Gambling, girls and gaudy entertainment
made Kansas City the most delightful fun spot this country has ever seen
by William Pearman
SOUP, sir," the pert red-haired waitress said as she served luncheon to
a staid and immaculately dressed Philadelphia publisher in a plush Kansas
Vol. 3 No. 10, February 1959
The publisher (one of the
most famous names in the business) turned his head to see what the girl
with the pleasant voice looked like. What he saw made him drop his spoon,
knock over his soup and damn near fall out of his chair, for he found himself
staring directly at a very lovely navel. This, in itself, would have hardly
been enough to startle such a worldly man as the publisher, but looking
north from the bare midriff he saw two very large, very firm and very bare
He looked south, suspecting
The red-haired waitress (and
he could tell at a glance she was a real red head) was naked except for
a pair of stylish, high heeled shoes.
The Philadelphian was not
the only one to be startled by the goings on in Kansas City's Chesterfield
club twenty years ago. There, for almost a decade, the soup was sipped
in accompaniment to a striptease, and the noon luncheon for "tired businessmen"
was delicately served by waitresses wearing only satin pumps and occasional
The unclad waitresses created
a ticklish situation for the strippers. Under the circumstances just taking
off their clothes was hardly enough to keep the eyes of the customers off
the subjects nearer at hand. It was essential that they come up with a
great deal more than just a bump and grind. They managed some interesting
derivations and some innovations of their own that stopped just short of
the pony act featured by a rival nightspot.
Then the waitresses, not to
be out done, came back with a trick of their own--they picked up the tips
without using their hands. That is, they did until one day some wise guy
heated a quarter with a match! That hot tip touched off a riot that got
out of hand--even by Chester Field Club standards.
Anyone who tired of seeing
naked women could gamble. There was a "bust out" crap game, with at least
four shills, just inside the door. One day a customer laid a $10 bill on
what he thought was the hat check stand and doubled his money before he
could pick it up.
Columnist Westbrook Pegler
was outraged by K. C.'s indiscreet eating house. He wrote vitriolicly of
the "public restaurant in which the waitresses stripped to their high-heeled
In the 1930s Kansas City had
the reputation of being the wickedest town in the country. Big Tom Pendergast
was firmly entrenched down in City Hall and the joints ran wide open. Corruption
was a festering boil everywhere in the city government and had even spread
to the police department itself.
"There were just a very few
people the police were allowed to arrest," a veteran officer recalls.
The Chesterfield Club was
situated at 320 East Ninth Street in the heart of the tenderloin district.
Three blocks to the South was the Twelfth Street that inspired Euday Bowman
to write his "Twelfth Street Rag". Over on Thirteenth and Fourteenth, hundreds
of prostitutes sat behind smoke-dulled windows giving their negligees suggestive
flicks and tapping endlessly on the glass with a coin to attract potential
The Chesterfield Club, now
portrayed with modesty on the jacket of a Columbia album called "K.C. in
the 30s", was not the only hot night-spot in town. It was just the only
one that happened to offer nude waitresses with the noon meal.
There were other interesting
spots like the Winnie Winkle, The Crawdad Hole, The Spinning Wheel, Dante's
Inferno and the 111 Club. The 111 was nicknamed the "North east Vice School,"
because, there, 50 college boys and girls practiced a flapper era version
of a Roman orgy to amuse the customers.
The Last Chance was a gambling
joint that straddled the state line and drove the police in both states
crazy. The state line ran diagonally across the room, and when the Missouri
police raided the place all the crap tables were shoved over into Kansas
where the players continued the game unmolested while the raiders fumed.
When the Kansas police pulled a raid, the gambling would all be in Missouri.
While much of the entertainment
offered in these establishments was erotic, many top performers did get
their start in Kansas City.
Count Basie played hot music
at the old Reno Club on Twelfth street where the hostesses (B-girls) drank
"catfish cocktails" (water) purchased by customers at 25 cents each. On
the second floor there was a palais de plaisir. There, while couples groped
and struggled in the darkness, the notes of Count Basie's music drifted
up through the thin floor. For $2.00, taking everything into consideration,
it was a most pleasurable ring side seat to a really fine floor show.
The doors to the Reno Club
Count Basie recalls: "When
they opened that club they gave the key and a $5 bill to a cab driver and
told him to 'go as far as that'll take you and throw the key away.'"
"The music was just too much"
said Baby Lovett, veteran Kansas City drummer. "The cats come here from
everywhere just to hear the music. A friend of mine from Denver jumped
into a Model T with some other cats and they drove here They didn't have
any place to stay when they got here and they weren't coming to see anyone
in particular. They just wanted to hear the music.
