Jammin’ the Blues

On this blog we’ve already covered a little bit of Barney Kessel’s work on film music, discussing how he adapted composer Henry Mancini’s score for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” into his own record. However, Kessel’s involvement in film dates back to at least 1944 when, at the age of 21, Kessel played guitar in the Warner Bros musical short “Jammin the Blues,” released May 5 of that year. In the Barney Kessel collection are 2 records with music from the film, as well as a 38-page interview in which Kessel discusses the film, its origins, its impact, and the backstory of many of the artists involved. Kessel was proud of his role in the film – its musical style was close to his own musical roots and playing in it was a big step forward in his own career. The film itself is only 10 minutes long. In 1995, the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the United States National Film Registry because the film is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Turner Movie Classics, which has aired the film as part of a tribute to the National Film Registry, called it “one of the greatest of all jazz films.”

According to a 1982 interview, Kessel explained that the film came about because Jazz producer Norman Granz (right) wanted to recreate on film the jam session music format he had helped popularize in the Los Angeles jazz scene in the 1930s and early ‘40s. Granz selected an impressive roster of musicians for the film. The list of performers included Lester young (Tenor Sax), Red Callender (Bass), Harry Sweets Edison (Trumpet), Marlow Morris (piano), Kessel (guitar),  John Simmons (Double Bass) Illinois Jacquet (Tenor sax) Marie Bryant (vocals) and Sid Catlett and Jo Jones (drums). Kessel recalled that he became involved with the film because he was one of few musicians playing electric guitar in Los Angeles at the time. He had been a regular in many of the local jazz clubs, and already had a strong reputation with Norman Granz.

Granz allowed the musicians to choose their own songs for the film. Kessel recalls that Director Gjon Milli encouraged he and the other musicians to dress and behave as they would if they were going to play a regular show. The way the film was made was by first recording the music to be used in the film, and then filming the musicians playing along to the music as it was played back to them. Years later Kessel chuckled at how the musicians couldn’t always recall exactly what they had played during the recording sessions because it was very improvisational. When it came time to simulate playing along with the recording, the two didn’t always match up.

Most notably, and somewhat controversially, Kessel was the only white musician in the film. Granz was trying to advocate for the end of segregation in music, both for audiences and band members. He took the same approach with Jammin the Blues, to the dismay of Warner Bros mogul Jack Warner, who insisted that a black guitarist be found to make an all-black band, lest the film perform poorly in the segregated South. Granz refused to do so. Kessel described Granz as a real proponent of music as a meritocracy – Granz believed using a black guitarist to keep the film’s band from being integrated was just as racist as any other segregation. Either you could play, or you couldn’t, and Granz would have no one who couldn’t play. The compromise reached was to hide Kessel in the shadows.

Kessel’s entire recollection of the film is a positive one. “Of all the things I’ve done [in film]”, he said, “that was the most relaxed.” He liked how the Gjon Mili and Granz did not manipulate the performance – instead they “captured what’s going on” and presented it naturally. Compared to the music and film of the 1970s and 80s (he was interviewed in 1982) Kessel thought that the artistic value and quality of Jammin the Blues was twice as good. Kessel was a man of strong opinions, and he clearly had a high opinion of the film and his fellow musicians, especially Lester Young. He believed that the film captured a particular moment in music history, one that was driven both by the innovative producers like Granz and performers like Kessel and Lester Young who together made some of the best music of that or any other era, and also defied the racial mores that still hamstrung black men and women in much of America.

Sources

Barney Kessel Collection, MS295, LaBudde Special Collections, University of Missouri-Kansas City.

 

Breakfast at Barney’s

What do Barney Kessel and Audrey Hepburn have in common? Well, May is a significant month in both of their lives, but for entirely opposite reasons. Hepburn was born May 4, 1929. Kessel passed away after a long battle with brain cancer on May 6, 2004. They are also connected by Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which was released in October, 1961, the same month as Kessel’s birthday. Fans of the film’s music may or may not know that in 1961, Reprise Records released Kessel’s own version of Henry Mancini’s iconic score.

The iconic score of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is just one of Henry Mancini’s (above) accomplishments.

