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.

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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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