Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Sign of the times

The old Third Presbyterian Church, 3027 Walnut.

A slightly different version of this post appeared in September 2010, weeks before the first midterm election of President Obama’s administration. Because it describes feelings that have resurfaced during this 2016 presidential election campaign, it’s time to revisit and remember …

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The other day I let the rhetoric of fear and ignorance get under my skin. Demagogues appear to be making a comeback lately, this being an election year, and their prominence in the news irritated and depressed me.
I needed reassurance – some reminder that, no matter how loud the fearful and ignorant yell, some people refuse to hear them.

I found it on Walnut Street, just off 31st street, in September 1924.

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Billboards were controversial in 1924, many having sprouted around Kansas City without permits, some uncomfortably close to residential neighborhoods. But instead of gasoline or cigarettes or candy bars, the new billboard near 31st and Walnut advertised the Third Presbyterian Church next door.

Third Presbyterian had been around since 1870, first in the West Bottoms, since 1898 in this building at 3027 Walnut. Reverend J. Raymond Sorenson didn't necessarily use his pulpit for political causes – his sermon for Sunday, September 21, 1924 was titled "Be Still, and Know That I Am God" – but the billboard was a new way to speak beyond the church walls.

It had been erected that week, coinciding with the arrival in town of thousands of conventioneers.

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The conventioneers left Union Station for the lobbies of downtown hotels, greeting one another in low voices. At Convention Hall they approached burly sentries, whispered passwords and flashed membership cards. Some wore buttons picturing a burning cross.

Publicity men fed sanctioned "news" of the four-day convention to reporters. There would be "devotional exercises" – including prayer and the singing of "Onward, Christian Soldiers"– committee reports, and speakers identified only as a "National Statesman" or a "Prominent Citizen." There would be thousands of delegates, said the publicity men, but no parade.

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Over in Kansas that week the editor of the Emporia Gazette, William Allen White, announced his independent candidacy for governor. His primary motivation was the political involvement of a particular organization, the same one holding its convention in Kansas City.

"It represents a small minority of the citizenship and it is organized for purposes of terror," White said. "Its terror is directed at honest, law-abiding citizens, negroes, Jews and Catholics."

At his first rally, outside a small-town courthouse, White declared that Kansas – that is, the Kansas he knew  – "did not examine a man's skin under a microscope, his birth certificate or his religious beliefs before calling him an American."

In the darkness beyond the fringes of the crowd, someone put a torch to a 7-foot cross and ran into the night.

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At Convention Hall an official photographer sold official photographs: Many smaller American flags hanging near one huge one, flanked by banners depicting fire-breathing dragons, portraits of Washington, Jefferson and Coolidge; delegates on the floor holding placards from their states; a row of figures on stage, dressed in hooded white robes.

Publicity men distributed the text of a speech given by a former dentist from Texas. Delegates knew him as their Imperial Wizard. The Wizard addressed his delegates as "the salt of the earth" and said the future of civilization depended on them.

"History has proved and is proving daily that a high level of average intelligence never has been reached except by Nordic and Anglo-Saxon peoples," he told them. "The blood which produces human leadership must be protected from inferior blood."

He described the enemy as "systems and instincts and principles which run counter to Anglo-Saxon instinct, Americanism and Protestant Christianity.”

"Our watch-cry,” he said, “is 'Back to the Constitution.'"

Then the Wizard offered his assurance: "The Lord has guided us and shaped the events in which we rejoice. He has held us under His protection."

"Millions of Americans are in arduous quest of leadership toward better government, adequate law enforcement, the elevation of society and a more perfect national patriotism," said the Wizard.

"The Klan alone supplies that."

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In the 1924 election William Allen White finished third in a three-man governor's race. The Republican winner had been backed by the Ku Klux Klan.

And although the Klan's membership and influence faded in the Depression-era 1930s, its ideas and emotions have never completely disappeared.

Today the old Third Presbyterian Church building on Walnut is home to Chapter 317 of the Vietnam Veterans of America. But this year – and approaching this 2016 election – it's worth remembering the church of 1924, and its billboard message to the visiting coventioneers:

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Postmark: August 21, 1957

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Overnight rains have delivered a lovely morning in downtown Kansas City.  It's a comfortable 80 degrees at 11:30.

