Saturday, October 28, 2017

Prohibition project: Katz drugstore No. 7

The former store at 100 West Twelfth street.
This is the final post in a series on the Prohibition era in Kansas City, 1920 to 1933, 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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When the Hotel Phillips opened in 1931 it brought streamlined chic to the hotel district with its polished black-glass ceilings, walnut paneling and bronze Goddess of Dawn by sculptor Jorgen Dreyer. The people who run the Phillips today call it “an iconic hotel with an illustrious past.” In the early 1930s it was “Just a Step from Everything,” with radio, circulating ice water, electric fans and more. Where today the hotel’s restaurant presents “Farm to Table Authentic Italian Dining” at the corner of Twelfth and Baltimore, the Katz drugstore No. 7 once dispensed aspirin, prescription liquor, and an illegal chance to test your luck.

In September 1932, someone telephoned the Jackson County prosecutor to remind him of his campaign promise to make arrests whenever he found slot machines in operation. Well, the caller said, there were slot machines at Katz drugstore No. 7.

Slots had been in Kansas City since well before the beginning of Prohibition, and were outlawed by state law and city ordinance as gambling devices. Over years and many raids, hundreds were confiscated and destroyed. Yet in 1932 an estimated two thousand of them remained in drugstores, pool halls, restaurants, and speakeasies throughout the city. They were the tabletop type, accepting pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters, and paying off – or not – in coins, mints or tokens for merchandise. Racketeers controlled distribution, installing the machines, promising police protection or legal aid to proprietors, plus a cut of the take. It was said most machines made at least a hundred dollars weekly.

The prosecutor visited Katz drugstore No. 7, watched a customer play a nickel slot near the cigar counter, found a dime slot under repair on the balcony, and arrested the assistant manager.

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In August 1933 Missouri became the twenty-second state to ratify repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, though repeal would not become official until Utah’s vote in December. Liquor was still outlawed, but 3.2 percent beer had become legal again the previous April. The springtime trickle of new night clubs became a steady flow into fall and winter. Beer was still the advertised libation, but smuggled flasks were surely common.

Early arrivals included the Ritz Supper Club, Vanity Fair, Palms, Club Paradise, and the Harlem Club. The Hey-Hay Club, a joint with hay-bale seating at Fourth and Cherry, and the Coconut Grove, with a Pacific-island theme at Twenty-seventh and Troost, followed, as the Pirate’s Den, the Chesterfield Club, the Grotto – fashioned from an abandoned limestone quarry near Bannister and Holmes – and the Silver Slipper, in a warehouse building where Crown Center is today.

In late October as Prohibition was winding down, the Katz drugstore No. 7 received a pair of famous visitors, George Burns and Gracie Allen. The married comedy couple – radio, stage, and screen stars billed as “nitwits of the networks” – were headlining a weeklong vaudeville revue at the Mainstreet Theater. They were staying across the street at the Hotel Muehlebach.

Clerks and shoppers at the Katz store immediately swarmed the pair. “Gracie wanted to buy only a few articles,” the Journal-Post reported, “but there were so many clerks waiting on her she almost bought out the store.” The pair broke into a sort of impromptu bit of their back-and-forth shtick, about how Gracie always got nervous while shopping. Like back in New York at Macy’s, where she went to buy a rolling pin and attracted a crowd, and thinking everyone would wonder if she was intending to clobber George with it, bought a dining room set instead.

Journal-Post ad, October 28, 1933.

Their regular performance routine at the time included a bit of Prohibition-era commentary:
Gracie: My brother’s a detective.
George: I’ll bet he’s interesting.
Gracie: Just last week he caught a bootlegger selling liquor. What do you think he did?
George: Gave him nine dollars a quart?
Gracie: Yes, and the liquor was bad, too.
During their week at the Mainstreet, Burns and Allen broadcast their weekly radio show from the KMBC studios atop the Pickwick Hotel at Tenth and McGee. Before leaving by train for the coast they also sampled Kansas City's new club scene as guests of honor at the Silver Slipper.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

Prohibition project: Livestock Exchange Building

The building at 1600 Genessee.
Continuing the series on the Prohibition era in Kansas City, 1920 to 1933, 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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In March 1920, when Prohibition was just a few weeks old, the nine-story Kansas City Livestock Exchange Building stood tall above cattle, hogs, sheep, and the little town-within-a-city that catered to the stockman's trade: saddle stores, blacksmith shops, hotels, and several places – a pool room, a cigar store, a tailor's shop, a "soft-drink saloon" – where a cowboy could find a little action.

Early that month Mayor James Cowgill received a letter from the president of the Livestock Exchange, E.W. Houx. "There are at least four gambling houses being conducted in the stockyards district adjacent to the Livestock Exchange Building," said the letter. "Each afternoon and night these gambling joints are creating gamblers amongst our sons and employees, and even the patrons of this market, and when we protest the proprietors of these holes pooh-pooh, and insinuatingly ask what are we going to do about it. We are law-abiding citizens and this is an appeal to you to suppress this nuisance at once."

The letter was a carbon copy of one addressed to the Missouri governor, who was ultimately responsible for the Kansas City Police Department. Missouri law prohibited gambling devices and games, but gambling in all forms flourished. The political system, in the words of the Kansas City Times, “affords police protection for gambling dens and vice in this city.” The Times noted police raids had slowed considerably: “Election day is not far off and the persons operating dives must be kept in ‘good humor’ so their enthusiasm at the polls will not be cooled.” A police commissioner, appointed by the Democratic governor, saw it differently.  “Kansas City never was cleaner, in my knowledge,” he said.

Mayor Cowgill was backed by the Democratic machine. During his administration, from 1918 to 1922, this was “one of the worst vice-infected cities in the United States,” according to one reform group. But Cowgill took the stockyards letter seriously. He was a stockman, himself, owning twenty-one thousand acres along the Arkansas River near Garden City, Kansas, on which he raised cattle. “Gambling in that district will have to stop," he said. "And if there is any way I can stop it I will.”

Mayor James Cowgill
The Kansas City Post reported police reaction to the complaints. "Policemen who have worked in the stockyards district say that there is more gambling among the stockmen and their employees than any other group of men in the city," the Post said.
They say that most of this gambling takes place on stockyards property, where the gamblers are more or less immune from arrest. Saturday is payday at the yards and business stops at noon. From then on until dark, gambling goes on all over the yards and throughout the stock exchange, it is said. Crap games are in progress at various points throughout the stock pens and barns and the offices and halls of the exchange building. It is difficult for the police to search out these games in the maze of privately operated pens and behind locked doors in the exchange building.
The four gambling dens shut down, temporarily. 

Two years later a new exchange president asked police to clean up booze dives in West Bottoms. Raids followed. The market for illegal liquor, one police commissioner noted, included prominent citizens. “Many of our best people buy the stuff," he said, "hence the bootlegging business flourishes despite our efforts to check it.”

That same year religious leaders criticized Cowgill for lack of support in helping police rid the city of prostitution. The mayor called a meeting of concerned citizens groups, city officials, and police. Engaged in a heated argument, Cowgill fell back in his chair, dead of a cerebral hemorrhage.

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