Friday, February 24, 2017

Prohibition project: the Cherry Blossom club

The old Cherry Blossom – nee Eblon Theater – is now just a facade at 1822 Vine. 

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This month and for the next several months Prohibition gets the spotlight here. Specifically, Prohibition in Kansas City, 1920 to 1933, those years the Eighteenth Amendment was in effect. Posts will take the form of encyclopedia entries about surviving buildings and other structures from that time that can tell stories about moonshine, bootlegging, speakeasies, "wets" and "drys," and associated events, activities and personalities.

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Cherry Blossom – Asian-themed night club at 1822 Vine. Technically it was not a speakeasy, because the club opened Saturday, April 8, 1933, the day after beer-drinking became legal again. But you can bet still-outlawed booze flowed discreetly from flasks carried in among the eleven hundred patrons there on opening night into Sunday morning to see “the finest night club ever opened for Negroes in this city.” So declared Ananias Buford, the designer and manager of the Cherry Blossom, responsible for transforming what had been a silent-movie theater – the Eblon – into a Far-East garden, complete with dragon motifs, Asian landscapes, a Japanese god towering behind the musicians, waitresses in kimonos and two Chinese cooks – the only two non-African American employees. Buford, who previously had created similar atmosphere at the Hawaiian Gardens, also delivered his promised “fast floor show and a good dance orchestra,” opening with George E. Lee and his Brunswick Orchestra (with sister Julia Lee at the piano). Later Count Basie led the house orchestra, (and this was the site, in December 1933, of the famous “cutting contest” between tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young.) In 1934 when “Both White and Colored Patronage” became new policy at the Cherry Blossom, the Journal-Post was skeptical. “Oh, oh … it works in New York’s Harlem where the races intermingle in hi-de-ho,” a reviewer wrote. “But will it work here? Not long, probably.” By the 1940s the Cherry Blossom had become Chez Paree. In 1984 an arson fire destroyed the building, then vacant for twenty years, but the façade was used in Robert Altman’s film Kansas City.

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