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How Robert Altman's 'Kansas City' Helped Revive The Jazz District

courtesy: Susan Emshwiller
Union Station during the filming of Robert Altman's 'Kansas City.'

Is Robert Altman’s 1996 film “Kansas City” responsible for the preservation of the 18th & Vine jazz district?

Jazz historian and KCUR Fish Fry host Chuck Haddix says the answer is yes.

Haddix and “Kansas City” set decorator Susan Emshwiller spoke to Gina Kaufmann on Thursday’s episode of Central Standard, ahead of a screening of “Kansas City” this Sunday with Altman’s son, Robert Reed Altman, and nephew, Dana Altman, and members of the production team.

By the time Altman shot his movie in town, most of the historic buildings at 18th and Vine had long since fallen into disrepair. But the set for Altman’s movie helped Kansas Citians envision the district in its heyday.

“They put facades on the vacant buildings on Vine Street between 18th and 19th and basically recreated what 18th and Vine really looked like,” Haddix said. “And I think that that gave us the possibilities of these landmarks in our history.”

Altman wanted to recreate 18th and Vine’s original lively atmosphere, so the “Kansas City” crew gave the weathered storefronts on Vine Street fresh coats of paint and installed rows of lit signs.

Emshwiller said the scene was especially impressive at night.

Credit courtesy: Susan Emshwiller
A stretch of Vine Street used in Robert Altman's "Kansas City."

The team also conducted a massive clean-up inside another iconic Kansas City landmark: Union Station.

“The ceiling was falling down. They had to put stuff up to hold it in place while they were renovating for the film. There was plaster, tons of dust, so it looked like a demolition site. It was surprising how much the crew did,” Emshwiller said.

“There was a very strange, thick white mold over everything there,” she added. “But we actually borrowed a lot of set dressing from down there because it was so handy and (of the) period.”

Union Station was reopened in 1999, after a $250 million renovation funded by the metro's bi-state sales tax.

During those same years, under the leadership of Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, the city invested $20 million in the American Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which opened at 18th and Vine in 1997.

Credit Courtney Bierman / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
The same building today.

More than two decades later, boarded-up windows and overgrown branches have taken the place of movie marquees and colorful signage. The site of the movie’s Hey Hey Club has been demolished.

“We were so hoping that if we did a good job, people would see that there was a lot here worth saving,” Emshwiller said.

“Having a museum, keeping the facades really felt like we had done our part to help Kansas City see, 'Wow. We've got some really great stuff here. We should keep it.'”

"Kansas City" screens at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 10 in the Screenland Medallion Theatre at Plexpod Westport Commons, 300 E 39th Street. Find out more about ticket information here.  

Listen to the full conversation here.

Courtney Bierman is a KCUR intern. Follow her on Twitter @courtbierman.

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