Saturday, December 24, 2016

Ephemeral city: Season's Greetings

It's a matchless matchbook cover offering "Season's Greetings" from the 1940s, courtesy of the restaurant inside Municipal Airport, what we know today as the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport. In its day, the restaurant was described this way:

As orderly as the cabin of a Constellation, as neat and well-groomed as the pretty airline hostess who drops in for sandwiches between hops, and just as popular with the Kansas City paddle feet as it is with the flying clientele. Stopover celebs may be your eating companions any time of the day or night. Owned and operated by True Milleman and Joe Gilbert.

That's a blurb from nightlife listings in a 1940s-era issue of Swing, a general-interest magazine published by radio station WHB, then at 880 on your dial. More on that in a minute, but first a bit more on the restaurant.

Joe Gilbert, the founder of what became Gilbert-Robinson restaurants, had started out in the business with a hamburger joint at Ninth and Main streets. In 1940, according to Andrea Broomfield's Kansas City: A Food Biography, he and Truman "True" Milleman, formerly manager of the Fred Harvey Union Station restaurants, partnered in the new concession at the airport. Milleman and Gilbert found success by borrowing ideas from the Harvey company's playbook, like "travel follows good food routes." Eventually they became the country's first airline caterer, and after Milleman left the business the restaurant was reimagined as the Four Winds. 

A postcard from the original Milleman-Gilbert Airport Restaurant.

*     *     *

The monthly Swing magazine published its first issue in January 1945, as World War II was grinding to its conclusion. By Christmas it had been just months since the first atomic bombs ended it. In her December editor's column, Jetta Carleton attempted to reconcile Christmas past and present with the brave, new Christmas future. Here, 70-plus years into that future, is her message:

This is Swing's first Christmastime. We wanted to wish you something special by way of Merry Christmases. But we shopped around and found we could do no better than to wish you Merry Christmas in all its old accoutrements: the stars, the whiff of cedar, the colored lights; the dash from the cold dusk into the warm sweet house; the rumbled stack of greeting cards; the crowded trolleys; the readiness to forgive, to kiss, to buy a drink, to love thy neighbor ... the Salvation Army bells ringing the reminder of the poor and the hungry; the carols, the big, languorous poinsettias, the stampede, the egg-nog … and the Christmas Story, the sudden fierce and earnest yearning to believe … this is Christmas.
Even though Santa Claus forsakes Donder and Blitzen for a B-29 this year; even though what Russia really wants for Christmas is the secret of the atomic bomb; even though Santa Claus turns out to be that Man from Missouri; even though shepherds watch their flocks by flood lights, and the wise men bring gifts of uranium – even so, Christmas comes again as beautiful as ever in our hearts. And we wish you peace on earth – with those across the room from you, the folks next door, and the men and women of six continents.

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Friday, November 25, 2016

Going home for the holiday

The tracks outside Union Station.

Five years ago last August a 60-year-old man named John Leslie Carter died "after a lengthy illness," according to the obituary in his hometown newspaper, The Morning Sun of Pittsburg, Kansas. John's passions had been music, bowling and Joan, "the love of his life." He had attended schools and church in Pittsburg, worked at a large Pittsburg plant that made coal-mining equipment, and after his birth in Detroit, lived his whole life in Pittsburg, two hours south of Kansas City.

John did get to Kansas City at least once in his life, 59 years ago today, November 25, 1957. His name traveled even further that day because of the circumstances of his journey. The same three-paragraph summary of John's trip appeared in newspapers from coast to coast, and you can get a pretty good idea of it just from reading its headlines around the country.

From Amarillo, Texas, we learn that a 7-Year-Old Boy Is Self-Sufficient. 

Youngster Makes Valiant Start On Unannounced Trip, is how Santa Cruz, California, begins it.

In Hazelton, Pennsylvania, it's 7-Year-Old Travels Minus Ticket, Money. 

The Monroe, Louisiana, version reveals that Boy Travels Light For 128 Miles. 

The plot thickens in Garden City, Kansas, as Youngster’s Trip To Detroit Interrupted.

More details emerge in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, with Knowing Nurse Ends Boy’s Trip.

Young Traveler Returned Home is the conclusion from Gastonia, North Carolina.

In Centralia, Washington, the evaluation is Traveling Tot Misses Goal.

But in Newport, Rhode Island, we're left with Broke Or Not, He Was Going To See His Parents.

*     *     *

The Kansas City Times of November 26, 1957, filled in some gaps in our story-by-headline.

It was Monday of Thanksgiving week when John boarded the Kansas City Southern at 5:10 p.m. in Pittsburg and took a seat next to a woman he didn't know. He had no money, but wished to somehow get to Detroit, where he was born and where he might still have been, had not his folks sent him to live with his mother's parents in Pittsburg. His plan survived until the conductor came along to collect tickets. The conductor at first assumed John was traveling with his adult seat mate, but she said no, he didn't belong to her. John insisted he was alone.