Over on Twelfth Street, at
the Lone Star Gardens, Pete the bar tender, Joe Turner, liked the music
and began shouting the blues lyrics to assist Pete. Lyrics like:
"I've been to Kansas City,
Girls and everything really
Been to Kansas City
Girls and everything really
See the boys jump and swing
until the broad daylight."
In 1938 Pete and Joe went
to New York for a concert at Carnegie Hall. They never returned to Kansas
City for Twelfth Street culture was in demand elsewhere. Also attracted
by the fine jazz were a great many dope addicts and homosexuals. Some spots
featured lesbian shows.
The colorful night life would
have been much less colorful had it not been for an equally colorful police
department. Some of the top officials consorted with the likes of Pretty
Boy Floyd with the understanding that he play with his machine gun elsewhere--a
promise that was not always kept.
Kansas City police officers
delighted in showing off their town to visiting policemen. Many a mundane
easterner, like sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, was flabbergasted to find that
New York was a hick town compared to Kaycee in those days.
The Kansas City cops always
took their guests, whom they privately called "chumps," to see "Annie,
the Brakeman's Daughter."
"Annie is a real peach of
a girl," they assured their friends. Her father is a brakeman and he's
always out of town so Annie's willing to entertain in her apartment, provided,
well, Annie likes nice things and to get her in the mood, it al ways helps
to bring along some presents--nice presents."
The Kansas City man would
go on to explain Annie's love of sweets, fresh fruits, and vegetables.
The chump would then prepare him self with gifts that he was repeatedly
assured Annie would adore.
The local boy, not to be outdone,
equipped himself with a fluffy lemon meringue or chocolate pie. Then lead
the way to Annie's place.
It appeared that Annie didn't
live too well, in fact her place appeared to be in sort of a flea bag hotel.
But of course times were hard and brakemen weren't making much money either.
"Now just knock on the door
and ask for Annie."
The chump's knock was never
answered by the sensual and ever-willing Annie, but by an angry looking
man armed with a revolver.
"So you're the no good S.O.B.
whose bringing all that fruit up here and sleeping with my daughter," he
would storm. Then the gun would go off and the Kansas City cop would double
up on the stairs as if he were hit. As he went down, the pie would somehow
fly from his grasp and strike the terrified visitor in the face, almost
as if it had been aimed.
"I'm bad hit, don't leave
me," the local officer would gasp, but it seldom slowed the flying feet
of the fleeing visitor. After he had dashed out the door the indignant
brakeman and the "wounded" man would double up with laughter. The brake
men was a fellow officer. Annie didn't live there any more. In fact Annie
had never lived there in the first place. The whole thing was a hoax on
a gullible chump. The brakeman and the officer shared the sucker's gifts
The 111 Club was not a hoax
although the police discounted the possibility of such a place when the
first rumors were heard at the department. One could hardly blame them.
A club where men and women
and couples of women and couples of men performed sex acts before the audience?
Ridiculous. A club where the audience, including 50 college boys and girls,
participated in a wild mass orgy while the show was going on? Impossible.
But unfortunately it wasn't. It was true, and after an outraged mother
took her story to the police they got busy and the doors of the 111 Club
were locked forever.
Over the years the police
had made perfunctory raids on Kansas City's other raucous clubs. In 1933
the raiding squad hit the Chester field Club, arrested the dancers and
the proprietor James Harrison and fifty frequenters.
E. C. Reppert, director of
police at the time, said "risqué dancing" was being done by women
in the place. This, very probably, is the under statement of the first
half of the Twentieth century.
"The women, described by the
management as toe dancers, have been entertaining throughout the noon hour
each working day," the conservative Kansas City Star reported.
Two days later fines totaling
$400 were levied and the noon luncheons continued. One dancer, Gladys Frazier,
was fined $100 on a charge of "operating an indecent dance."
The death knell of the famed
Chesterfield Club, and in rapid order the rest of Kansas City's fantastic
joints, was sounded July 6, 1938 in Jefferson City, 120 miles away. Lloyd
Stark had just been elected governor. He wasted no time proving that he
was no tool of the Pendergast machine. First he fired the machine man who
had been liquor control supervisor and appointed his own man, E. J. McMahon,
who moved in on eight of K.C.'s better known establishments including the
All over, the old machine
was breaking up. The Federal government was getting cross with Boss Tom
about his income taxes, and a citizens group was exposing vote fraud and
putting honest men in the city government for the first time in years.
