Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression

Sports and Entertainment

Articles

Author: 
Marc Rice
Truman State University

When people think of Kansas City jazz in the 1920s and ‘30s, certain images come to mind: political corruption, gangster activity, and music that catered to and benefited from this type of environment. But vice and corruption were not the only elements that made the city a center of innovative music. The black middle and upper classes also supported the music and the musicians, especially at dance halls such as the Paseo Hall. And there were black organizations such as the NAACP, men’s groups like the Elks Lodge, and ladies’ groups like the 12 Charity Girls, who organized formal dances to raise funds for various institutions in the community.

Author: 
Chuck Haddix
University of Missouri – Kansas City

Jazz was born in New Orleans, moved to Chicago in the early 1920s, and came of age in New York and Kansas City during the 1930s and 1940s. Geographically isolated from the other cradles of jazz, Kansas City bred a distinctive hard swinging style of jazz, distinguished by driving rhythm sections and a spirited call and response interplay between the instrumental soloists and the brass and reed sections. As Bennie Moten, George E. Lee, and other African American bandleaders based at 18th and Vine pioneered a new style of jazz, a number of white bands in downtown Kansas City were performing a style of hot jazz modeled after nationally popular white bands. Ironically, while Kansas City would gain renown for its great African American bands that barnstormed across country, it was a white dance band, the Coon-Sanders Nighthawk Orchestra, which first established Kansas City’s national reputation as a jazz center.

Author: 
Stuart Hinds
University of Missouri – Kansas City

During the 1890-1930 heyday of vaudeville, a number of female impersonators enjoyed impressive, successful careers and became household names across the country. Even during 1920s Prohibition, the tradition expanded into nightclubs and cabarets and drew enormous crowds in large cities like New York and Chicago. American entertainment tastes started to become more conservative, repressive oversight of liquor consumption followed Prohibition’s 1933 repeal, and female impersonation almost immediately disappeared from “legitimate” and cabaret stages throughout the United States. But in wide-open Pendergast-era Kansas City, female impersonators remained popular until the late 1930s.

Author: 
Dory DeAngelo

Jane and Goodman Ace were partners in creating laughter. The team started a local daily radio show in 1930 that was so successful that it was picked up CBS and NBC and broadcast across the country. Goodman moved on to become one of the highest paid comedy writers for many of the big name stars of radio and television.

Author: 
David Conrads

For most of his 23-year baseball career, Newt Allen was an integral component of the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the most storied teams in the history of Negro league baseball. A solid hitter and stellar defensive player, Allen was arguably the best second baseman in black baseball during the 1920s and early 1930s.

Author: 
David Conrads

Tom Baird was associated for many years, and in many capacities, with the Kansas City Monarchs—as a booking agent, officer, co-owner and, finally, as sole owner of one of the most successful and innovative teams in the history of the Negro Baseball Leagues. His alliance with J. L. Wilkinson, the team’s founder, lasted almost the entire span of the Negro leagues, from the formation of the first viable league of all-black teams until the demise of black baseball following the integration of the major leagues.

Author: 
Mary Frances Ivey
University of Kansas

Thomas Hart Benton, one of the leaders of the Regionalist movement in American art, was a prolific painter, muralist, draughtsman, and sculptor from childhood until the end of his life in 1975. Today he is best known for his realist depictions of American life, which, in his own time, were perceived as directly opposed to modernist movements cultivated in Europe. His paintings, largely vignettes of daily life and ordinary rural characters, were simultaneously praised for their frankness and criticized for their gritty representations of American culture and history.

Author: 
Dory DeAngelo

According to her father, R. A. Long, Loula Long Combs’ first sentence was, "Please buy me a pony." Breeding and training horses became Loula's life-long passion. She entered her first horse show in 1896 at a fair in Kansas City’s Fairmount Park. For almost 65 years, her horses won blue ribbons in shows throughout this country, Canada, and England. She won the most ribbons at Kansas City’s American Royal, where she made a yearly appearance well into her 80s. To audiences’ delight, Loula always wore a spectacular hat as she drove her carriage around the show ring.

Author: 
Dory DeAngelo

From the mid-1930s until the 1960s, hundreds of Kansas City Catholics saw Dante Cosentino’s paintings of angels and saints each Sunday. Cosentino was an ecclesiastic artist who adorned the interior walls of these churches with his frescos.

Author: 
Dory DeAngelo

Joan Crawford, often called Hollywood’s most durable star, was born Lucille LaSueur to divorced parents in 1908 in San Antonio, Texas. When her mother married Henry Cassin, she was renamed Billie Cassin. Around 1917 her family moved to Kansas City, where Billie attended Scarritt Elementary School before she enrolled in St. Agnes Academy as a work student.

