Monday, May 27, 2013

The Pla-Mor

It was torn down in 1972.

Before that, it was a rock concert hall. The Who performed there.

Before that, it was the seventh largest bowling alley in America.

But before that it was the Pla-Mor Ballroom, opened on Thanksgiving, 1927 to over 4000 patrons. The Kansas City Times raved:

“Entrance was under a brilliant electric sign. Once past the door, wall decorations of freehand painting attracted attention. Rich carpet gave an impression of luxuriousness. Up a flight of steps and down a hall past the women’s cloak room the eye followed vivid hunting and jungle scenes of the modern motif. Velour tapestries were admired particularly by the women. In the two women’s rest rooms imported Italian furniture was another feature. The ball room and mezzanine were decorated in a more strictly patterned manner. Here the lighting brilliance demanded the first and lasting attention. Ceiling fixtures of beaded glass chains suspended bowl-shaped, with variable colors glowing through them, vied with tinted lamps casting full and toned colors across the floor from the walls.”

The Pla-Mor Ballroom, 3142 Main, 1930s
On the northwest corner of Linwood and Main (3142 Main Street was the official address), the Pla-Mor complex claimed to be the country’s largest indoor amusement center, with a bowling alley, a restaurant, and a hockey arena, home to the Kansas City Pla-Mors of the American Hockey Association from 1928 through 1933. But the star attraction was the ballroom, which boasted a 14,000 square foot dance floor on top of 7000 springs that could flex up to a quarter inch, accommodating 3000 people.

It was the Pla-Mor that brought Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy to Kansas City. Kirk, in his autobiography, Twenty Years on Wheels, recounted:

“George [E. Lee] and the band stopped in Tulsa to see us….

“Later that evening George said to me, ‘By the way, Cab Calloway is breaking it up at El Torreon Ballroom in Kansas City. That’s the Pla-Mor’s rival.’ At that point, those ballroom names meant nothing to me, so I just said, ‘Oh,’ and he went on, ‘The Pla-Mor’s manager, Bennett Stydham, is looking for an out-of-town band to give Cab some competition. He doesn’t want us. He wants new faces. Why don’t you give him a call? No, better still, I’ll call him myself.’

“The next night Stydham drove the 360-odd miles from Kansas City to Tulsa to hear us. In a day or two, we had our contract. Thanks to George E. Lee, the Pla-Mor was about to have new faces. We didn’t even know what a plum we’d picked off the 1929 Boom Tree when we rolled into Kansas City that hot June day, the first out-of-town colored band to play the Pla-Mor. We were replacing Chick Scoggins, the Play-Mor’s White house band….

“We went into the Pla-Mor…that first night excited, a little nervous, but ready to give Cab at the El Torreon a real battle. There was just one hitch. We got the news that Cab had already left. We were alone on the battlefield. We went into our theme, You Can Take It From Me, with feeling.

“Stydham came up on the stand and introduced us to the dancers: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy. We brought them in from Oklahoma where everybody loves them. We know you’ll love them, too. Let’s welcome Andy Kirk and the band!’ They did. And every Cloud’s face that I could see from behind my sousaphone had a big grin….

“Only Whites could come to dance and attend sports events at the Pla-Mor, which was a regular entertainment complex with an arena for hockey besides the ballroom. The Clouds always got passes to the hockey games. We were the only Blacks in the audience, of course, and we got plenty of stares and looks until word was passed around that it was OK. we were the band. Then everybody forgot all about us and watched the game….

“For cooling the ballroom in those pre-air-conditioning days we had to depend on fans. They were the ceiling type with those great big blades that looked like airplane propellers….

“For the first time we could all belong to the same local musicians’ union. Up till this time we had all belonged to various segregated locals. But we resigned from them and joined local 627, the Kansas City black local. We became officially known as a Kansas City orchestra….

Inside the Pla-Mor Ballroom
“There were good music kicks right at the Pla-Mor, when bands like McKinney’s Cotton Pickers or Fletcher Henderson shared the stand with us…. At the Pla-Mor Fletcher Henderson was the band that really opened our ears. When they came in to guest for a night, the Clouds of Joy stood around the bandstand just like the customers, soaking up the sound….”