On April 6, 1939, the final
blow was struck. A permanent injunction was granted, to close the club
as a common nuisance. It alleged that the place "encouraged lewd and lascivious
shows by female entertainers."
Then, as if to emphasize that
the end of the era had come, a fire burned out the front of the old club.
Today, the space is occupied by a restaurant, specializing in 75 cent meals.
The waitresses are sagging, sad-eyed and fully clothed.
By virtue of its strategic
position astride the state line, the Last Chance was able to survive a
The building location was
a nemesis to the law that now seemed hell bent on pouring antiseptic on
an already spotlessly clean town. Even surveyors could not agree on where
the state line dissected the gambling den, although they seemed reasonably
sure that the building was somewhat in Kansas and considerably in Missouri.
The governors of Kansas and
Missouri planned a joint raid but it never materialized. Undaunted, Kansas
authorities began to menace that state's corner of the building with a
bulldozer. It was a wonderful spot for a new street, they decided.
Then in 1950, circumstances,
the law, nature and a bulldozer ganged up on the Last Chance. It all started
at 4 o'clock on the morning of April 6, 1950. A taxi driver on Truman Road
heard water running in the offices of the First District Democratic Club.
He called police who opened the door and looked in. One glance was enough
to convince them that the homicide squad and not a plumber was needed urgently.
For seated in a chair under
a picture of Harry S. Truman, President of the United States, was Charles
Binaggio, a fast-rising figure in Democratic politics. He had been shot
four times. By the door, his clothing stuck fast to the floor by dried
blood, was the body of Charles Gargotta, whose brother, Gus "Skinny" Gargotta
had been a bouncer at the Chesterfield Club.
No one has ever been tried
for the double murder. A popular theory is that Binaggio took money from
the Mafia to reopen Kansas City for gambling, but couldn't deliver the
goods. A Mafia assassin made him pay the penalty for non-delivery. On the
syndicate scale of values that penalty was just.
But whatever the causes, the
deaths ended whatever chance the colorful, lawless, era of the open city
had of returning to Kansas City for years to come. For as the police traced
the movement of Binaggio and Gargotta in the last hours be fore they died,
they discovered that they were last seen alive in the Last Chance.
Less than three hours after
the bodies were discovered a truck backed up to the building that straddled
the state line and when police moved in later that same morning they found
all the gambling equipment gone. The Last Chance was closed. A few months
later a flood that recognized no state lines inundated the building and,
while the backwaters were still at flood stage, a fire swept the area.
Then the state of Kansas pushed
its bulldozers against the rubble and completed its long threatened street.
The Last Chance, the last vestige of the clubs that had given Kansas City
the reputation as the hottest town in the country, had given way. Now if
a visitor has a yen for sinning there is little chance Kansas City will
Twelfth street is now a strip
of tawdry neon-lit falsity. The taverns are old and musty smelling, they
have juke boxes instead of musicians and the jukes blare Elvis Presley
and Teresa Brewer.
All the old clubs are gone
and gone too are the characters like Abe the Goof, Muskogee, Irish Ed Stone
and Jim Kilcullen, gentlemen who would bet you your eyes weren't blue.
There remains a single down-at-the-heels
burlesque house to offer entertainment featuring the feminine form in a
state of semi-undress. The bumps and grinds (an ageless art) are the same
as 20 years ago, but there the resemblance ends. The crowd is as subdued
as a Republican committee meeting in Alabama.
Just before the "red hot"
mid night show the management struts out on the stage and announces: "Now
we're not going to stand for no loud talking or boisterous behavior at
any time during the show. Anyone making any kind of noise will be thrown
out by the police officers (and they are present), charged with disturbing
the peace, and fined $50."
He may be bluffing, but nobody
is about to take the chance.
The crowd sits in silent appreciation
as the girl sheds her clothing, one item after another. When it is apparent
that the show is over there is a polite burst of applause, such as might
greet the conductor at the philharmonic.
The fantastic point to which
the night life of Kansas City has risen (or fallen, depending on the view
point) can best be demonstrated by the search for a nude model for a life
The alumni class of a perfectly
reputable art school was having trouble finding girls to pose in the altogether.
In desperation someone suggested that some of the queens down to the "burlyque"
might like to pick up an extra buck.
One of the group phoned the
management, explaining that the job would entail the girls appearing be
fore men while unclothed.
From the other end of the
line there was a gasp and a stunned pause.
"Oh, no," the voice exclaimed,
"Our girls would never do anything like that."