It’s not entirely clear how much Kessel was involved in making the original score. However, in the Kessel collection are original orchestra copies of Mancini’s arrangements. These would have been given to the members of the orchestra. Kessel either kept or somehow got these, and then used them to write his own versions of the songs. These items are valuable for music historians and musicians alike first because they are rare, and second because they demonstrate Kessel’s musical genius.

 

 

Mancini original Score

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Here is a brief outline of what Kessel did differently. (Disclaimer: Yours truly is no music expert, and owes thanks to LaBudde Special Collections Graduate Student Assistant and Performance DMA student Anthony LaBat for helping to explain this.) Most noticeably, Kessel changed the instrumentation. He assimilated different parts from the Mancini score into parts for his versions. For example, in “Latin Golightly”, he assimilated the original Alto Sax & Trumpet, and Trombone & Baritone horn parts into a single part, which he played on guitar. Victor Feldman and Bud Shank also played that assimilated part on Vibraphone and Flute, respectively. For the bass, Kessel wrote an entirely new part that may have been modeled from the existing bass track, but was almost completely different in pitch and made rhythmic changes as well. In “Moon River Cha-Cha” Kessel again played the saxophone part on guitar, but he raised the pitch slightly throughout. Kessel was a master at chords, and chord harmonies. He made subtle adjustments like the ones in Moon River Cha-Cha to “revoice” chords. Doing this changed how the different chords in a progression pulled to one-another. In some cases it may have changed the entire progression. He also did this in “Sally’s Tomato” when he combined the trumpet and the alto sax into Bud Shank’s flute part. There was no dedicated flute part in Mancini’s original. Other changes include adding bongos to some of the songs, combining piano and guitar parts into rhythm guitar, using existing trombone fills for guitar fills between choruses, cutting out some bars, and recombining parts of choruses to make his own.

Also in the Barney Kessel collection is an original reference copy of Kessel’s album, which would have been made by the recording studio for band members. The full album was released on vinyl in 1961. Listen to the songs below and see if you can hear the differences, like the flute playing the original trumpet and sax part in Sally’s Tomato.

In Moon River Cha-Cha, compare the guitar, flute, and vibes in Kessel’s version to the saxophone in the original. Also, listen for the guitar playing the trombone fills – it starts at about 1:15 in both videos.

If you want to listen to any of the songs from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, we have multiple copies of both the Mancini originals, as well as the Kessel version in the Marr Sound Archives.

Sources:

Barney Kessel Collection, MS295, LaBudde Special Collections, University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Discogs

Introducing, the Barney Kessel Collection

Image of Barney Kessel (Wikimedia Commons)

One year ago, LaBudde Special Collections (LSC) and the Marr Sound Archives (MSA) made a valuable and historic addition to our collections through the remarkable generosity of Phyllis Kessel, widow of legendary guitar player Barney Kessel. Mrs. Kessel donated her late husband’s collection of nearly 400 audio/video items and hundreds of print documents. It turns out that one of hardest-working musicians to ever pick up a guitar was also a meticulous archivist. As a result, the Barney Kessel collection is a goldmine for music historians and fans alike. Through the efforts of LSC Graduate Student Assistant Anthony LaBat, MSA Public History Intern Taylor Bye, and the rest of the LaBudde and Marr team, we have finished processing the collection. This is the first of a series of posts taking a look at the breathtaking scope of Kessel’s career and offering a tiny taste of what the collection holds.

According to an official biography, “Barney Kessel was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma on October 17, 1923. He started playing guitar at the age of 12 and within a couple of years was playing in a local jazz orchestra. While he was still a teenager, Kessel met guitar legend Charlie Christian by chance in an Oklahoma City nightclub. Impressed by the youngster’s talent, Christian offered to pass his name on to renowned bandleader Benny Goodman. Christian’s guitar playing was a great influence on Kessel’s playing, which was essentially a further refinement of the older guitarist’s style. Kessel worked hard on his technique to create his own exciting, “straight-ahead” bebop jazz guitar, with no blues licks. Although he soon became well known locally as a talented guitarist, Kessel realized that there wasn’t a career for a jazz musician in Muskogee, and he moved to Los Angeles in 1942. Life wasn’t easy there and, at first, he had to make a living out of washing dishes at a restaurant, but he managed to get a break with the Chico Marx (of Marx Brothers fame) Orchestra in 1943, and this led to radio and studio work. A year later he appeared as the only white musician in an award-winning documentary film, Jammin’ The Blues. Word of Kessel’s abilities soon spread and during the remainder of the decade he also played with the bands of Artie Shaw, Charlie Barnet, and eventually Benny Goodman himself.”

