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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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Ephemeral city: Transit map

The map was hanging in a local antique mall, framed and priced appropriately for an 80-year-old artifact of this town's golden age of mass transportation. It shows no date, but there are clues among its "Points of Interest."

Municipal Auditorium exists (opened late 1935) as does the old city hall at Fourth and Main. The county courthouse is at 12th and Oak, across from "site, new city hall" (dedicated 1937). And the ballpark at 22nd and Brooklyn is Muehlebach Field (its name until 1937). So the map would appear to document the system of 1936-37, complete with its golden-age statistics:

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I had to have it, of course. It provides a nice contrast to a map I already own that shows the five remaining streetcar lines of 1951, six years before busses began a reign of nearly sixty years. Tracks then vanished. Most were ripped up, but not all.

Every so often, usually during the freeze-and-thaw of pothole season, the old system arises here and there. Recently a remnant of rusty rail found sunlight at the corner of 43rd and Warwick, near the Kansas City Art Institute. 

My new 1930s map places this on the Independence Avenue–Rockhill–Swope Park line. Back then this route covered more than 13 miles, from the corner of Independence and Hardesty west into downtown, south along Walnut and Main to 43rd street, then east and south to Swope Park.

It's worth contemplating the "points of interest" along this route in today's Kansas City: the zoo and Starlight Theater, UMKC, the Nelson-Atkins Museum and KCAI, Liberty Memorial and Crown Center and Union Station, the Crossroads and P&L District, a variety of world-food restaurants along Independence Avenue, and an amazing array of residential neighborhoods overall.

Meanwhile, workers have spread a fresh patch of asphalt at 43rd and Warwick, putting that rusty old rail back to sleep for now. Even as streetcars have found new life in Kansas City.

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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Fascinating Rhythm

The old Convention Hall, on 13th between Central and Wyandotte, the site of today's Barney Allis Plaza.
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The Journal-Post listed the jazzy Saturday night possibilities: live music and floor shows at a constellation of nightclubs now serving legal liquor after thirteen years of Prohibition. The Hey-Hay Club, Bar le Duc, the New Reel, the Ritz, Silver Slipper, Hi-Hat, Mardi Gras, Dante's Inferno, Alamo Supper Club. Drink-Drink-Drink. You don't need your flask at the Harlem! Dine and Dance with Bennie Moten and George E. Lee and their combined 15-piece recording orchestra. 

A small announcement was tucked in the bottom corner of the page, just above a notice for the Arrow Messenger Service:

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It was the halfway point of a 28-day, 28-city tour playing to overflow crowds, the first such road trip for a man who by January 1934 was known as "America's favorite composer and pianist." The tour marked the 10th anniversary of his classical "Rhapsody in Blue," then being called "the foundation stone of his reputation." He had composed a new orchestral piece for the occasion, variations based on one of his songs, "I Got Rhythm."

Still, Gershwin's reputation was not high-brow enough for some classical music critics. The J-P reporter made reference to that the next day in his review:

It may not be great music to the ears of the critical hierarchy in musical circles, but it is typically American and it is safe to say that the average American gets more genuine pleasure from Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Strike Up the Band,” and “I Got Rhythm” than from the less comprehensible works of the masters. Certainly the audience in Convention Hall expressed as much pleasure in its applause as any gathering of music lovers here has shown toward symphony or classical concerts.
 It would be his only performance in Kansas City. Three and a half years later a brain tumor would take his life.
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It's amazing now to imagine George Gershwin playing here in January 1934 just as what would become KC's golden age of jazz was blossoming. His "set list" that afternoon included "Concerto in F," "Rhapsody in Blue," the variations, and a medley of his popular show tunes, including "Lady Be Good," "Fascinating Rhythm," and "The Man I Love." 

It's possible the Moten-Lee combined orchestra at the Harlem Club might have riffed on one or more of those. But there would have been no "Summertime" or "It Ain't Necessarily So" because Gershwin was just then composing Porgy and Bess, the opera that would contain those tunes. Nor were there other Gershwin standards today heard in jazz clubs worldwide – "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off" for instance, or "They Can't Take That Away From Me" or "Nice Work If You Can Get It" – which were written later for 1930s Hollywood movies.

During his American road tour Gershwin was quoted as saying "highbrows have no right to turn up their noses at jazz."

"After all," he said, " "jazz is the only really American music. "It couldn't have been written anywhere else."

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