses on Gillis street. One address yielded two stills; next door surrendered another. A quantity of corn mash turned up in another apartment and four stills were discovered in the garage out back. At the last address agents arrested four men with shovels. They were digging a sub-basement below a 75-gallon still.

*     *     *

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Ephemeral city: Marbles

 *     *     *
Let's pause here to recall the City Marbles Championship of 1941, held the 10th of May during that final spring between hard times and wartime. That such an event ever existed seems kind of amazing, and speaks to an age when too much radio was a concern to parents.

The championship – sponsors included the recreational division of the Work Projects Administration –  took place in the Municipal Auditorium Arena as part of the Sportsman's Show. Contestants were the winners of nine district tournaments around town. They had nicknames like Stinky, Knucksy and Mouse, and carried good-luck charms, perhaps a pocket knife or a Kansas City Blues button.

The tournament produced two citywide champions. The under-12 trophy went to Norman Vidricksen, age 10, (who withstood a challenge from a 5-year-old prodigy). To qualify, Norman had won the Sheffield Park district title over two of his brothers, Fred and Bennie.

The Vidricksen kids – there were five, all under 15 – lived with their widowed mother, Ruby, in a rented two-bedroom bungalow in the rolling hills above the Blue River, near the eastern city limits. It was a blue-collar neighborhood where families lived on paychecks from the factories in the Blue River Valley.

Apparently it was a marble-playing neighborhood, too. Seven medal winners in two different district tournaments came from the same block where the Vidricksens lived.

*     *     *

Fast forward through time. The Vidricksens, who had moved in the late 1930s to Kansas City from Salina, Kansas, to be near family after Mr. Vidricksen's death, returned to Salina during the war. Ruby Vidricksen ran a popular restaurant there many years. Her children, including marble champ Norman, made careers in the food-and-beverage industry. Bennie eventually became Senator Ben Vidricksen and served more than 20 years in the Kansas Statehouse.

Today, over east in the rolling hills above the Blue River, there's a tiny, run-down bungalow with a plastic tarp pulled taut over its roof to keep out the rain and the critters. The old Vidricksen house, pushing 100 years old, has been home to a steady stream of working-class families. Now it's a total rehab project, being taken on by local jazzman David Basse.

You might know Basse as an award-winning deejay on public radio, with a regular Saturday afternoon gig as well as a syndicated overnight show. Or perhaps as a musician and vocalist who for decades has channeled the spirit of Kansas City's golden age of jazz. I know him as a friend, so when he first told me about the old house, which he came upon through other friends in the neighborhood, I offered to look into its history.

He really wanted one of the old tax photos from 1940. As it turned out, his house was one of many little thumbnail prints that had been lost over the decades. So I researched other sources, including  newspaper articles and the 1940 U.S. Census. I told him about the City Marbles Championship of 1941 and the Vidricksen family.

This week I drove over to see the house. Basse said he's found plenty of artifacts from previous residents – moldy suitcases, dried-up animal carcasses, pictures of Catholic saints. He held up a plastic bag containing several dozen brightly colored marbles.

Then we recreated the missing 1940 tax photo of the old Vidricksen place:

*     *     *

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Postmark: April 30,1927

The postmark puts us in Kansas City, Mo., at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. It's a cool, spring Saturday and there's a chance of rain. Front-page headlines tell of disastrous levee breaks along the swollen lower Mississippi River and a sensational love-triangle murder trial in New York. On page 7 we learn that a Captain Charles Lindbergh is flying his yet-unnamed monoplane from San Diego to New York. Sometime in the next few weeks he'll try to make the first successful solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

The rains here have brought out fantastic spring blooms. Spirea bushes, in particular, are said to be so full they resemble snowdrifts. Out in the verdant southern residential district Mrs. Jacob Loose has signed a contract to purchase the 80-acre former Kansas City Country Club and give it to the city for a public park as a memorial to her late husband. "Mr. Loose loved children," she says, "and I feel it would be his wish to have the park a place of winding paths, flowers, green grass and trees where little children could go and enjoy the fresh air and the beauty of nature."

Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce is leading an effort to industrialize the city.  “Many industries are leaving the Eastern districts to locate in the Middle West,"  says Lou Holland, chamber president. "Kansas City should be prepared to receive them on an even basis with other cities.”

Actually, the city's best-known "industry" might be vice. Federal Judge Albert Reeves is working on that, having just fined or put in jail 14 violators of the Prohibition laws. And a former federal agent has been found guilty of accepting a bribe from a man accused of selling liquor. Still, it's not hard to find a drink here, or a bawdy house, a girlie show or a place to gamble. Even if you're staying at the city's finest hotel – the Muehlebach, at the corner of 12th and Baltimore – you're an easy stroll away from an illegal dice game, perhaps at one of the cigar stores or pool halls along Baltimore and Wyandotte streets.