By the 1960s, Kessel’s reputation was growing. In 1965, he made his first live record at P.J.’s Nightclub on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, just a few blocks over from the Sunset Strip. 1965 was right as the Sunset Strip was entering its heyday as an epicenter of American Rock & Roll.

Album Cover for On Fire (courtesy of Discogs)

Despite the burgeoning rock scene, clubs like PJ’s still catered to jazz audiences. PJ’s later became the Starwood Rock Club, before closing for good in 1981. Below are excerpts from a test pressing of his 1965 live show, which he released as the album “On Fire” on his own label (Emerald Records.)             

Another singular item in the collection is what we believe to be an unreleased recording made for Reprise Records (part of Warner Brothers) in either the early or mid-1960s. The recording features Kessel playing alongside tenor sax whiz Zoot Sims. With Kessel and Sims were Monk Montgomery, Johnny Gray, and John Piscatelli on bass, 2nd guitar, and drums, respectively. According to a 1992 letter, Warner Brothers never released the album, though Kessel wanted them to release it as a CD. For copyright reasons, we can’t upload any of the material from that session. However, it is just one example of the unique items in the Kessel collection that researchers can use to uncover new stories about the history of American music.

Sources:

Barney Kessel Collection, MS295, LaBudde Special Collections, University of Missouri-Kansas City.

http://articles.latimes.com/1991-04-27/entertainment/ca-675_1_sunset-strip

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starwood_(nightclub)

http://martinostimemachine.blogspot.com/2016/12/pjs-night-club-las-first-discotheque.html

Legacy of a Modeling Agency

The recent passing of Melissa Stevens, heir to the Patricia Stevens Modeling School and Career College, has given us cause to take a look through one of the most extraordinary collections in LaBudde’s holdings: the Patricia Stevens Collection. This collection, which Melissa donated in November 2011, contains the company records, advertisements, photographs, and other ephemera. There are hundreds of items in over fifty boxes and together they offer a complete account of the history of the company.

1973 photo of Flo Stevens (bottom right) and her three daughters (clockwise from bottom left) Patricia Jr, Sheila, and Melissa.

Melissa’s mother, Florence Czarnecki Stevens became “Patricia Stevens” only after her 1946 marriage to a young Chicago entrepreneur named James Stevens. Before he met Flo, he had already named his training school, a business designed to help women navigate the postwar work world. Flo – or Mrs. Stevens as she was often addressed – grew the school into a franchised operation with 55 branches. Its headquarters were in Kansas City, on Country Club Plaza. (Longtime KC residents may recall the Stevens-sponsored annual Easter parade that ran up until 1995). A full account of the Stevens’ family and their company could occupy an entire book. Melissa Stevens took over the company after her mother’s death, and up until her own recent passing was working to revive the company. In a 2012 interview with The Pitch, she said “All I really need…is a runway, a makeup table, a mirror — and me.”

Secene from 1973 Easter Parade

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One of the items Melissa Stevens donated was a large scrapbook filled with letters of appreciation written to her mother Flo. Among the letters are many from former students and employees. Flo Stevens appears to have had a special relationship with many of her graduates and employees. One student said that Flo was “the woman who changed my life.” Another wished “I could explain how much I think of you. You have been like a big sister to me and you have my deepest respect.” Still another told Flo that “my heart had adopted you as a second mother.” Other students wrote about how the Stevens school could help them with self-esteem issues or help them conquer their fears. Some of her graduates went on to pursue careers in acting or fashion, or interior design. Reading their letters, they all give some credit to Florence Stevens for their success.

The most poignant letter in the collection is from one of Stevens’ employees. She [find her name] writes to Flo about a 14 year old girl – Marilyn – who wanted to be a model and was attending classes against her parents’ wishes. Her parents believed that any kind of modeling would “lower [Marilyn’s] morals” and corrupt her. The letter explains that Marilyn might not be destined for a modeling career, but that she at least deserved the chance to follow her dreams, even if she was still young.  

