Sunday, November 26, 2017

Soul on Broadway

The former Channel 3 night club in the Hotel Valentine.

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It’s the weekend after Thanksgiving, 1967. The weather is mild, but the mood is mixed. The Chiefs set a division attendance record on Thanksgiving at Municipal Stadium against the AFL-leading Raiders, but Oakland crushed the locals, 44 to 22. The Plaza is aglow once again, but the lighting ceremony was tainted slightly when carbon monoxide fumes sickened four kids in cars stuck in parking-garage traffic.

The U.S. ambassador to Saigon reports “steady progress in the war.” The top American general says enemy forces are “declining at a steady rate” and the war is approaching the point “when the end begins to come into view.” But political leaders of both parties claim Communists are involved in the anti-war movement, including last month’s march on the Pentagon. “The marchers included every Communist and Communist sympathizer in the United States who was able to make the trip,” says one.

A traveling journalist is collecting thoughts from around the country. “I figure these wars’ll go on forever; it’s human nature,” says a West Virginia miner. “The work situation is pickin’ up around here and, well, if it weren’t the war it would have to be something else.” In Oregon a man says, “My younger friends, who may be facing the draft, why naturally they’re against the war. The older people are wondering, where’s the old American spirit. Something’s wrong.”

Here in KC, the body of a young woman has been found in a local park. Beaten to death. The new south portion of the downtown freeway loop, set to open soon, is being hailed as “a man-made thing of beauty.” Fifty thousand people descend on downtown department stores for the opening of Christmas shopping season, scrambling to buy TV tray tables, portable record players, Super 8 movie cameras, Easy Bake Ovens, and realistic toy weapons. Move out, soldier, and find the enemy! You’ll get them on the run with your M-16!

Movies provide escape. “To Sir, With Love,” or “Cool Hand Luke,” or “The Sand Pebbles.” Live music, too. The Horseshoe Lounge, the Vanguard, the Shindig, Voo-Doo Village, the Bagdad on Broadway, the Green Gables, the Drum Room, Oscar’s Lounge. The Colony Steak House features Marilyn Maye and Sammy Tucker five nights a week.

Just up Broadway from the Colony another live-music venue, the Channel 3 club, is in the Valentine Hotel. From now through February 10, Channel 3 is featuring a young chanteuse named Anita Knorl. A local reviewer claims she is “one of the biggest things ever to hit this city, and baby, she’s knocking it out.” 

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Anita Knorl is 23, attractive and exotic: an Irish-German-Japanese-African-American. She's from Washington, D.C. and Detroit, and she’s been a sales clerk, switchboard operator, bookkeeper, Playboy bunny, and now a club singer. 

Her idol is Judy Garland; she admires Ella Fitzgerald and Ramsey Lewis. But her music is described as soul. “Sure, it’s a kicked around term,” the local reviewer writes. “But when it comes to Anita there is no better way to express it, because it IS soul. It makes the tin-eared man feel the chill run up his spine.”

Anita believes soul is knowing what you’re singing. “Entertainers shouldn't do a song until they know what's it all about,” she says.

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Fifty years later, there's much to reflect on. Indeed, wars continue. People still benefit from them; others still lie about them. Homicide is still very much a reality, as is frenzied holiday shopping. The downtown freeway loop is considered a gash in the urban landscape. Colored lights have multiplied on the Plaza. The country is still politically torn. Anita Knorl's star has apparently vanished.

Here's what you can learn if you search for her. In 1962, when she was 18, she made a series of demo recordings for Motown Records, one of them a song titled “If Wishes Came True,” which she wrote with Smokey Robinson. An early marriage didn’t work out, and by 1967 she was regularly singing on the Playboy Club circuit in places like Miami, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Chicago.

The KC newspaper reviewer in 1967 expanded her story to that point. She planned to marry again, an Englishman from Jamaica, and move to that island. “I love warm climates and I like water,” she said. “It’s away from the hustle-and-bustle of the rat race. You sit and watch the banana trees.” She hoped to return to the States several times each year. “I will keep working. This is where the money is.”

Records show she did marry that man, here in the Jackson County Courthouse on her 24th birthday, February 9, 1968, the day before her Channel 3 gig ended. And she continued to sing professionally, primarily in Playboy Clubs around the country. But that marriage apparently failed, too, as a newspaper notice about a 1969 appearance in Detroit mentioned she was single again. Then she seems to have disappeared. 

