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Revisiting Robert Altman's "Kansas City"

Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
Actor Chris Coulson and set designer Susan Emshwiller stand outside the Eblon Theater; the facade was used during the filming of "Kansas City."

Kansas City, Mo. – The 1920s and '30s marked the heyday of Kansas City jazz. Political boss Tom Pendergast tolerated drinking in an era of prohibition. And musicians flocked to play the dozens of clubs in this "wide open town." But today, in the city's historic 18th and Vine jazz district, fake storefronts, including movie facades, have been in place longer than many businesses last, almost as long as the heyday itself.

Credit courtesy Susan Emshwiller
Much of the action in the film "Kansas City" takes place in the Hey Hey Club, pictured here as part of the set.

By the turn of the last century, 18th and Vine was the heart of the business district for the African-American community in Kansas City, Missouri.

At a time of public segregation, jazz historian Chuck Haddix describes it as a "town within a town." There were barber shops, restaurants, movie theaters, churches, grocery and clothing stores. Doctors and schoolteachers mingled with lawyers and hotel porters and maids.

"If you talk to people from the day, they will tell you," says Haddix, co-author of Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop--A History. "If someone were to come in from out of town, looking for a relative, if they stood on the corner of 18th and Vine, they would see that person walk by at some time or another."

But, with the end of segregation in the mid-1950s, the close-knit 18th and Vine began a steady decline. Residents moved out, businesses closed, and poverty and crime went up.

Vine: Building the Street Up for "Kansas City"

Director Robert Altman grew up in Kansas City. And for his film called "Kansas City" about jazz, political corruption, and organized crime in the '30s, he tried to recreate some of the long-forgotten clubs, restaurants, and shops.

Altman's son, Stephen Altman, was the production designer. Here, he describes Vine Street in the mid-'90s.

"One of the buildings at the end of the street had actual floors and stairs in it, although no glass or doors or anything," says Altman. "The one next to it was in even worse shape and then one down from that was just, if I remember correctly, just a brick facade held up by bracings in the back. And then we added in our Hey Hey Club. We built that out of Styrofoam, wood and fiberglass, and just sort of built the street up."

Credit courtesy Susan Emshwiller

The film, "Kansas City," wasn't a box office hit, but local boosters thought that shooting it would be a boon for historic sites, like Union Station.

During filming, the then-rundown and crumbling building was given a spit and a polish; slate tile floors were buffed, and granite walls cleaned with mineral oil.

In 1996, the year Altman's "Kansas City" was released, voters approved a bi-state sales tax for restoration and redevelopment. A gleaming Union Station re-opened on November 10, 1999.

But the historic jazz district at 18th and Vine never sparked the same interest.

Not Enough Progress in Historic District

"The marketplace has not embraced 18th and Vine," says Councilman Ed Ford, "In the sense that you don't have significant retailers that have set up."

Councilman Ed Ford also served on the council in 1997 when the American Jazz Museum and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum opened on 18th Street.

It's been a long process. Talk began in the 1970s when Horace M. Peterson II, the former director of the Black Archives of Mid-America spearheaded the idea of reinvigorating the area.

Ford says there's been progress, but not enough.

It's likely the City Council will terminate the district's TIF, a development incentive in place since 1999. (UPDATE: The Council voted Thursday, November 4 to discontinue the TIF.) Ford says the district doesn't generate enough tax revenue. That's partly because so much of what is there, at least along 18th Street, was built and continues to be sustained by taxpayer dollars, well over $30 million.

"So there's been a very significant city investment in the area, and the city is committed to its success," says Ford. "It's just this type of incentive hasn't brought in the revenue we had hoped. It's back to the drawing board.

Change Takes Time

"Well, let's talk about what we have done," says Denise Gilmore, President/CEO of the Jazz District Redevelopment Corporation (JDRC).

The JDRC was created in 1997 by the former mayor, now Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II, to spearhead development efforts just before the opening of the museums and the restored Gem Theater.

"We've constructed over 203 (housing) units, some senior units, and some are market and affordable rate units," says Gilmore, who's headed up the JDRC since 2006. "And what that did is that gave people an opportunity to live in the Jazz District again. When we look at it as a cultural neighborhood, it takes residents."

Gilmore says change takes time, but in her eyes, the momentum continues. And with plans for more housing expected to open by the end of 2012, she says retail will follow.

18th and Vine Today

If you walk along 18th Street today, you'll pass the museums, the Gem Theater, the Blue Room. You'll also see fake painted storefronts with businesses like Lucille's Paradise Dinette, Meek Mortuary, and Hopkins cleaners. Behind those signs, an empty weedy lot. But, that's not where Robert Altman filmed "Kansas City." Let's turn down Vine Street.

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Set designer Susan Emshwiller and actor Chris Coulson met while filming "Kansas City" and return to visit 18th and Vine.

Susan Emshwiller and Chris Coulson are visiting Kansas City from Los Angeles. They met on the set of the film "Kansas City."

Emshwiller was the set decorator, and Coulson, who grew up in Overland Park, Kan. painted storefronts, and performed as an extra. In recent years, some of the movie facades, like the Hey Hey Club, have been torn down.

"It's too bad that it's still here and yet not enough here," says Emswhiller, as she stands near the exterior of the Eblon Theater. It's a real historic structure, built in 1923, but only the original Spanish colonial facade remains. It's propped up by steel beams.

Credit courtesy Susan Emshwiller
Storefronts and building facades in the 18th and Vine district were spruced up for the film "Kansas City."

"There was a nice awning that had lights on it, kind of a marquee," recalls Emshwiller.

"Up the street, there are four or five little shop windows that we decorated. (There was) a shoe store, and a hat store. And the upper 2nd floor of the building has awnings. We decorated those as little apartments, so we would have window dressing and lights."

It was early in Coulson's acting career and he says there was a lot of enthusiasm on the set.

"Everyone was so revved up about jazz in Kansas City, I think everybody thought, let's just start something permanent," says Coulson. "Not just, let's put it up for the movie and rip it all down. Let's make it lasting and make it really good."

Production designer Stephen Altman says Kansas City was always near and dear to his father, Robert Altman's, heart. But it's unusual for movie facades to stay.

"We usually don't build them to last," says Altman. "When they do last, it's great."

But whether or not it's great for the 18th and Vine jazz district in Kansas City all depends on the eye of the beholder. Where what's real is often confused with a bit of Hollywood magic.

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.

Laura Spencer is staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and a former arts reporter at KCUR.
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