The woman, a nurse, kept John close and when the train pulled into Union Station here, a phone call to Pittsburg confirmed the boy was missing. Soon John was on a southbound train to Pittsburg.

Why John and his parents were separated in the first place is, of course, the hole in the story of his big newsworthy adventure. None of our business, perhaps, but the mind wanders.

We're also left to imagine John's story being fondly remembered and retold over the next 53 years in Pittsburg – in his first-grade class at St. Mary's School, at the Church of the Nazarene, at the bowling alley, at the manufacturing plant, at his memorial service. And that he eventually did get to Detroit, or anywhere else.

We do have one Times quote from the 7-year-old John, himself, as he waited at Union Station for the train to take him back home.

"I was on a train once before, but I can't remember when," he said, holding his ears against the release of steam from a locomotive. "This is the first time I was ever on one by myself. That steam makes too much noise. I don't like it."

*     *     *

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Waiting on the Bambino

My time-trip today involves packing rain gear and ball glove and heading for 1922. Parking myself in the middle of Wabash avenue near 20th street. Blinking into a cold October drizzle just outside the walls of Kansas City’s emerald diamond. Waiting.

The Monarchs, in their third season of Negro National League baseball, and city champions after taking five of six games from the Blues, are playing an exhibition game here today. These are the Monarchs of Bullet Joe Rogan and Frank Duncan, Heavy Johnson and Jose Mendez and Rube Carrie. Reason enough to be time-traveling here.

But as the morning newspaper says, the great Babe Ruth is with us today at Association Park!

 *     *     *

In  October 1922 Babe Ruth's greatness is actually in question. He has just finished his third season with the New York Yankees in underwhelming style, by hitting .118 in the World Series against the New York Giants. The Giants have swept the Yanks in four games. Ruth had set home-run records the previous two years, but after missing the first five weeks of this season his numbers fell off. Suddenly the Bambino has become a bum. Sportswriters are referring to “the waning star of Ruth.”

The five weeks off were a gift from Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. At the end of the 1921 season Ruth and teammates Bob Meusel and Bill Piercy had gone barnstorming around the country, playing in local exhibitions for extra money. Against the baseball rules at the time. Landis suspended all three. This year, 1922, the rules have been changed.

So Ruth and Meusel are back to barnstorming, a tour of the Midwest. Nineteen games with and against minor-leaguers and semi-pros from the Knights of Columbus or the American Legion or the local sporting-goods dealer. Ruth and Meusel each receive $1,000 at every stop.

The trip is winding from Perry, Iowa, to El Paso, Texas, touching places named Deadwood, Sleepy Eye, Tarkio, and Drumwright. The largest stop will be Kansas City. Our first chance to see the Babe in person will come at 1 p.m., Sunday, October 22. A doubleheader. First game: both Meusel and Ruth on a team playing the Monarchs. Nightcap: Ruth and some Legionnaires vs. Meusel and some Masons.

The weatherman has called for 60 degrees and clouds, with “a slight possibility of rain.” At 1 p.m. it is gray, chilly and wet. Meusel and Ruth arrive in raincoats over their Yankee road uniforms.

*     *     *

The Kansas City Call, African-American weekly, began its summation this way:

Sunday was a nasty day for any outdoor sport except duck hunting, yet 1,500 fans, most of them white, were present at Association Park when the umps called “play ball” as the signal for the opening game of a doubleheader, wherein the great Babe Ruth and his teammate Bob Meusel, both of the New York Yankees, and assisted by local semi-pros and former big leaguers, were to cross bats with the Monarchs.

The Monarchs won 10 to 5. Bullet Joe Rogan started, allowed two hits in two innings. Meusel singled twice and showed off baseball’s best outfield arm with a perfect throw to the plate. Ruth hit four singles in four at-bats and pitched an inning. Frank Duncan threw out Ruth attempting to steal second. Heavy Johnson homered. The rain ended the second game in the second inning. Ruth and Meusel left town by interurban rail for their next game in Leavenworth.

And the next year they would lead the Yanks to their first World Series title, forming part of the famous "Murderers Row" lineup of heavy hitters. In 1927 "the waning star of Ruth" would set a home-run standard that would stand 34 years.

*     *     *

American Association Park was built for the Blues in 1903, and also became home to the Monarchs in 1920. In 1923 both teams moved four blocks to the new Muehlebach Field, later known as Ruppert Stadium and finally Municipal Stadium.