The Pla-Mor drew unwanted attention to Kansas City when, on Christmas weekend of 1945, the segregated ballroom threw out Cab Calloway, visiting to see Lionel Hampton’s band on Hampton’s invitation, because he was Black. Calloway was struck with the butt of a gun, requiring eight stitches in his scalp. Hampton, hearing about the incident, refused to play his second set and the Pla-Mor refunded angry dancers who paid $1.50 a ticket. The complete story is recounted in a Kansas City Star article here.

Post World War II moves to the suburbs by patrons precipitated the Pla-Mor’s decline. It closed in 1957 then was reborn as one of the country’s largest bowling alleys. That closed in 1966. From 1970 to 1972 it reopened as Freedom Palace, a rock concert hall. That operation moved to Cowtown Ballroom, which was a rock hall converion of the El Torreon ballroom at 31st and Gillham (still standing), the Pla-Mor’s one time arch-competitor. The Pla-Mor was demolished on March 31, 1972.

Today, the site is a car lot for Conklin Fangman Cadillac GMC Buick.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Images of Vine

This tour starts at Nineteenth and Vine.

This is the Roberts Building, at the northwest corner, in 1929. The white building at the right of the photo, on Vine Street, was the first auto dealership in America owned by a black man. A December 23, 1929 article in one of this city’s black newspapers (in 1929, Kansas City was home to the Call and the American) reported:

“That a negro business man has bought outright a substantial building on a 70-foot frontage at 1826-30 Vine street for a location for his company was considered an event of major importance in the business district in that vicinity and along nearby Eighteenth street. Homer Roberts of the Roberts Company, a motor car agency selling only to negroes, has done this. He bought last week a 2-story building from John T. Sears for $70,0000.

“The structure was erected last spring for occupancy of the Roberts Company. A 10-year lease written then included a purchase option, which was exercised last week. The lease called for an annual net rental of $3600.

“The Roberts Company handles about ten lines of cars, this being permitted by manufacturers because the selling field is limited to negroes. Fifty-four workers, all negroes, are employed by the company….

“The purchase of the business property is to have a holiday aspect. The deed will be given the buyer on Christmas eve.”

Ads promoted an Oldsmobile Six Coach for $1075 (“With its Fisher body, Dueo finish and Balloon tires it looks the part of a winner”), or a Rickenbacker for $1595 (“Speed! The fastest train between New York and St. Louis takes twenty three hours eleven minutes. Cannon Ball Baker drove a Six cylinder Rickenbacker in seventeen hours, thirteen minutes”).

Homer Roberts died in Chicago in 1952.

Today both buildings still stand, boarded in plywood painted red.

Next to the onetime auto dealership, at 1822-24 Vine, stands the facade of the second most historic jazz structure in Kansas City, the Eblon Theater, later the Cherry Blossom nightclub. I wrote about it here.

The night Kansas City saxophonists took down Coleman Hawkins in an infamous jam session at the Cherry Blossom began when Hawkins walked across the street for his horn, to the hotel where he and Fletcher Henderson’s visiting orchestra were staying, and where visiting bands commonly stayed, the Booker T.

This is the Booker T Hotel, at 1821 Vine, in 1936.

This is the site of the Booker T today, a parking lot. The building at the left of the 1936 photo still stands.

Cross back to the west side of Vine. Two houses stood next to the Eblon / Cherry Blossom. From 1940, here is the house at 1818 Vine.

Today, an empty lot sits next to the Cherry Blossom facade. The building at 1816 Vine still stands. The DeLuxe sign on it is a remnant of when this block served as a backdrop for Robert Altman’s film, Kansas City.

An all-black fire company, founded in 1890, was stationed at Engine House No. 11. Here it is, at 1812 Vine, in the 1920s. This company rescued victims of Kansas City floods in 1903 and 1909, and helped fight the 1900 fire that claimed Kansas City’s convention hall. In 1931 the company moved to a larger facility at 20th and Vine. This building reopened as a service station in 1935.

