Surprisingly, to me, one of the most searched-for terms on this blog is Milton Morris. Embarrassingly, to me, one of the most anemically-written entries on this blog is the one on Milton Morris.
Time to do something about that.
We’ll start at the end.
When Milton Morris died, on November 21, 1983, his family received a telegram which read: “Deepest regrets at the passing of a real true longtime friend. Love, Count Basie.”
Basie told a reporter at the time, “He gave everybody a break when they were down and really needed it. Including Bill Basie.”
Milton's early joints hired then-local names like Basie, Lester Young, Jo Jones, Ben Webster. He said: “Basie got $5 a night and the rest of the band got $3 each. And we knew women with a rooming house who’d give them room and board for $8 a week. So we knew people had a place to eat and sleep. But nobody ate. Nobody slept. There was too much going on.”
Born in 1911 to immigrant parents, the second of six children (five boys, one girl), Milton’s father abandoned the family. His mother, unable to earn enough to support them, placed the boys in an orphanage. As each brother reached his teens, he worked the streets to make a buck where, said Milton’s niece, “They weren’t ever really out-and-out crooks, but at times I guess they were the next thing to it.”
While in those teens, the story goes (I’ve seen variations placing him at 13, 17 or 18 years old), Milton bought a bankrupt drugstore at 26th and Troost and filled Prohibition-era prescriptions for medicinal whiskey at $2 a bottle. Another story describes a store-front gambling joint near 27th and Troost which bankrolled his early ventures, perhaps including bootlegging.
While in his early 20s, Prohibition ended and, Milton said, that day he turned the soda taps into beer taps. He owned the Hey-Hay Club at Fourth and Cherry, a converted barn where patrons sat on haystacks. Other nightspots followed, including the Novelty Club at 16th and McGee and Milton’s Tap Room at 35th and Troost. And then the club most of us around today remember, Milton’s Tap Room at 3241 Main Street, where he held forth from 1951 until his death. And where so many of us heard the stories.
Walk in and as your eyes adjusted – the darkest bar in town, Milton called it – you’d usually find a five-and-a-half foot tall man sitting on a bar stool near the door, scotch (Cutty Sark) and water in hand, cigar nearby. Jazz filled the room (after the move to Main Street, his collection of hundreds of albums provided the music). And you listened to stories about the years Tom Pendergast and jazz ruled Kansas City. One article described his speaking style as a hip W.C. Fields. Milton was the sum of his tales, (most of) which (probably) grew from a kernel of truth before (almost certainly) marvelous embellishment.
Like the one about New Year’s eve, 1932, when he paid vice officers $10 each to raid his club at 12:30 and 3:30 a.m., to clear the place out and turn the crowd.
Or about his visit to Harry Truman in the White House in 1948, with Julia Lee and Baby Lovett: “Truman’s got his bar in the White House. They’ve got Secret Service men. They’ve got Danny Kaye, Arthur Godfrey, Julia Lee, Baby Lovett and myself and Truman. And he’s still drinking Pendergast whiskey. So I have a few shots, and I say to myself, ‘Look at this little Jew from an orphan home, standing here with the president of the United States. I wonder what words of wisdom he’s got to say.’ He turns around to me, and he says, “Milt, they still got all those whores down around 14th and Cherry?’”
Or his slogans, such as: “Drive fast, talk back to the cops…and tell ‘em you know me.”
We remember that age wasn’t necessarily an impediment to drinking at Milton’s. Or that occasionally, after a phone call to the bar, Milton’s wife, Shirley, might walk around telling drinkers not quite the right age yet that they needed to leave, and that a short time later police would visit.
We remember that Milton facetiously ran for governor four or five times, on a platform of legalizing casino gambling, horse racing at the downtown airport and 4 a.m. bar closings (we’ve since done some of that; he was right).
We remember a prankster who printed play money that he would leave on the floor and which, in the dark after a few drinks, looked real. Pick it up, stuff it in your pocket, and the next morning you’d pull it out to find a caricature of Milton staring right at you.
We remember that he was one of the only white club owners to campaign for public accommodations laws which mandated integration.
And we remember a genuinely nice man who ran large tabs for his regulars and knew Kansas City at its best.
“ Let me tell you,” Milton said. “You see Vegas today? Paris? They were nothing compared to what it was right here. We were wide open and swinging. It wasn’t just a livable city. It was a swinging city.
“And all the musicians all over the country heard about what was going on here, and they all drifted in here, all the musicians, to challenge our musicians, And when they got here and heard the people we had here, they set their horns down. Because we had the greatest.”
There’s a story with more than a kernel of truth.
The stories and quotes above are from articles which ran in the The Kansas City Star and The Kansas City Times around the time of Milton’s death in 1983, and from a remembrance in the The Kansas City Star’s Sunday Star Magazine in December, 1989. The Star’s web archives currently date back only to 1991. So maybe this adds a smidge to the online record.