Fads, Feats & Trivial Pursuits
"We were in the twenties a disaster-haunted society. We busied ourselves putting up the only show possible against doom, which is to seize all the fun there is."
A Child of the Century
Americans awoke from the nightmare that was World War I feeling both numb and exhilarated. Never before had mind and machine teamed for such awesome potential-or such wrenching destruction. Though Americans watched the world stage with dread and uncertainty, at home they saw old taboos fade, the entertainment industry thrive, cars and radios multiply, and workers benefit, as paid vacations, higher wages, and reduced hours became commonplace. For the first time-with more money and free time-leisure's bad reputation faded, as did some of America's Victorian and Puritanical pretenses. Instead, the country turned to wild contests, daring fashions, foolhardy stunts, and death-defying feats.
The '20s witnessed the proliferation of the automobile, air travel, and a growing fascination with speed and endurance. Neatly coinciding with this was a seemingly daily birth of new gadgets, the death of old values, and an endless parade of firsts, farthests, and fastests, cementing the era's devil-may-care attitude. Kansas City thrilled to its share of daredevils, including these stunt fliers and wing walkers, and the flagpole sitting of champion flagpole sitter Shipwreck Kelly (barely visible here at the right atop the Westgate Hotel at 9th and Main).
From Mah Jongg to the World Series, jazz-age America was crazy for games. Baseball led the way, having shed some of its less-than-genteel reputation. It was after World War I-when The Babe made it a millionaire's sport, radio invited it into living rooms, and ironfisted commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis scrubbed it clean (and kept it segregated)-that baseball became "America's pastime."
As with most American cities, the sandlots of Kansas City buzzed with dozens of amateur and semipro teams - like the one above - sponsored by social clubs, businesses, schools, and churches. The minor-league Blues, based in Kansas City since 1904, were a local favorite, and became a farm team of the Yankees in 1937.
Though Kansas City had hosted professional baseball since the 1880s, it was a team founded in 1920 that put Kansas City on the map. A charter member of the original Negro National Leagues (also launched in Kansas City in 1920), The Kansas City Monarchs (above) were one of the greatest teams in baseball history.
Over four decades the Monarchs consistently outdrew the hometown rival Blues, and fielded some of the best hitters (such as Buck O'Neill and Willard Brown), hardest throwers (Satchel Paige, Hilton Smith, and Connie Johnson), and most exciting players (Bullet Joe Rogan, Newt Allen, and Jose Mendez) who ever took the field.
Following the major leagues' integration in 1947, when former Monarch Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, black baseball's popularity waned. But the Monarchs continued to field exciting teams, and sent more players to the majors-including Elston Howard, Ernie Banks, Satchel Paige, Connie Johnson, and dozens more-than any other team.
Baseball wasn't the only game in town. Kansas City also had the NFL Cowboys (from 1924-1926), the hockey-playing Greyhounds and Pla-Mors, semipro basketball, boxing and wrestling matches, auto races, golf courses, tennis courts, dance competitions, and croquet - along with every game of chance imaginable.
Instead of eliminating drinking, prohibition merely drove it into the shadows. In Kansas City, where liquor laws were flouted long before the Volstead Act, imbibing became yet another jazz-age amusement, with drinking establishments as common as baseball teams. You could choose from grandeur or grit-the elegance of the Pla-Mor for the former, the Chesterfield Club and its waitresses clad only in cellophane aprons for the latter. For a futuristic evening there was the Flying Night Club at the Fairfax Airport, or for humble down-home drinking, there was Milton Morris' Hey-Hay Club, offering beer, whisky, "tea," and tables and chairs fashioned from bales of hay.
From simple city playgrounds to elaborate amusement parks, Kansas Citians flocked to parks in the jazz age. Electric Park (above and left) was originally in the East Bottoms, but relocated to Brush Creek Boulevard and the Paseo in 1907. Known as "Kansas City's Coney Island," Electric Park offered swimming pools, rides, concerts, and elaborate fountains and gardens. Other parks included Carnival Park, Forest Amusement Park, and Fairmount Park. And since even recreation was segregated under Jim Crow, Kansas City's African-American community had Lincoln Electric Park at 20th and Woodland.
But Kansas City's premier amusement park was Fairyland Park located at the southern terminus of the Prospect streetcar line at 75th Street. With 80 acres of attractions-including the Skyrocket roller coaster, Crystal Pool, and outdoor dance pavilion-Fairyland, which opened in 1923, was a favorite for decades.
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