Today, the site is a gravel lot.

At the northwest corner of Eighteenth and Vine stood Fox’s Tavern, in this undated photo.

Today you’ll find a parking lot there. And a sign welcoming you to the 18th and Vine Historic District.

Monday, May 13, 2013

It Continues

One night the owner was drunk or high, I’m not sure which, and talking obnoxiously loud right in the middle of the room, at a table up front, near the stage. The speakers dangling from the ceiling in there were never all that great. Sitting at the bar, I couldn’t enjoy the singer or the band. Dismayed, I left.

Some weekends, that was the late night experience at Jardine’s. Nevertheless, I would often make a point of being there the Saturdays that Shay Estes and Trio ALL took the stage around 10:30, maybe 11, and played until 1:30 a.m., maybe 2.

This was some four years ago and I was rediscovering Kansas City jazz. An extraordinary group of young musicians was storming the scene, more jazz talent than this city had seen since Karrin and Kevin left nearly a decade before. Something special was building here and I wanted to know it.

Friends told me I needed to hear them: A new generation performing jazz in Kansas City. Some graduated from Bobby Watson’s program at UMKC. Some grew up here with the music. Some moved to Kansas City from elsewhere. And they were stretching jazz’s ties into other music they knew, into hip-hop and Michael Jackson and Brazilian music and American Independent music. Here was a generation growing, and broadening, Kansas City’s culture of jazz.

That was four years ago.

And the growing hasn’t stopped.


Friends told me I needed to hear them.

It’s been some time since I’ve been to The Phoenix for music. I don’t work all that far from there, and I’ve stopped by for lunch. But since their music offerings switched to predominantly blues, The Phoenix doesn’t often come to mind when I think where to head for jazz.

Yet, the fact is that for three years now, Everett DeVan’s trio has hosted a jazz jam there every Tuesday night. And at least this past Tuesday, it drew a full house.

Two young vocalists are jamming with Everett’s trio these Tuesdays: Kelley Gant and Dionne Jereau. Both sing standards with a personable and vivacious presence. Last Tuesday, Dionne also branched into jazz-infused pop.

Here’s a pair of excellent voices, with personalities to capture the crowd. Here’s two young singers early in their careers ready to be heard even more. I don’t know where else they perform. But here’s two ladies who should be booking their ensembles into more of this city’s jazz clubs and building their audience.

Because these are two talented jazz vocalists in a city full of jazz mentors. Everett has always been one of the best.


A friend told me I needed to hear her.

I wasn’t familiar with Allie Burik. I didn’t know her name, But last Friday night at Take Five, this bundle of raw saxophone and vocal talent took the stage backed Clint Ashlock on trumpet, T.J. Martley on keyboards, Karl McComas-Reichl on bass and Sam Wisman on drums.

And at the end of the first set, Kerry Strayer’s baritone sax drove the night into something special.

Kerry pushed Allie to jointly swing a riff with him behind Clint’s trumpet solo. Riffing didn’t occur to her. That will come with experience.

And her sax solo bent and grew just that much better when Kerry and Clint riffed behind her and inspired her to propel it further.

Word is that Allie is headed to Berkley for college in the fall. But with Kansas City mentors like Clint and Kerry, Friday provided a glimpse at a future star saxophonist sent off with the right start.


It’s fun to watch. Young jazz talent continues to introduce itself to Kansas City. Those musicians I started discovering four years ago are mostly still here. Some test new directions. Shay will be spending June in Portugal with the Portuguese ensemble Fado Novato.

But new talent stands ready to sparkle. Outstanding musicians looking to perform with other outstanding musicians, and educators and mentors and a culture of jazz reside here, ready to help.

I remember a guitarist, many years ago, excitedly recalling something – I no longer recall specifically what – taught to him on the guitar by Claude “Fiddler” Williams. After learning it, “Fiddler” told him, “I also taught that to Barney Kessel.”