If you're a female guest of the Muehlebach, you probably have more genteel activities in mind.  Perhaps a little shopping (though you can buy cocktail shakers and flasks along Petticoat Lane). Or a guided tour on the city's new 30-passenger sightseeing bus, departing a block away at 11th and Baltimore. Or luncheon in the hotel's Plantation Grill, with its dance orchestra. Or you might just buy a hotel postcard and write home:

Blundon Family!
I'm here by 
invitation of 
New York Life for 
this wonderful spring meeting. 
A great opportunity! 
I want to tell 
you about it.
 Hazel N. Moore

*     *     *
Hazel N. Moore is a 41-year-old widow from Salina, Kansas. A former kindergarten teacher, she's been Salina's representative of the New York Life Insurance Company since the previous agent, her husband, died on a trip to a Shriners Convention back East. Hazel has two sons, 9 and 7. They live a five-minute walk from the Blundon family in Salina.

The Blundons are two sisters, Edith and Ruth, in their 40s, and Edith's son and daughter, 17 and 9. The sisters both teach music at a Salina college. Ruth's late husband, a judge, died after having his appendix removed. The Blundon and Moore children are playmates.
*     *     *
Here on April 30, 2015, we know some of what happened after Hazel mailed her postcard on April 30, 1927. Lindbergh made it to Paris. The Mississippi River flood was the worst in U.S. history. Industry came to Kansas City, but vice never really left. Ruth Snyder and her lover went to the chair for the murder of her husband. Little children of many generations and colors still enjoy the fresh air and beauty of Loose Park.

Hazel N. Moore raised her sons in Salina, then moved to Seattle and returned to teaching. She died in 1964 and was buried in Salina. The Blundon sisters taught music into their old age, giving piano recitals and private lessons. They died five weeks apart in 1977, Edith at 97 and Ruth at 89. When Edith was 96, New York Life declared she had outlived the life policy she had bought after her husband died in 1922, and paid her its face value. The local newspaper marked the occasion with a feature story. Edith remembered she had bought her policy from a Hazel Moore.

Finally the Hotel Muehlebach is an under-appreciated, all-but-neglected appendage to the newer, sleeker Marriott up the street. But it's still standing, and next month it celebrates the 100th anniversary of its opening.

*     *     *

Monday, March 23, 2015

Lost to the age of traffic

Courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Mo.
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If you lived along Summit Street in the Valentine neighborhood as winter turned to spring 1950 you were about to witness the end of the relatively peaceful world as you knew it. Sixty-five years ago today your immediate future included the violent beginnings of a six-lane makeover.

On Thursday, March 23, 1950, Kansas City was a town awaiting baseball. The Blues were close to the end of spring training in Florida, where a young shortstop named Mickey Mantle was trying to make the team. The weekend promised the 1950 Auto Show at Municipal Auditorium, Burl Ives ("America's Mightiest Balladier") performing twice daily. The headliner at the Hotel Bellerive's nightclub, El Casbah, was a "Witty, Dazzling Pianist"  named Liberace. Bagdad, starring Maureen O'Hara and Vincent Price, was reopening the Highway 40 Drive-in for the season, though it would be chilly yet for outdoor movies.

Today, though, brought temperatures in the 60s, perfect for starting the job the J. Shaw Coal and Material Company had been hired to do: widen Summit from four lanes to six, in the process ripping out mature trees and decades-old streetcar tracks. Up until four days ago cars of the 57 Roanoke line had rumbled over these tracks on their circuit from Ninth and Wyandotte to 45th and State Line.

The overarching project was the long anticipated Southwest Trafficway, the first of the region's broad concrete ribbons that eased (and encouraged) an ever increasing flow of private autos. It would link downtown to the affluent southwestern residential neighborhoods, from 14th street to Ward Parkway. After crossing a new viaduct it would run primarily along Summit but with connections to Belleview and Madison. It would require clear-cutting several homes in less privileged neighborhoods on the West Side and near Westport Road.

As I noted in Kansas City 1940, the Southwest Trafficway opened in November 1950. The Star called it "a monumental thing, a structure of the new traffic age." At the ribbon cutting the first two motorists received government bonds as prizes. Hard to say whether anyone caught the irony when they turned out to be from Lee's Summit and Shawnee, both far-flung suburbanites.