The headlines are about Jimmy Hoffa, teamster boss, testifying before a Senate committee on racketeering, and about a new Western Electric manufacturing plant planned for Lee's Summit, and about rain and wind disrupting last night's performance of "Damn Yankees" at Starlight. 

Today is the final day of the 33rd annual Toy and Gift Show, thousands of midwestern retail buyers filing through the Exhibition Hall of Municipal Auditorium, placing orders for the coming gift-giving season: handmade puppets from Germany, dolls from China, jewelry from Thailand, music boxes from many countries. Remote-controlled knights on horseback, hi-fi sets built to look like Edison's gramophone, new novelties like a Christmas tree of green plastic that breaks down for storage in a small box.

But it's tough to imagine December in August, and out-of-towners might be thinking ahead to the possibilities for one last evening in Kansas City. 

There's "Damn Yankees," of course, but there's also the real thing out at the ballpark: the real Berra-Mantle Yankees against the Zernial-Cerv A's in game two of a three-game series. (KC shut 'em out last night.) Both options mean finding a ride to Swope Park or Municipal Stadium. And this town is still getting used to having no streetcars, gone now two months.

No need for rides if you're staying downtown, the pedestrian's delight. The premiere of the wide-screen Cinerama production of "Seven Wonders of the World" at the Missouri Theater, 14th and Main, is sold out (former President and Mrs. Harry Truman have their tickets). But the Paramount, two blocks north at 12th street, has Elvis Presley in "Loving You." And on stage at the Folly Theater is Lily Shawn, Fiery Flame of Burlesk. And Eddy's supper club, 13th and Baltimore, has Tony DiPardo's Orchestra backing up the Hilltoppers, four twenty-something males who apparently have many teen fans here, according to a story in this morning's Times.

"You take girls who will cry, or come pretty close to it, when they hear a real nice ballad and that's the kind who will join a Hilltoppers fan club," says one member. "There's nobody in these clubs has any use for Elvis," says another. "Only one girl even likes Pat Boone and she only likes him a little bit."

Someone weary of night life might prefer a quiet dinner in the hotel followed by an evening in front of the radio (Edward R. Murrow, Amos 'n' Andy, Top 40 or Country Swing) or the television (Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, I've Got A Secret).

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. First, a few words to the folks back in Kinderhook, Illinois, on a postcard of the Hotel President ("Close to shopping district, theatres and one block from Municipal Auditorium") ...

Hi –
  Am spending my other 3 days vacation
here. Came down with Jean Collier 
to the gift show.
  Will hate to go back to work. 
The weather is wonderful.

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Monday, July 18, 2016

Ephemeral city: Drive-in theater matchbook

A version of this post first appeared in July 2009.

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This matchbook, with five red-tipped matches, is a relic of the Crest Drive-In Theatre in south Kansas City, featuring an illustration of a stylized Buick of the late 1940s. At the Crest’s debut, in July 1948, newspaper ads proclaimed:

Gala opening tonight, 7 p.m. Something new under the moon. The Crest, a drive-in theatre with the tops in entertainment.

The birth of a single flickering star in the expanding universe of 1948 American drive-in theaters …

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Announcing the Opening of the 1948 Season of the Marion Drive-In Theatre. The Merrimack Park Drive-In theatre will open for its eighth season tomorrow. The Motor-Vu ... Motor-In ... El Cerrito Motor Movies ... The Alamo ... The Elmwood ... Grand Opening Lakewood Drive-In Theatre. Come Early and Enjoy a Gala Evening.

On 71 Highway at 114th. On State Road 17, one mile north of city limits. On U.S. Highway 91. Route 20. Route 76. Route 50, 7 miles west. Near railroad bridge. Over top of College Hill. One mile west of the new General Motors plant.

A 10-acre project. Comprises 15 acres. A 20-acre site. Built on 32 acres. A 350-car capacity Capacity 500 cars. Will hold 700 cars. Room for 880 automobiles. Will accommodate 900 cars.