Author: 
Jason Roe
Kansas City Public Library

Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1901, Walter Elias Disney moved with his family to Marceline, Missouri, at the age of five. In 1910 or 1911 (sources differ), the Disney family moved to Kansas City, where Walt helped his father and brother deliver Kansas City Star newspapers at 3:30 a.m. Disney and his friends created "Laugh-O-grams," which were very short silent animation clips that complemented feature films at the Newman Theater in Kansas City, and by 1922 he opened his first animation studio on the second floor of the small McConahy Building on 31st Street.

Author: 
Daniel Coleman
Formerly Missouri Valley Special Collections

Kansas City’s Dubinsky Brothers were talented performers and innovative entrepreneurs. Their story illustrates the changing trends of popular entertainment in 20th century America. Maurice, Edward, and Barney Dubinsky would move from a life of traveling tent shows to the silver screen, building one of the largest theater chains in the Midwest, later AMC Entertainment.

Author: 
David Conrads

One of the top catchers in the Negro baseball leagues, Frank Duncan spent most of his playing career with the Kansas City Monarchs. He was the first-string catcher during the Monarchs' glory years of the 1920s, when the team won three consecutive league championships and beat the Hilldale Club of Philadelphia in the first Negro World Series. He was their playing manager for most of the 1940s, when the Monarchs were, once again, one of the premier teams in black baseball.

Author: 
Janice Lee

Rarely has a Kansas City couple made such a mark on the community as Henry and Phoebe Ess. Phoebe Ess channeled her abundant leadership skills and zeal for reform into more than 30 clubs and movements. Those she founded and led included the Kansas City Athenaeum, the Woman's City Club, and the Susan B. Anthony Civic Club

Author: 
Dory DeAngelo
Friz (Isadore) Freleng was born in Kansas City and attended Westport High School, where he drew cartoons for the school's publications from 1919 to 1923. To earn extra money, he worked as a caddy at the Kansas City Country Club. He had a natural talent for cartooning and was completely self taught. While still in high school, he worked for the United Film Service at 24th and Charlotte Streets, along with Walt Disney, U.B. Iwerks, and other local cartoonists.
Author: 
Dory DeAngelo

Jean Harlow captured movie audiences’ hearts from her first major film. Her acting, a combination of sensuousness, vulnerability, and even naiveté made her a star. Although she died in 1937, she remains a legend and a film icon.

Author: 
Dory DeAngelo
Ernest Hemingway said he learned how to write while working as a reporter for The Kansas City Star when he was only 17 years old. Ernest got a job on the paper and was assigned to cover General Hospital, Union Station, and the 15th Street police station, often riding in police cars to the scene of a crime.
Author: 
Daniel Coleman
Formerly Missouri Valley Special Collections

Opal Hill did not take up golf until she was in her early 30s, but she went on to become a golfing legend nationally and one of the greatest names associated with the sport in Kansas City. Her tough, competitive nature during tournament play and her gracious, even-tempered manner off the course combined to make Hill one of the most popular figures in women’s golf in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Author: 
Susan Jezak Ford

John Wesley Jenkins expanded his family music business from a small room rented from a sewing machine and wall paper shop to numerous store locations throughout the Midwest. He began working for his father as a teenager and, upon his death in 1932, was a millionaire.

Author: 
David Conrads

Arguably one of the most overlooked players from the early days of baseball, Johnny Kling, a native of Kansas City, was the game’s premier defensive catcher in the first decade of the 20th century and a key member of the great Chicago Cub teams of 1906 to 1910. Nicknamed “Noisy” for the constant stream of chatter he maintained behind the plate, Kling was admired by teammates and opponents for his ability to defend, handle pitchers and engage in the mental aspects of the game during the “dead-ball era.” Kling returned to Kansas City after his retirement from baseball and pursued a successful career in business, primarily real estate. In 1933 he bought the minor league Kansas City Blues and immediately eliminated segregated seating at Meuhlebach Field, which was also the stadium used by the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.

Author: 
David Conrads

Julia Lee was known for her husky voice, her straightforward piano style, and the easy, but heartfelt way she sang. In a professional singing career that spanned four decades, Lee built a national reputation as one of the great female blues singers of all time.

Author: 
Jason Roe
Kansas City Public Library

By the 1930s, Satchel Paige had acquired a reputation as one of the finest pitchers in the game, white or black. He earned more money than any other black player and even more than many white major league players. Seemingly everywhere he played he attracted record crowds that sparked wider interest in black baseball players and helped the Negro Leagues ball clubs attain financial stability.

Author: 
Daniel Coleman
Formerly Missouri Valley Special Collections

Perry’s lessons in the art of seasoning, smoking, and serving meat to Kansas Citians spawned both the Bryant and Gates barbecue names and led the way for the nearly 100 barbecue restaurants in the city today.

Author: 
David Conrads

Wilber "Bullet Joe" Rogan was one of the best and most versatile players in the history of the Negro Baseball Leagues. Known primarily for his fastball, Rogan had an assortment of effective pitches that made him the ace of the pitching staff of the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1920s.

