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.   

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).

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.