Monday, July 11, 2011

We're Not in Kansas (City), Anymore.

This past week I was in Kansas City, MO attending the annual Barbershop Harmony Society’s International Competition. While the contest was an amazing venue and the music shared with friends and strangers alike powerful, this post is 100% dedicated to the city itself. 

Why? Because it may be the most fantastical location you’ll never know.

A quick history of my annual BHS trip: Every year, my buddy Scipio and I try to find quirky places to visit between rehearsals and one of those is always a hat shop (more on that in a moment). Last year we competed in Philly and had a slew of adventures that included stumbling upon the Wanamaker Organ in Macy’s, a quest/agenda item/mission to find Civilization IV, a house that I cannot describe in words and will have to add a photo of later, and (of course) a hat shop.

This year, however, Scipio and I were forced to make our own housing accommodations due to a clerical error with our chorus’ admin team. But rather than stay at a typical hotel, Scipio made reservations at The Aladdin Hotel in the Power and Light district.

And thus began our amazing journey. (see pics below for proof.)

A boutique hotel run by Holiday Inn, the Aladdin is neither the largest, nor the most “refined” place in town, but it is certainly the most memorable. Doormen greet you every time you enter/exit and the small, 1940’s era lobby is attractive. The complimentary glass of champagne provided upon check-in is welcoming and the staff is always smiling. The Martini Loft looks down upon the lobby and although it isn’t big enough to hold more than a small party, the drinks are strong and the bartenders cordial and attentive.

The Aladdin is a very good representation of the soul of Kansas City. The entire Power and Light district is fashioned in Art Deco with attractive red brick buildings butting up against more modern edifices that seem designed to “go” with the classic look. Individually these classic looking buildings would be impressive, but collectively, they create a city that belongs in a Silver Age DC comic. The new convention center's four spires point towards the imaginary death ray in orbit and is just waiting for the right mad scientist to purchase the newly renovated evil lair from his Lair-Estate agent. The rooftops beg for a spandex-clad hero to leap from building to building. There's even an area called Blue Valley which, according to DC lore, is the birthplace of Wally Went (aka "Kid Flash" and the "Third" Flash).

But all comic book styling aside, Kansas City is impressive with it's ability to maintain a "classic" look while leaping forward as a modern city. Want to watch a movie? The Main Street theater looks like the one from Jim Carrey’s movie The Majestic. Inside, however, you’ll not only sit in plush seats, but there’s a waiter call-button in case you have a sudden craving for Junior Mints or a Scotch and Soda. Feel like getting your hair cut? The Men’s Locker Room will give you a great trim and you can play a round of pool while you wait for your buddy to finish his straight-razor shave. And for the hat connoisseur, there’s The Missing Piece. This year, Scipio and I took 4 others and, with the exception of one reluctant participant, the owner outfitted everyone.

Everything about Kansas City points to a love affair with the Art Deco era. Yes, there is a Burger King across the street, but you’d never guess from just looking at it. That building over there with the ornate carvings in the marble window frames? A shoe shop. Need a new cell phone? Just visit your local retailer in the gorgeous brick building with elegant iron fire escapes. It’s as if the town decided that if it was going to be forced to modernize, it might as well do it in style. And do so without forgetting the elegance of days gone by.  

Which is why the Muehlebach was both sad and moving. Located in what I can only call the “basement” of the Kansas City Marriott Downtown, the remnants of the Muehlebach consist of a stunning lobby, a long concierge desk, and a closed speakeasy, all of which are in perfect condition. There is access from the street, but the stairwell from the Marriott lobby was small and almost hidden. There was no sign, but my friend Noah swore that the tiny stairwell lead to a tomb of treasures. Descending the worn, marble stairs, we were immediately transported to another time and place. My footsteps on the smooth marble floors echoed off the dark hardwood walls, stirring up visions of what hotel accommodations were like when men wore fedoras and Artie Shaw was on the radio. Although empty and buried beneath the modern, if rather bland-by-comparison, lobby of the Marriott, the Muehlebach is far from abandoned. Every light bulb is operational, the bookshelves in the reading area are packed and dust-free, and the artistic, brass water fountains are polished and operational. It’s a time capsule hoping to be rediscovered.

In addition to the wealth of architectural wonders, there was also a special treasure waiting for us. It was in this lobby where the Barbershop Harmony Society (formerly SPEBSQSA: Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America) was born. In 1938, Owen Cash and Rupert Hall, two men in love with Barbershop music, met and sang in the lobby. Soon afterwards, they returned to Tulsa and formally created SOEBSQSA. The plaque commemorating this event still hangs in the lobby and, like the rest of the Muehlebach, is polished to a shine.

The only surprising thing about Kansas City was the lack of people. As a resident of Virginia near Washington D.C., my definition of “city life” requires that the sidewalks and roads are always congested. By comparison, Kansas City seemed almost dormant. But after the first night, everyone I was with realized we preferred it that way. Sure, the bars filled up in the evenings, but no one bumped into you on the sidewalk and cars waited until you were across the street before accelerating.

My time in Kansas City will make me smile for years to come. Having returned home to the busy, hurried life on the east coast, it will serve as a reminder that, for better or for worse, all cities evolve. But not all do it in the same fashion.  While some may replace old with new without batting an eye, some, like Kansas City, keep an eye on the past while creating their vision of the future.

Kansas City Photos (aka: the proof): 

Scipio in the Martini Loft.

Lighting in the Zebra Louge

More Zebra Lounge Lighting

"Original" Kansas City Arena

Flag poles at one of the entrances of the Kansas City Area

The Midland Theater

Wind Turbine and Clock in the Power and Light District area just outside the Sprint Center.

"Walk the Solar System" at the Asteroid stop. And yes, Noah, I know that Ithaca had one long before Kansas City. Doesn't make this one any less interesting.

"Walk the Solar System" - Sun Stop. All stops had their "planet" displayed in ratio. Note the size of the sun. Earth was the size of a pinhead. (kinda' appropriate). 

SPEBSQSA plaque in the lobby of the Muehlebach.

Brass drinking fountain in the Muehlebach.

Lobby and fireplace in the Muehlebach. The SPEBSQSA plaque is on the left column.