Author: 
Daniel Coleman
Formerly Missouri Valley Special Collections

Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, Ruth associated with the leading figures of Kansas City’s musical community. Ruth’s involvement with the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra was a family affair: while her husband played cello for the orchestra, she sold subscriptions to its concerts. Ruth Seufert’s sales talent and commitment to the Philharmonic eventually earned her an appointment as the organization’s business manager.

Author: 
David Conrads

Hilton Smith was a mainstay of the Kansas City Monarchs' pitching staff from 1936 until 1948, a time when the Monarchs were one of the dominant teams in the Negro Baseball Leagues. Although he was well known in the baseball world, the quiet, workmanlike Smith was greatly overshadowed by Satchel Paige, his flamboyant teammate, and Smith never got the public acclaim he deserved.

Author: 
Dory DeAngelo

John Cameron Swayze, the first anchorman on network news, got his big break in Kansas City. He had a distinctive voice and won oratorical contests in his Atchison, Kansas, high school. Swayze left the University of Kansas in 1929 to try his luck as an actor on Broadway. The impact of the stock market crash in October 1929 closed many theaters; Swayze decided to move to Kansas City.

Author: 
Dory DeAngelo

Marion Talley was hailed as a musical prodigy at eight years old. Her astounding voice brought her early notoriety. But like many who gained fame at the loss of childhood, the pressure of being in the public eye would later prompt her to live in seclusion. She died in oblivion and her death went unnoticed by the music world.

Author: 
Jason Roe
Kansas City Public Library

Virgil Thomson, composer and music critic, was born on November 25, 1896, in Kansas City, Missouri. Although he would go on to live much of his life in New York and Paris, and brush elbows with world-renowned musicians and intellectuals, Thomson always claimed he drew on the musical inspirations from his childhood in Kansas City.

Author: 
David Conrads

J. L. Wilkinson made his mark on history in three important ways: as the founder and owner of the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the greatest teams in the history of the Negro Baseball Leagues; as a pioneer in the use of lights in baseball; and as the man who gave Jackie Robinson his professional start in the game.

Author: 
Susan Jezak Ford

When it was built, the Municipal Auditorium met the needs for a 20th century city’s functional, multi-use space with the most modern, elegant decor imaginable.  The building combined a variety of public-use interior spaces with technically advanced construction and encased it in a massive jewel of Art Deco design.

Author: 
Janice Lee

William Rockhill Nelson and Mary McAfee Atkins never met, but they shared an important dream: a fine art gallery for Kansas City. Decades after their deaths, the trust funds from their estates combined to create a museum so magnificent that it surely would have pleased them both.

Author: 
Susan Jezak Ford

By 1927, Kansas City had seen its share of extravagantly decorated theaters; effervescent praises overflowed the newspapers of the day upon construction of the Coates Opera House, the Willis Wood Theater, and the Shubert Theater.  But the completion of the Midland Theater in the fall of 1927 topped anything that Kansas City—or the Midwest—had ever seen.

Author: 
Jason Roe
Kansas City Public Library

On the evening of November 24, 1927, the Pla-Mor Ballroom opened at 3142 Main Street to a crowd of 4,100 who reveled at its unprecedented size and modern style.

Author: 
Jason Roe
Kansas City Public Library

In the "golden age" of automobile racing in the 1920s, the best tracks designed for top-end speed were made of wood. The Kansas City Speedway Association accordingly constructed its speedway out of a million feet of lumber 2x4s, set on end and bolted together to form a 1.25-mile oval track. In contrast to traditional materials (primarily brick or dirt), the board tracks of the era allowed for very steep 45-degree banks around the curves to help the cars maintain faster speeds.

Author: 
Donna Francis

The Folly Theater at 12th and Central was built in 1900 as the Standard Theater.  Designed by the prominent Kansas City architect Louis S. Curtiss, it is an important example of turn-of-the-century architecture in the downtown area. 

Author: 
Jason Roe
Kansas City Public Library

On October 6, 1922, the Kansas City Monarchs and the Kansas City Blues baseball teams embarked on a six-game series that would end with the Monarchs being crowned "The New City Champions" by the Kansas City Star.

Author: 
Jason Roe
Kansas City Public Library

On August 17, 1927, a jubilant crowd of 25,000 gathered at the site of the present-day Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport to listen to speeches given by Charles Lindbergh and city officials in order to dedicate Municipal Airport. Several Kansas City leaders, including a previously-skeptical City Manager Henry F. McElroy, had flown in from old Richards Field in Raytown and landed on the soggy turf known as "Peninsula field," just north of downtown Kansas City.

KANSAS CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY | DIGITAL HISTORY
Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict,1855-1865.
The Pendergast Years, Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression.
KC History, Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library.