Sunday, May 10, 2015

Ephemeral city: Marbles

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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.

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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:

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