Notes from students and local womens groups

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Notes of appreciation from students and local organizations

There is, I think, a contradiction buried at the heart of the Stevens collection. On one hand, the modeling school may seem anachronistic by today’s standards. Expectations for women were undoubtedly different in the 1960s and 70s than they are now. On the other hand, based on these letters Stevens’ modeling, etiquette and career-related courses do seem to have changed young women’s lives for the better. Women in the 1960s and 70s were starting to make social gains that still haven’t been fully realized. The Stevens school embodies both of those: recognizing that even though women were still expected to behave in certain ways, there were also new opportunities opening up for them, and they would need appropriate education and training in order to succeed. In short, Stevens tried to provide both of those. Perhaps then there is more to the modeling school than meets the eye. Projecting our modern ideas backwards even a couple generations isn’t always wise. As antiquated, unhealthy, and even incorrect as instruction about posture, diet, personal care and etiquette may have been, it’s clear at least some of Stevens’ students found what they learned empowering and that they credited her with helping them improve their lives.   

 

Working with the GLAMA archives

This spring, a new exhibit is opening in Miller-Nichols library and at locations around Kansas City. Titled “Making History: Kansas City and the Rise of Gay Rights,” the exhibit explores Kansas City’s surprising role in the US gay rights movement of the 1960s. The exhibit opened April 19 at UMKC’s Miller Nichols Library (800 E. 51st Street) and will be on view through September 30. If you want to learn more, you’ll need to see the exhibit. However, for a special post this week I thought I would share my perspective as one of the contributing curators. I can’t speak for everyone who worked on the project, but I hope my experience gives readers a taste of what its like to work with the “stuff” of history and turn it into an exhibit panel.

Most of the time, the history that you see in an exhibit or read in a book is just the tip of a very big iceberg. Historians deal in a particular type of story – we call them “narratives.” A narrative is a vehicle for explaining how and why certain events in the human past happened the way they did. We use narratives the way Physicists use models – to explain how and why systems work. In our case, our system is the whole of past human affairs and the narrative is a model for why some of the atoms (humans) behaved the way they did. Coming up with one of these models means balancing between staying true to the historical evidence and inferring something more from the evidence that makes it part of an interpretation. Having just the facts, with no interpretation or narrative, results in the dry “history” you hated in high school. Just a narrative with no supporting evidence? That’s called fiction. Good histories mix fact and interpretation, and also answer what we call the “so what” question. This asks why is what we have to say important? What lesson can be drawn from it, or how does understanding this part of the past allow us to understand a different part better? Sometimes, particularly challenging source material makes the entire process harder.

The most salient aspect of this project for me was the challenge my source material presented. My panel is about the Gay Bar scene in Kansas City in the 50s and 60s. The most amazing source material I had was a huge set of pictures taken at a few different bars.The problem I faced was a difficulty to do either one at all. In some cases these were just pictures of people. The subject, date, and location were unknown. Pictures of people at a bar is not history. I was going to have to make some judgements about what I was looking at and why it was important. On the other hand, these were like people’s Facebook photos. Who am I to draw any sort of conclusion about what they “mean” or what the “significance” is? I wasn’t there. I don’t know them.

Picture from the GLAMA collection, similar to the ones I worked with. The people, place, and date are unknown.

I’ve never been at such a loss about how to interpret a source, in part because I felt as if any interpretation violated someones privacy. Then I realized the answer lay in the problem: the intimacy of the photos was the lesson. These photos show how important gay bars were at that time because they were a place where people could be intimate, or could take pictures together without fear of repercussions. My panel presents the photos without telling you a great deal about who those people were. But it does tell a story about why gay bars were so important. If you ask me what these photos “mean” in an historical sense, I’d say they’re evidence that bars were special places for gays and lesbians in the 1950s and 60s. You can see it in the pictures they took.   

Early days of “The Pitch”

The Pitch was first published in July 1980 as the Penny Pitch, a music sheet handed out by Penny Lane, the erstwhile Westport record store at 4128 Broadway. The first 13 issues were printed under the early banner before undergoing a series of name changes – including KC Pitch and Pitch Weekly – beginning in January 1982. Since then The Pitch has expanded into an alternative weekly newspaper serving the greater metropolitan area and covering music, film, arts, entertainment, news and investigative reporting.”

