Thursday, April 20, 2017

Prohibition project: the Pompeii Cafe

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

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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.

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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.


Friday, March 17, 2017

Prohibition project: Conradt's soft-drink parlor

The vacant building at 1519 Main, now in the path of imminent redevelopment, once housed Charles Conradt's speakeasy.

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Last month marked the start of a new continuous 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.

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Conradt's soft drinks – Speakeasy at 1519 Main. The son of German immigrants, Charles Conradt ran a series of "soft-drink" saloons in the vicinity of Sixteenth and Main during Prohibition. In 1921, when his place was at 2 W. Sixteenth, he employed a man to work the street for thirsty customers. One day a pair of such customers drank two rounds of whiskey and then revealed themselves to be plain-clothes cops. Conradt went free when his bartender took the blame for serving them. His joint had moved to 1519 Main by 1929, when one day two policemen in uniform walked in. “There were about fourteen men in the place,” one cop later told a reporter. “The Negro porter dumped the whiskey.” The cop admitted he swore at the patrons as he lined them up for the ride to headquarters. One man approached with a business card from a law firm and suggested the policeman could lose his job. “I told him to get over in line with the other ‘big shots,’” the cop told the reporter. “Conradt’s place long has been a bootleg place. Conradt has made boasts that he had ‘big shots’ behind him.” The man with the business card turned out to be a former assistant prosecutor. “Other officers told me that it would be better for me not to raid the place,” said the cop a month later, after his discharge from the force. Today, 1519 Main is vacant and reported to be doomed to demolition and redevelopment.


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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 fa├žade was used in Robert Altman’s film Kansas City.


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