Thursday, April 20, 2017

Prohibition project: the Pompeii Cafe

The old Merchants Bank building today is home to the Brown & Loe restaurant.

*     *     * 
This month brings another post in a series on Prohibition. Specifically, Prohibition in Kansas City, 1920 to 1933, those years the Eighteenth Amendment was in effect. Posts take the form of encyclopedic entries about surviving buildings and other structures with stories to tell about moonshine, bootlegging, speakeasies, "wets" and "drys," and associated events, activities and personalities.

*     *     *

Pompeii Cafe – Basement speakeasy cabaret in the Merchants Bank building, 429 Walnut. Run by Frank Demanti, who was frequently raided and fined for violations of the city's dance code. In the 1920s, dance was great fun or great evil, depending on your perspective. “It is not the dance so much as the way they dance nowadays,” said one concerned mother. “Not of a character to preserve morals,” said another who saw dangerous eroticism in the Shimmy, Black Bottom, Charleston, Texas Tommy, Camel Walk, Cootie Crawl, Varsity Drag and other new dance steps. A Methodist pastor declared any amusement which allowed a man “the privilege of holding a girl in his embrace during the gallop of the latest dance wiggles is utterly without defense for its existence.” Dance permits were required of cabarets and public halls, and the Board of Public Welfare dispatched dance hall inspectors to enforce the rules, including that ladies keep hands and arms on the gentleman’s shoulder. Police arrested cabaret owners for allowing dancing after 1:30 a.m.; fines could be $50. The newspapers reported dancing-youth-gone-bad. “The Charleston is the cause of us being here,” said one of four young men in jail for armed robbery, who quit jobs and turned to crime for money to enter Charleston contests. “As to public dance halls being a road to evil,” said a judge in 1921, “of ten girls whom I sentenced in the last two days, with but one or two exceptions, all got their starts downward in public dance halls.” That same year a group of high school students published a pamphlet advocating for their favorite pastime. “On with the dance,” they wrote. “Let joy be unrefined.” In 1933, with repeal of Prohibition at hand, the Pompeii reopened as a nightclub called the Pirates' Den.