The Drive-In with the Giant Steel Picture Tower. A huge picture 50 feet wide and 40 feet high. A screen 71 feet tall and 81 feet across. A screen tower over 70 feet high, the equivalent of a six-story building. The world's largest screen and also the safest! Anchored in tons of concrete, and built with tons of steel! Tilted, to provide undistorted sight lines. Perfect visibility from any part of the theatre! Brilliant projection. Finest Quality Sound. Individual speakers for every car. Adjust your own volume!

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The Lima ... The Riverdale ... The Van Nuys ... The Berkshire ... The Roselawn Auto Theatre ... The Ace ... Cactus ... Organ. ... Gala Opening Tonight! The New! Modern! Baseline Drive-In Theater.

Two ticket booths, canopies, a projection booth and canteen building in the center of the parking area. Outdoor seats for people living close who wish to walk to the theatre. The true beauty of the theatre won't be fully realized until the newly planted shrubs and grass spring up in all their natural green splendor. You'll thrill at the sight. You'll gasp at the immense capacity. Wonderful. Superb. Words can't adequately describe the beauty.

Rest Rooms. Playground for the Kiddies – let the kids have fun! Refreshment Stand Centrally Located. Finest Refreshments! For the pause that refreshes, soft drinks, ice cream, popcorn, hot dogs, cigarettes, candy and other confections are available. Can also be purchased at no advance in prices from the Butcher Boys who come to your car. Baby Bottles Warmed at the Snack Bar. Serving Iowa Farm Meat Products. Have You Tried Our Hamburgers? They're Super-Duper!

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The Super 71 ... Super Castle ... Valley ... Mountain-Air ... Mount Ogden ... Starlite ... Tri-State ... Hi-Land ... Midway ... White-Way ... Skyway ... Skyline Auto Theatre. Grand Opening Tonight. The new, modern Sky-Hi Drive-In Theatre.

Here the family can come as a group in one car, and with no parking worries can enjoy their favorite entertainment. A low admission policy of 25 cents for adults, children under 12 free. Admission for adults will be 50 cents. Children under 6 will be admitted free while children between 6 and 12 will be charged only 9 cents. Costs Less Than A Baby Sitter. Two shows nightly, rain or clear. Midnite show every Saturday night. Wholesome movies and adequate lighting discourage open romancing and if that is still insufficient there is a uniformed policeman and 10 ushers whose duties keep them moving through the ramps of cars.

Adventure – excitement – spectacle – the story of the old Chisolm Trail. Howl-arious Laugh Hit of the year to be enjoyed by the entire family! There's Music, Love and Laughter when Betty goes low-down, Barry goes high-hat, and Don goes batty over Betty! The picture with a heart as big as all outdoors. They're through with the Army but the Army isn't through with them! The funniest picture since the laugh was invented. Thrilling Saga of the Old West. The dramatic story of a killer and a girl who taught him to love! Please Don't Tell Anyone What She Did! A Picture for the Whole Family! For a woman like Gina – even a life wasn't too much to give. Hit With 1000 Kisses, and A Laugh for Every One. They're screwy as a nut and bolt factory! See fiery action, adventure, spectacle, romance, two-fisted renegades. Also two cartoons, plus news shorts.

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Free! Giant fireworks display 10 p.m. Free! Key cases to adults. Balloons for the children! Tuesday nite someone will get a Philco 1001 television set or a Philco home freezer. Big bargain night – $1 carload. As Many As a Car Will Hold. Individual In-Car Speakers enable you to close your windows for Cozy Comfort and Privacy.

Smoke, talk and enjoy refreshments while viewing your favorite movie from the secluded comfort of your car. No parking worries. Enjoy the cool of the evening and the beautiful sunset. Just hop in your car dressed as you are and drive on out. See a feature picture sitting in the comfort of your own automobile. Smoke if you like. Dress as you please! There are no "dress-up" problems. Complete privacy – your neighbors won't bother you! No Parking Worries! Just drive in!

Come as you are! Don't worry about your clothes! Smoke when you like! Bring out that shut-in!

Just drive in! You'll love it! 

Always the Best at the Crest.

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