The above quote is from a 2010 online exhibit made by LaBudde Special Collections to commemorate thirty years of The Pitch. Now, as the paper changes back to a monthly format, we thought it appropriate to revisit that exhibit. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at some of the historical, insightful, colorful, and even unusual stories that made the pages of The Pitch in the 1980s.

This back page contains a letter to the editor and an promo for the record store.

The first issue of Penny Pitch came out in July 1980. Clearly the paper had a long evolution ahead of it. The two top headlines were a tanning contest sponsored by KY102, and an interesting story by editor Warren Stylus about Penny Lane’s unique stock of records (Stylus being either a pseudonym, or a perfect last name for a music writer). The tanning contest seems to have been underwhelming, a fact the writer attributed to ash from Mt. St. Helens still blocking out the sun over Kansas City. For those who may not remember, Mt. St. Helens had erupted just a few weeks prior in May, 1980. Stylus’ story is more interesting. He chronicles the story of The House, an important distributor of small independent record labels – over 350 according to Stylus. The House had a colorful history, first occupying an actual house in St. Louis, then the limestone caves around 31st St in Kansas City, before finding a home in the same building as Penny Lane. As with any first issue, the writers were finding their feet. Still, the paper established some columns and segments that would become stalwarts over the next decade. One example was the music review column known as “Ridin’ With the King” written by Leroy “LeRoi” Johnson.

By 1984, the paper (now the KC Pitch) was a more serious piece. In contained interviews with major musicians, advertising for Penny Lane, and an extensive music calendar. With Stevie Ray Vaughan, Van Morrison, Robert Cray, and the Grateful Dead all coming to town in 1984, it was a good time to be a music fan in Kansas City.

LeRoy “LeRoi” Johnson kept Kansas City music fans well informed on both the good and the bad of newly released records.

LeRoy Johnson continued to write music reviews as well. In his reviews he put a (literal) stamp of approval (“WOW”) next to records he liked, and a stamp of dis-approval (“FLY ME”) next to those he did not.

The cover story for April 1984 was an interview with Jazz legend-in-the-making Ronald Shannon Jackson. Jackson was born in Fort Worth, Texas. He attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri where he roomed with piano legend John Hicks. Shannon had formed his own band, The Decoding Society, in 1979. Shannon and his band had just returned from a tour of Asia. Of the tour, Shannon said “we were invited to do the Singapore Jazz Festival and the Malaysian Jazz Festival…most of the crowds we played for were two, three, four thousand. They have a total thirst for western music.” Shannon also theorized that Asian audiences were more likely to dance to his music because the unconventional beats he used were akin to beats used in Asian musical genres. Shannon appears to have believed that in 1984 Asian (or European) audiences had less rigid standards for what constituted “Jazz” than Americans did. As a result, they were more “accepting” of his music, although he also said Americans were getting better. Describing his musical style, Shannon said that “there is no actual lead [instrument]” in his melodies. Instead, his melodies were based on rhythms produced by traditional “background” instruments like drums or bass. In Shannon’s songs, “the drums are like a lead instrument.” The Shannon interview demonstrates how America’s signature art form – Jazz – continued to be modified by innovative performers. Critically, it also shows how worldwide audiences were attracted to American music, even if that music did not fit more rigid American audiences’ definitions. Kansas City’s jazz heritage is often thought of as an American phenomenon, but Kansas City takes on global significance when you consider jazz as an important American cultural export. The Shannon interview hints at this relationship.

In October 1988, ahead of a solo appearance by Robert Plant, the KC Pitch asked “Does Kansas City hate Led Zeppelin, or does Led Zeppelin hate Kansas City?” Apparently, in 1969, the crowd at a Zeppelin show at Kansas City’s Memorial Hall booed them off the stage. This, according to writer Anthony Henge, became the first and last time Zeppelin played Kansas City until Plant and Jimmy Page made separate appearances in 1988. By 1988, the paper had grown to over 30 pages long. What had been a simple newsletter for a record store had become arguable the important source of entertainment news in the city. But, some things had stayed the same. LeRoi was still writing music reviews. Some of the articles still had a tongue-in-cheek style. And the paper was (and is) still free.