The land where Association Park once stood – a grassy wedge between Prospect and Olive, 20th street and the railroad tracks – is today a parcel of the Parks Department called Blues Park. There’s a little playground and a softball diamond. A concrete basketball court sits about where Meusel and Ruth took batting practice in the cold drizzle 94 years ago today.

Many of the old houses along Wabash avenue, south of what would have been the right field wall along 20th street, still stand. According to the news accounts, Ruth hit his only homers that afternoon – surely what most fans had come to see – during batting practice. Four of them to right field. Including one that cleared the roofs of two houses on Wabash avenue.

Which is where I’m standing, pounding my glove in the 1922 rain, waiting on the Bambino.

 *     *     *

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Sign of the times

The old Third Presbyterian Church, 3027 Walnut.

A slightly different version of this post appeared in September 2010, weeks before the first midterm election of President Obama’s administration. Because it describes feelings that have resurfaced during this 2016 presidential election campaign, it’s time to revisit and remember …

*     *     *

The other day I let the rhetoric of fear and ignorance get under my skin. Demagogues appear to be making a comeback lately, this being an election year, and their prominence in the news irritated and depressed me.
I needed reassurance – some reminder that, no matter how loud the fearful and ignorant yell, some people refuse to hear them.

I found it on Walnut Street, just off 31st street, in September 1924.

*     *     *

Billboards were controversial in 1924, many having sprouted around Kansas City without permits, some uncomfortably close to residential neighborhoods. But instead of gasoline or cigarettes or candy bars, the new billboard near 31st and Walnut advertised the Third Presbyterian Church next door.

Third Presbyterian had been around since 1870, first in the West Bottoms, since 1898 in this building at 3027 Walnut. Reverend J. Raymond Sorenson didn't necessarily use his pulpit for political causes – his sermon for Sunday, September 21, 1924 was titled "Be Still, and Know That I Am God" – but the billboard was a new way to speak beyond the church walls.

It had been erected that week, coinciding with the arrival in town of thousands of conventioneers.

*     *     *

The conventioneers left Union Station for the lobbies of downtown hotels, greeting one another in low voices. At Convention Hall they approached burly sentries, whispered passwords and flashed membership cards. Some wore buttons picturing a burning cross.

Publicity men fed sanctioned "news" of the four-day convention to reporters. There would be "devotional exercises" – including prayer and the singing of "Onward, Christian Soldiers"– committee reports, and speakers identified only as a "National Statesman" or a "Prominent Citizen." There would be thousands of delegates, said the publicity men, but no parade.

*     *     *

Over in Kansas that week the editor of the Emporia Gazette, William Allen White, announced his independent candidacy for governor. His primary motivation was the political involvement of a particular organization, the same one holding its convention in Kansas City.

"It represents a small minority of the citizenship and it is organized for purposes of terror," White said. "Its terror is directed at honest, law-abiding citizens, negroes, Jews and Catholics."

At his first rally, outside a small-town courthouse, White declared that Kansas – that is, the Kansas he knew  – "did not examine a man's skin under a microscope, his birth certificate or his religious beliefs before calling him an American."

In the darkness beyond the fringes of the crowd, someone put a torch to a 7-foot cross and ran into the night.

*     *     *

At Convention Hall an official photographer sold official photographs: Many smaller American flags hanging near one huge one, flanked by banners depicting fire-breathing dragons, portraits of Washington, Jefferson and Coolidge; delegates on the floor holding placards from their states; a row of figures on stage, dressed in hooded white robes.

Publicity men distributed the text of a speech given by a former dentist from Texas. Delegates knew him as their Imperial Wizard. The Wizard addressed his delegates as "the salt of the earth" and said the future of civilization depended on them.

"History has proved and is proving daily that a high level of average intelligence never has been reached except by Nordic and Anglo-Saxon peoples," he told them. "The blood which produces human leadership must be protected from inferior blood."

He described the enemy as "systems and instincts and principles which run counter to Anglo-Saxon instinct, Americanism and Protestant Christianity.”

"Our watch-cry,” he said, “is 'Back to the Constitution.'"

Then the Wizard offered his assurance: "The Lord has guided us and shaped the events in which we rejoice. He has held us under His protection."

"Millions of Americans are in arduous quest of leadership toward better government, adequate law enforcement, the elevation of society and a more perfect national patriotism," said the Wizard.

"The Klan alone supplies that."

*     *     *

In the 1924 election William Allen White finished third in a three-man governor's race. The Republican winner had been backed by the Ku Klux Klan.

And although the Klan's membership and influence faded in the Depression-era 1930s, its ideas and emotions have never completely disappeared.

Today the old Third Presbyterian Church building on Walnut is home to Chapter 317 of the Vietnam Veterans of America. But this year – and approaching this 2016 election – it's worth remembering the church of 1924, and its billboard message to the visiting coventioneers:

*     *     *