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In memory of the pre-trafficway era, here is that witty and dazzling piano player:

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

How we became Plains Parisians

Even if you've just stumbled across this blog for the first time,  chances are good – if you know something about Kansas City – you recognize the name.  It's also the name of a cocktail festival and a song by a local band and an online cultural retrospective and a little saloon inside one of the antiques emporia down in the West Bottoms, and a gorgeous time-lapse video. It's an old nickname that seems appropriate for the city's recent urban revival.

You might also have heard that the name is rooted in the quote above, the opening sentence in a news feature written by reporter Edward Morrow – not to be confused with famed CBS broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow – and published February 27, 1938, by Morrow's employer, the Omaha World-Herald. It was headlined this way:

To get the story, Morrow and his photographer visited Kansas City and toured its red-light district, night clubs and gambling houses. Morrow's opening line is pithy and quotable, but it wasn't original. He might even have "borrowed" the tour idea and the Parisian image from another journalist. Six days before the World-Herald's article appeared, newspapers around the country published the second in a series of syndicated columns datelined Boss Tom Pendergast's town, written by the conservative scold Westbrook Pegler.

In his second paragraph, after trashing the state of Kansas, Pegler made his French connection:

Apparently in the 1930s debauchery was the image most closely associated with Paris, not ex-pat artistes. (Perhaps, in Hollywood terms, more Moulin Rouge than Midnight in Paris.)

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After Pendergast served a year in prison for income-tax evasion, after the reformers took over City Hall and set about cleaning up Tom's town, Pegler came back and wrote about what had transpired in the five years since his 1938 visit. This is how his March 15, 1943, column began:

Fast forward to the late 1950s. John Cameron Swayze had been a reporter here in the 1930s with the old Journal-Post, as well as a radio broadcaster. Later he became an NBC television news anchor and eventually a pitchman for Studebaker cars and Timex watches. In 1958 he wrote the liner notes for this Capitol Records jazz album:

Album cover detail, courtesy of Richard E. Logan.

In them Swayze recalled his time in Boss Tom's wide-open town, and tweaked Pegler's descriptive label:

And so let's give Westbrook Pegler most of the credit for his colorful metaphor for a sinful town, a nickname we now attach with love to various creative endeavors. Pegler, with an editorial assist from this man:

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Past life on the Boulevard

In the summer of 1940 windows at 2860 Southwest Boulevard showed the place was empty and "For Rent."

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Eighty-seven years ago today, in the early hours after midnight,  a small group of regulars were minding their own business at the bar of a "soft drink" place at 2860 Southwest Boulevard when the door burst open and five men wearing dark overcoats, caps and handkerchiefs over their faces crashed in and raised sawed-off shotguns at the startled imbibers. One of the intruders actually shouted Stick 'em up! before forcing the owner, Eddie Nettle, to open a safe; the bartender, Frank Addy, to open the cash register; and the eight customers to empty their pockets. Then they piled into a black Buick and laid rubber with about $900 and change.

That was 1928, deep in the dark heart of Prohibition, when pouring corn whisky in a so-called soft-drink place was, of course, against the law. So Nettle and Addy had to tidy up the joint before reporting the robbery to police. It was sort of routine for Nettle, then 30 years old. His place had been robbed before, and it would be robbed again in years ahead.

Then came repeal, and many of the dives and joints that had operated as soft-drink parlors or drug stores or cigar stands or other types of speakeasies transformed themselves into legitimate night clubs. Or legitimate clubs that operated illegally, in violation of gambling and liquor laws the state passed when Prohibition ended. Eddie Nettle's place became the Sportsman's Club, known as a gambler's haven.

In February 1934 Nettle's former business partner and the croupier of his crap game were found dead on the floor of the Sportsman's Club, both shot in the head. "They were going to kill me," Nettle reportedly told the cops. "But a man has to defend himself, doesn't he?" He was charged with second-degree murder, but the case was dismissed when the only witnesses asserted it was self-defense.

At the end of the Thirties, after Nettle ran afoul of tax laws, the place became the Perkins Club:

Alas, the state finally got tough on clubs in 1939, closing down several of the worst offenders. The Perkins Club, after being fined for gambling and for selling liquor after legal hours, had its liquor license renewal refused.

For several years, until he dropped dead of a heart attack at age 53, Eddie Nettle ran another business out of his building on the Boulevard, the Music Service Company, which leased and serviced juke boxes and pinball machines and other barroom paraphernalia. Later it was home of something called the Industrial Abrasive Company, and the old memories began to fade.

Today, however, a little imagination and tequila will provide access to the dark past of 2860 Southwest Boulevard. The place still exists – since the 1970s it's been part of Ponak's Mexican Kitchen – and you can go there and pull up a bar stool, order a margarita and conjure this town's wide-open days of bootleg liquor and armed robberies, dice and violent death.

For the last 40 years it's been the home of Ponak's.
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