Sources

Youtube

Paul F. Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994)

Where the Magic Started

The lion king? A young Walt Disney sitting atop one of the lion statues in Swope park.

(Written by Helena Collins-Gravitt)

In the summer of 1923, with nothing but an idea and an unfinished project called “Alice’s Wonderland,” Walt Disney left his bankrupt studio in Kansas City and traveled to Los Angeles. Walt Disney has been a household name for decades. His studio revolutionized the world of animation. It’s possible he is the most significant person in the history of American film making. But how did the father of animation get his start? The story of Walt Disney begins in Kansas City, Missouri from 1911 to 1923. In 1920 Disney worked at Kansas City Film Ad Company, but his creative ideas clashed with that of the company’s owner. So, Disney and his co-worker Fred Harman created their own company and named it Laugh-O-Gram Studios after their first short films, “Newman’s Laugh-O-Grams”, sold to Newman Theater. This is where he came up with the idea that has been synonymous with Disney ever since: “modernized fairytales done in animation.”

The LaBudde Special Collections is home to several photographs from the early life of Walt Disney and the history of Laugh-o-Gram studios. These photos can be found in the Baron Missakian collection. Missakian was a well know photographer in Kansas City during the 1920s. He photographed many famous personalities, one of whom was Walt Disney. But why did Missakian have so many photos of Disney and the processes at Laugh-O-Gram studios? The reason behind this is that Disney’s studio and Missakian’s photography office were right across the hall from one another and they were close friends. In fact, Missakian ended up marrying Disney’s personal secretary. The set of photos includes a young photo of Disney, many photos from various projects, and even a photo of him at Kansas City Film Ad company.

The story of Disney’s first studio is a rough one, as most stories begin. After some time at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, Disney found that he did not like the cut-out animation style. He preferred classical hand drawn animation, but he could not convince the owner of the company to change styles. So, on May 22, 1923 Disney, along with co-worker Fred Harman, founded Laugh-o-Gram studios at 1127 East 31st Street in Kansas City. Here Disney started working on his animated films. His first twelve films were commissioned by the Newman Theater.

The Newman Theater, owned by Frank Newman where Disney’s early cartoons were shown. (Courtesy, Missouri Valley Special Collections)

His next big project was creating six films for Tennessee-based Pictorial Clubs. This was a big project and Disney was going to be paid eleven thousand dollars for these films when he delivered them. The six films were, “Little Red Riding Hood”, “The Four Musicians of Bremen,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Goldie Locks and the Three Bears,” “Puss in Boots,” and “Cinderella” (1922). Sadly, only months after the contract was signed and the studio began working on these films, Pictorial went bankrupt and Disney was never paid. After all the time and money spent on these films, Disney moved on to find new work because the studio was in desperate need of funds. This led to Disney taking on a project for a local dentist named Thomas B. McCrum.  From this job, the film “Tommy Tucker’s Tooth” was born, and Disney received five hundred dollars. Then instead of using that money to pay off his many debts, Disney started working on his newest idea. A live-action/animation entitled “Alice’s Wonderland”, which would star Virginia Davis, a young local actress. But this work only made the studio’s financial issues worse and after finishing the raw edits for the film the studio filed for bankruptcy in July 1923. As fast as he could Disney bought a ticket to Hollywood, armed with only his ideas and an unfinished reel of “Alice’s Wonderland”. The name is no coincidence: this was the first of a run of Disney-made “Alice” stories, a run that continues to this day. 

The other incredible thing about Laugh-O-Gram studios is that Disney is only one of the animation greats that emerged from it. Hugh Harman (brother of Fred Harman) and Rudolf Ising (a Kansas City native) were animators who worked for Laugh-O-Gram. As a duo they later founded the animation divisions of Warner Brothers and MGM. Another Laugh-O-Gram alum, Fritz Freling, is the man responsible for creating Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird, Sylvester the Cat, and Yosemite Sam. It’s almost impossible to overstate: the Disney family tree that is Hollywood animated film making can all be traced back to Laugh-O-Gram studios. It is an incredible piece of Kansas City history, and there is a movement underway to preserve it. In 2015 the Thank You Walt Disney Foundation began renovations on the site, and put together a plan for an on-site learning experience. Until then, the photos in LaBudde Special Collections offer a window into one of the most pivotal moments the history of American film making.