A few years ago a compilation of unreleased songs by Motown female artists included her recording of “If Wishes Came True. It's possible to listen to it and imagine Anita Knorl as a sort of timeless American – a vagabond, multi-ethnic dreamer. Even if the dreams were broken, she surely knew what she was singing about. 

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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Prohibition project: Katz drugstore No. 7

The former store at 100 West Twelfth street.
This is the final post in a series on the Prohibition era in Kansas City, 1920 to 1933, about surviving buildings and other structures with stories to tell about moonshine, bootlegging, speakeasies, "wets" and "drys," and associated events, activities and personalities.

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When the Hotel Phillips opened in 1931 it brought streamlined chic to the hotel district with its polished black-glass ceilings, walnut paneling and bronze Goddess of Dawn by sculptor Jorgen Dreyer. The people who run the Phillips today call it “an iconic hotel with an illustrious past.” In the early 1930s it was “Just a Step from Everything,” with radio, circulating ice water, electric fans and more. Where today the hotel’s restaurant presents “Farm to Table Authentic Italian Dining” at the corner of Twelfth and Baltimore, the Katz drugstore No. 7 once dispensed aspirin, prescription liquor, and an illegal chance to test your luck.

In September 1932, someone telephoned the Jackson County prosecutor to remind him of his campaign promise to make arrests whenever he found slot machines in operation. Well, the caller said, there were slot machines at Katz drugstore No. 7.

Slots had been in Kansas City since well before the beginning of Prohibition, and were outlawed by state law and city ordinance as gambling devices. Over years and many raids, hundreds were confiscated and destroyed. Yet in 1932 an estimated two thousand of them remained in drugstores, pool halls, restaurants, and speakeasies throughout the city. They were the tabletop type, accepting pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters, and paying off – or not – in coins, mints or tokens for merchandise. Racketeers controlled distribution, installing the machines, promising police protection or legal aid to proprietors, plus a cut of the take. It was said most machines made at least a hundred dollars weekly.

The prosecutor visited Katz drugstore No. 7, watched a customer play a nickel slot near the cigar counter, found a dime slot under repair on the balcony, and arrested the assistant manager.

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In August 1933 Missouri became the twenty-second state to ratify repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, though repeal would not become official until Utah’s vote in December. Liquor was still outlawed, but 3.2 percent beer had become legal again the previous April. The springtime trickle of new night clubs became a steady flow into fall and winter. Beer was still the advertised libation, but smuggled flasks were surely common.

Early arrivals included the Ritz Supper Club, Vanity Fair, Palms, Club Paradise, and the Harlem Club. The Hey-Hay Club, a joint with hay-bale seating at Fourth and Cherry, and the Coconut Grove, with a Pacific-island theme at Twenty-seventh and Troost, followed, as the Pirate’s Den, the Chesterfield Club, the Grotto – fashioned from an abandoned limestone quarry near Bannister and Holmes – and the Silver Slipper, in a warehouse building where Crown Center is today.

In late October as Prohibition was winding down, the Katz drugstore No. 7 received a pair of famous visitors, George Burns and Gracie Allen. The married comedy couple – radio, stage, and screen stars billed as “nitwits of the networks” – were headlining a weeklong vaudeville revue at the Mainstreet Theater. They were staying across the street at the Hotel Muehlebach.

Clerks and shoppers at the Katz store immediately swarmed the pair. “Gracie wanted to buy only a few articles,” the Journal-Post reported, “but there were so many clerks waiting on her she almost bought out the store.” The pair broke into a sort of impromptu bit of their back-and-forth shtick, about how Gracie always got nervous while shopping. Like back in New York at Macy’s, where she went to buy a rolling pin and attracted a crowd, and thinking everyone would wonder if she was intending to clobber George with it, bought a dining room set instead.

Journal-Post ad, October 28, 1933.

Their regular performance routine at the time included a bit of Prohibition-era commentary:
Gracie: My brother’s a detective.
George: I’ll bet he’s interesting.
Gracie: Just last week he caught a bootlegger selling liquor. What do you think he did?
George: Gave him nine dollars a quart?
Gracie: Yes, and the liquor was bad, too.
During their week at the Mainstreet, Burns and Allen broadcast their weekly radio show from the KMBC studios atop the Pickwick Hotel at Tenth and McGee. Before leaving by train for the coast they also sampled Kansas City's new club scene as guests of honor at the Silver Slipper.

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