Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Ephemeral city: Night club matchbooks

Brief commercial message: Join me Tuesday, March 27, at Tom's Town Distilling Company, 1701 Main Street, to celebrate the recent release of my new book, Prohibition in Kansas City: Highballs, Spooners, and Crooked Dice, published by the History Press. I'll discuss bootleggers, speakeasies and vice, and we can all enjoy the delicious benefits of Repeal. It's a free event, but please RSVP on the Tom's Town Facebook page. 

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One of the two matchbook covers.
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The two matchbooks, dating to the 1930s, came from a downtown supper club near 14th and Baltimore that advertised itself as “famous for foods” served “in the atmosphere of the old South.” This was a time when the dominant cultural imagery of “the old South” was not brutal slavery but lovely Southern belles and gracious plantation houses (served by happy Negroes).

A newspaper ad from 1934.
The Southern Mansion was its name and it opened in the early Thirties, just as Kansas City’s jazzy night club scene was swinging into high gear. A dine-and-dance club, it occupied the street level of a lonely two-story brick building flanked by a parking lot on one side and a used-car lot on the other. But it had white table cloths, a formally dressed wait staff, decor that might be called colonial deco, and a floor show. The kitchen used Southern recipes; the bar used T.J. Pendergast Wholesale Liquor.

The Southern Mansion “from its beginning was a class place,” in the words of one reporter who years later recalled being there. Run by a couple of Italians who had a speakeasy restaurant on the North Side during Prohibition, it was popular among Chamber of Commerce types, like the members of a luncheon group called the Pompano Club. They were, according to the same reporter, “good-time Charlies and men-about-town in those days that had to christen each new night club.”

The bar area of the Southern Mansion.

Out-of-towners liked it, too, as it was a block or three from most high-end hotels. Late one summer night in 1934 a small group of visiting Elks, staying at the Hotel President a half block away, stopped in for sandwiches before hitting the road back to St. Louis. One of them, a young doctor, complained to the waiter about the small size of a cocktail glass. Soon, according to one account, “a big, swarthy man stepped to the table, shoved the doctor’s shoulder and told him to get up and leave.”

There were words, and more shoving, and “five other big fellows appeared from nowhere,” said the witness. “One grabbed the doctor’s right arm, another his left; one took one leg, another the other; and the fifth clapped his hand over the doctor’s mouth. Right in front of everyone there they carried him through the crowd to the front door.”

One of the proprietors later told police he noticed a crowd gathering outside, around a man lying on the sidewalk. It was the young doctor, who was taken to General Hospital with a fractured skull. The Southern Mansion’s head waiter and a bartender were charged with assault. Weeks later the victim was able to return to St. Louis. Charges were dropped when the doctor failed to appear in court.

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The Southern Mansion stayed in business into the 1950s, and except for a little issue with a bridge club renting the upstairs space for illegal dice games, appears to have stayed out of trouble. Subsequent owners changed the concept and the name several times – Dixie Manor, Playboy’s Playground, Jungle Club, Play-Mate Club – before the building was demolished in 1963 to make way for the crosstown freeway.

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