Sources

“Baron Missakian Collection”, MS 24, LaBudde Special Collections, University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Timothy S. Susanin, Walt Before Mickey: Disney’s Early Years, 1919-1928. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011).

House Hunting in 1896

Imagine a young couple living in Chicago or Kansas City in 1896, who wants to move to a new city. Maybe he had a new job in a different city, or maybe they were adding to their family. Whatever the reason is, they needed to buy a new house somewhere else, which means they needed to go look at houses. They did not have a car, and even if they did there were few roads. Fortunately for our fictitious home-buyers, the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific railroad had a solution: a special type of ticket called a Home Seeker’s Package or Home Seeker’s Excursion. The J.E. Lynn Railroad Collection in LaBudde Special Collections has several examples of these tickets. In these unassuming tickets is a story of how railroads fueled America’s growth, one prospective home buyer at a time.

A variety of tickets to destinations such as Wichita, KS; Marion, GA, Sioux City, SD; and Salida, CO.

The so-called “golden age” of American railroads lasted from the late 1870s until the Great Depression. During this time trains carried up to 3/4 of interstate freight, and basically all of the passenger travel. Together with the great ocean liners, they were the pinnacle of early twentieth century travel. As a result, they were accessible to all kinds of people. There was greater diversity of schedules, more stops, and more variety of ticket packages than there are today. Furthermore, their pre-eminence made railroads an important part of America’s continuing growth and prosperity. Home Seeker excursions were one particular example of how railroads helped populations move across the country during this “golden age.”

When our young couple bought a home seeker excursion, they were getting a heavily discounted round trip ticket to a particular destination(s).

There was a set period of time to use the return half of the ticket. If the buyer missed their return date, the ticket was worthless. Most home seeker excursions took prospective buyers to newer areas. Texas, Oklahoma (which in 1900 wasn’t even a state yet), Nebraska, New Mexico (also not a state yet) and the Dakotas. Clearly, the US looked very different in 1900 than it does today. National priority #1 was to develop the lands that had been won from the French, Spanish, Mexicans, and Native Americans during the prior century. As the best-available means of land transportation, railroads were the best tool for accomplishing this. The home seeker’s excursion ticket reflects this. There were other ticket packages too, such as tourist or sightseeing excursions, as

A Harvest Excursion ticket to Sioux City

well as harvest excursions. However, the home seeker excursions are particularly important because they illustrate the critical role railroads played in helping fill the empty parts of America. When the transcontinental railroad was being built during the 1860s, much of the rhetoric was about tying the country together. A lot of railroad development was subsidized by federal and state governments, and it is possible that is why home seeker tickets were relatively cheap. While it is easy to be cynical about such a union of naked capitalism and nationalism, it is not clear if such a robust rail network could have existed otherwise. That rail network is what enabled much of America’s growth prior to the Depression. One way was by making it easier for people like our fictional family to migrate to new parts of the country.

 

The Echoes of Long-Bell

This Jingle for the Long-Bell Lumber Co. was recorded exactly 65 years ago today, on March 28 1952:

The recording is fascinating and rather unusual for its time because of its utilization of tape delay to imitate the sound of a ringing bell via the human voice. Recorded by local studio forerunner, Vic Damon, the recording highlights all of the home improvement products sold at the retail store at the Gregory and Wornall intersection in Kansas City, MO.

Damon is pictured here in his studio with record cutting lathes.

The radio announcement is certainly unique because of its technique. However, it is also interesting because of its significance to the Long-Bell Lumber Co. and the Robert Alexander Long legacy in the Kansas City area. In 1956, just four years after Damon recorded the radio announcement, the once prominent Long-Bell Lumber Co. was absorbed by the International Paper Corporation. The timeline of the Long-Bell Lumber Company runs a tumultuous course where the success and wealth of the company were challenged. What started off as a booming enterprise eventually declined and faced several challenges from internal conflicts, litigation, and the Great Depression.

