Sunday, June 19, 2016

A "most tiresome" drive

All set for an auto tour of Kansas City, June 1926.

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Ninety years ago this evening a car covered in hand-lettered advertising slogans nudged up to the Baltimore Avenue entrance of the Hotel Muehlebach, shuddered and quit. The exhausted driver, his wrists handcuffed to the steering wheel, slumped forward, eyes shut.

It was 5 p.m. on a Saturday, four days and nights from the previous Tuesday afternoon, when the cuffs snapped shut and the gearshift was locked into “high” position, when he raced the engine, popped the clutch and lurched away from an auto dealership at 26th and Grand. Exactly 100 hours and 1,212.6 miles of Kansas City later, he needed a cigarette.

“You have some of the wildest drivers here I ever saw,” he declared, leaning on two straw-hatted men who carried him back to the car company. Four hours of sleep awaited in the showroom window.

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Rosser Julius Newman was a handsome, 26-year-old Jewish cab driver from Dallas, and this was the heart of the Roaring Twenties. The era of Prohibition, yes, but also of oddball pursuits. Think endurance, as in flagpole sitting or marathon dancing. In June of 1926 R. J. Newman had recently set endurance records in dancing (117 hours), roller skating (72 hours) and automobile driving (168 hours).

Rosser J. Newman

Newman’s Kansas City gig was a money-making routine, essentially the same 100-hour stunt he was performing in and around other towns and cities in the region. It required the cooperation of a local newspaper and several businesses. The Journal-Post was a sponsor here, providing exclusive press coverage and selling ads to other sponsors.

There was the Co-Operative Dairy Company (“Rosser Newman Drinks 2 Quarts of Co-Operative Milk a Day”), Faultless Washer Stores (“Rosser J. Newman says ‘I Keep Cool With a Diehl Fan’”) and Falls Rubber Products (“Rosser J. Newman, famous endurance driver, selects Dunlop Balloons above all other tires on the market!”). The Globe Department Store would award a $10 gift certificate for the best guess of the miles Newman could fit into 100 hours. The Kansas City Flint Company would supply his auto, a 1926 Flint 55 touring car from their “guaranteed” used-car inventory.

The stunt’s attention-grabbing gimmicks had him locked to the wheel the entire 100 hours, transmission frozen in high gear, a clear challenge at stop signs and hills. News accounts said he would eat meals as he drove, but failed to reveal anything about bathrooms. Perhaps those were part of the regular stops for gasoline at the Diamond Refining Company, a sponsor. Once a day he would stop for a shave (“Jack Pickett of the Board of Trade Barber Shop Will Shave Newman at 1:30 o’clock”) and once each evening he would drive for an hour around the Hodge Realty Company’s new residential development in North Kansas City (“Let Newman lead you to Kansas City’s Most Ideal Suburban Addition – Oakwood.”)

Despite a sudden downpour the afternoon of the first day, things were going well after 24 hours of driving. A big crowd at 10th and Wyandotte enjoyed seeing him lathered up and shaved outside the Board of Trade Barber Shop. Picnickers watched him circle the streets of the Oakwood development.

"Ive climbed most the big hills in town and I've been over nearly every street," Newman reported on one of his stops. "I guess I'll have to go over them all again and again before I'm through."

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In places where he staged his endurance driving stunt Newman often gave a critique of the host city and its motorists. After completing a similar 100-hour event in Lincoln, Nebraska, later that summer, for instance, the Lincoln Star reported that Newman “expressed the opinion that the Lincoln motorists were more careful than those in the average city.” And in Springfield that autumn, where he drove a record 195 hours through the southwest Missouri countryside, he declared that “Ozark folks are the most hospitable in the world.”

But this was Prohibition-era Kansas City, a world apart from cornfield Nebraska and Ozark mountain Missouri. And so as Rosser J. Newman drove endlessly around our streets and over our many hills, a group of young thugs beat up a minister who in his weekly sermon had dared condemn their regular gambling game. Another day a man was charged with luring teenage girls to his apartment for “immoral purposes.” And the Kansas City police department was engaged in one of its many “cleanups” of speakeasies around town, padlocking 25 of them that week.

Some of our “wide-open” reputation got Newman’s attention.

“I found there is lots of late-night driving in Kansas City,” he said as he staggered out of the Flint 55 that Saturday. “After midnight many intoxicated drivers can be found on the boulevards. I have had drivers cut in on me at 50 miles an hour.

“Altogether, this has been one of the most tiresome endurance drives I ever had, largely because of the many hills and the careless drivers.”

And then, cigarette in hand, he allowed the straw-hatted men to put him to bed in the Flint Company display window. Bedroom suite courtesy of the Hotel President.

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