Knowledge is transferred. One generation passes on the jazz they know to the next.

And, excitingly, new generations keep coming.

Monday, May 6, 2013

This 'n That 'n History

Saxophonist Ben Webster was born in Kansas City in 1909. He performed here with Bennie Moten’s and Andy Kirk’s orchestras and recorded with both. But he first gained international recognition after moving East, as lead tenor in what was arguably Duke Ellington’s greatest orchestra in the early 1940s.

At least one member of that early ’40s Ellington band is still alive. And living in Wichita, Kansas.

Perhaps this is common knowledge, but I didn’t know. Herb Jeffries, singer with the Duke Ellington Orchestra from 1940 through 1942, and the voice on Billy Strayhorn’s composition, Flamingo, an Ellington hit which sold over 50 million copies, resides today in Wichita. This year, Jeffries turns 100 years old.

I discovered this fact on a radio report from the BBC, which sought Jeffries out to discuss his subsequent roles as a singing cowboy in black Western films. You can hear the story on the podcast of the program, From Our Own Correspondent, here. Scroll to 22:55.

(My favorite line from that BBC story: “Today, he’s largely forgotten but he’s not dead. He’s just moved to Kansas.”)


Jazz grew in Kansas City in the late 1920s and early 1930s through a culmination of circumstances.

TOBA (Theater Owners Booking Association), the Black vaudeville circuit, started in the East and traveled as far West as Kansas City where it reorganized before heading back. Sometimes, performers found themselves stranded here in that reorganization. For instance, a piano player named Bill Basie.

The best known reason for jazz’s development here is that this wide open, gangster-run city of sin provided more opportunities for musicians to find work during the Great Depression, attracting the best from throughout the Mid- and Southwest.

Another accepted reason was the music program of Major N. Clark Smith at Lincoln High School. Regarded as a stern disciplinarian, Smith’s students graduated from his classes knowing music.

Saxophonist Bill Saunders, in the book Goin’ to Kansas City, recalled: “One day Major Smith told the class that music was melody, harmony and rhythm. Being a kid, I paid no attention. The next week, the first thing he said [was], ‘Saunders, stand up here and tell me what music is…. You don’t know, do you?’ He had a ruler and he said, ‘Put your head on the table. Music is melody’ BOOM! ‘Harmony.’ BOOM! ‘Rhythm.’ BOOM! ‘Now go home and tell your Mammy I hit you.’ But I know what music is.”

Among Smith’s other students was Walter Page, legendary bassist for the orchestra Count Basie brought out of Kansas City. Page remembered in a 1958 interview: 

“Major N. Clark Smith was my teacher in high school. He taught almost everybody in Kansas City. He was a chubby little cat, bald, one of the old military men. He wore glasses on his nose and came from Cuba around 1912 or 1914. He knew all the instruments and couldn’t play anything himself, but he could teach…. One day he was looking for a bass player and no one was around, so he looked at me, and said, “Pagey, get the bass.’ I said, ‘But….’ and he repeated, ‘Get the bass.’ That’s when I got started.”

I note all this after stumbling across this photo online. From The Lincolnian, here is the 1917 Lincoln High School Cadet Band and Orchestra. At the left, holding the bass, is 17 year old Walter Page. Standing centered in the back is Major N. Clark Smith.


From the Kansas City Call of September 14, 1928:

“Local No. 627 of the American Federation of Musicians has 300 members in this city. Last year there were only 87….

“And why? Simply, it would seem, because under the leadership of its new president, William Shaw, well known here in musical circles, the Musicians Protective Union is doing more than giving itself the name – now it is living up to the name, and its members are profiting thereby as they have never profited in Kansas City….”

In this photo, from the 1940s, respected longtime Local No. 627 president William Shaw stands behind the table, facing the camera, reaching for the gavel. It was taken on the top floor of the union’s headquarters, in the building known today as the Mutual Musicians Foundation.

Here’s that building in a photo from the 1930s.

As pictured in the last full post, today this building might host an opera singer or, every weekend, jam sessions which span the night.