Local historian Lenore K. Bradley referred to the early success of the Long-Bell Lumber Co. as the “Gilded Age” in her biography of Long, and it was certainly that. Long spared little expense in the creation of the ornate structures he left behind.  Remnants of R. A. Long’s affluence are dispersed throughout the Kansas City area. Landmarks included in his legacy are Liberty Memorial, Longview Farm, and the Kansas City Museum.

View of the west side of Corinthian Hall, now the Kansas City Museum.

For additional photos, check out R.A. Long’s City and Country Homes Photo Album

Sources

Bradely, Lenore K. Robert Alexander Long: A Lumberman of the Gilded Age. (Durham, NC: Forest History Society, 1989).

R.A. Long’s City and Country Homes Photo Album. LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC.

Vic Damon Collection. LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC.

Content sharing in the ’30s

It’s probably 16 inches wide, and you hold it carefully by the edges. It could be made of glass or aluminum, coated with black cellulose nitrate. If you’re lucky the coating hasn’t started flaking off yet. Alternatively it might be made of vinyl, like an LP, but bigger. It plays at 33 1/3 RPM, holds 15 minutes of recorded sound, and was a key tool in the development of syndicated radio programming in the United States. We’re talking about transcription discs.

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A cellulose nitrate over aluminum transcription disc. Note where the coating has flaked off. When that happens, that part of the recording is lost.

In the 1920s, radio stations needed a way to replicate and share programming consistently. They weren’t allowed to play commercially released records on-air because musician’s unions believed that hurt record sales. So radio content had to come from somewhere else. Live broadcast was inconsistent, time consuming, and expensive. Not every radio station could afford to have its own in-house musical groups, but all stations wanted to attract more listeners. At this time the first radio networks were beginning to form. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was created in 1926, and Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) was formed in 1927. As these networks made more programming and acquired more satellite stations, they needed a way to distribute programming. Larger radio stations were creating programming of their own that they wanted to share with the networks. In short, there was a huge market for pre-recorded radio programming, but distribution of content was still a major hurdle. Transcription discs were the solution.

By the 1930s, transcription disc recorders had become ubiquitous at larger radio stations. Program producers were able to pre-record a program, make copies, and distribute it to other radio stations for future broadcast. This meant that stations in networks could all get the same programs. Individual stations could also add out-of-network programming to their repertoire by purchasing them from distributors. A station could also record its own unique local program using transcription discs, and then re-use it later. As a result, small stations could avoid the expense of live programs. Bigger stations and networks could get their shows to a wider audience. This meant listeners in Boston, Kansas City, and San Francisco could hear the same program at the same time. The ability share programming is a big reason why radio contributed to the growth of popular culture across America. To paraphrase Marr Sound Archives director Chuck Haddix, “radio was like the internet” because it brought people closer through information sharing. Everybody got to hear the same radio programs and news broadcasts, giving people similar cultural and political knowledge. We take this for granted today. Imagine for a moment a conversation with someone from two or three states away. They hadn’t heard Adele’s latest song or weren’t able to listen to that Ted Talk that enthralled you. Of course the opposite would be true as well. Its 75 degrees here in Kansas City. What snow storm in Ohio? That political protest in Washington that they went to? You had no idea until weeks later. Certainly newspapers allowed content-sharing, but radio was a huge leap forward, and it’s largely thanks to the humble transcription disc. One of the big 1930s radio stations that made a lot of transcription discs was KMBC here in Kansas City. Many of these discs are now held in the Marr Sound Archives.

KMBC joined CBS in 1928 as the 16th affiliated station. In 1930 station moved to the eleventh floor of the Pickwick Hotel. Under the direction of Arthur B. Church, KMBC became a model for other stations. Church and KMBC produced a wide variety of syndicated shows which were recorded on transcription discs and then distributed. One of these programs was the Texas Rangers. Another example from the KMBC collection that highlights the importance of transcription discs is a recording of one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats.” The recording can be heard below. It was made by CBS at the White House on May 2, 1943. It was then presumably broadcast by all CBS network stations, including KMBC. FDR could not have reached the entire country without transcription disc technology.

Sources

Museum of Broadcast Communications. Encyclopedia of Radio. Edited by Christopher Sterling. Vol. 3. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004.