Saturday, December 23, 2017

A season of sacrifice

*     *     *

Seventy-five years ago, just before the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor, an early December storm dumped almost a foot of snow on Kansas City. So much snow had not fallen so early in ten years.

Allied bombers were pummeling Japanese targets in Burma. The Russians had Nazis retreating in the Soviet Union. Americans were joining the fight in North Africa. Here in the States the coalition of government, business, and labor had speed-shifted the American war machine into high gear. Every region of the country was contributing.

Kansas City had its own government bomber plant, for which the city ran a downtown training center where civilians learned to fabricate aircraft sheet metal and other parts. Kansas City industries produced goods and materials for the military, which were distributed to bases in several Plains states through the Quartermaster Depot, a former coat factory at Independence avenue and Hardesty. Everyone was being asked to make sacrifices for the war effort.

The former Quartermaster Depot, Independence avenue at Hardesty.

A citywide blackout – civil defense testing – was mandated one December night: no lights anywhere, no smoking or lighted matches, no telephoning, no vehicles or people on the streets. Gasoline was being rationed to conserve rubber normally used for auto tires. Streetcars and busses overflowed with new riders who gave up driving. The government even ordered ice cream production cut through the winter to conserve butterfat.

At the defense training center, African-American women were told they must begin using an unpainted, poorly lit, separate bathroom from one they had been sharing with white women. The center’s supervisor did not explain what was being conserved there.

It was Christmastime, and some sacrifices were season-specific. The festive Santa Claus streetcar, for instance. It was canceled and refitted for normal service because of increased ridership. And mail. As military mail mixed with holiday mail, volume was 50 percent higher than normal. Mailbags and parcels piled high along railroad platforms. “Santa Claus is just going to have to be a little bit late this year for some people,” said the postmaster. “But he’ll get there.”

A Christmas card from 1942.
Mail was delaying train service. Packed trains carried double the normal number of mail cars. Passengers were standing between cars, or sitting on suitcases in aisles. Rail companies were asking that non-essential traffic be curtailed. The telephone company’s ads discouraged people from tying up lines with long-distance calls: “If your call will not aid somehow to pass the ammunition, please consider whether you can give it up.”

And Christmas trees. The weekend after Thanksgiving fire had ravaged a crowded night club in Boston, killing 492 patrons. For some reason Kansas City’s fire chief waited until mid-December to issue a ban on yuletide trees in public spaces. He cited the Boston fire. “We aren’t going to take any chances of having a Christmas tragedy in Kansas City,” he said.

Public trees that had been decorated came down. Fresh trees ready to be sold were packed up and shipped to other cities. The tree supplier explained: “We could not afford to unload 40,000 trees at Kansas City and gamble on a market depressed by the fire department edict when the demand in Chicago and St. Louis was so great.” Prices of now-scarce Christmas trees rose, and some sellers offered single evergreen branches at tree prices. 

 *     *     *

It was the year Holiday Inn was released, a movie that included a new song written by Irving Berlin and sung by Bing Crosby. By December the song had reached number 1 on the Hit Parade and was being heard at Christmas programs and parties everywhere.

The Quartermaster Depot at Independence and Hardesty had a party for the children of employees. There were songs and games, a ventriloquist and magician, and Santa Claus. Ice cream, soon to be precious, was served. And because the depot was not under city jurisdiction, and had its own fire brigade standing by with water buckets, there was a big beautiful Christmas tree. 

Actually there were two separate parties – one on the 23rd for black children and one on Christmas Eve for white children. Perhaps another unexplained sacrifice. Outside it was near 50 degrees. Almost all the snow was gone. 

 *     *     *

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Soul on Broadway

The former Channel 3 night club in the Hotel Valentine.

*     *     *

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.” 

*     *     *

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.

*     *     *

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. 

*     *     *