Finding Waldo’s Shadier Side

(originally published 6/20/19)

A quick bit of backstory – The southern city limits of Kansas City moved from 47th to 77th Street in 1909, taking in the northern part of today’s Waldo. But Waldo as a community had been around since 1841, so there were already many businesses along Wornall Road, at least as far as 85th Street. The distinction was still important, however. Businesses outside the city limits weren’t subject to city zoning laws or ordinances. That short strip of an unpaved road that was the southern end of Wornall Road made a great haven for gambling, bootleg liquor, probably more salacious activities, and most assuredly organized crime.

So it should come as no surprise that some of the questions I field at my Waldo presentations concerns Waldo’s early honkytonk life. In my interviews for the book, I heard several stories, none of which I could substantiate sufficiently to include in the book. I did eventually find an oral history with some credible anecdotes, but nothing came forward that was also corroborated by pictures or other hard evidence.

However, those discussions have prompted people to share some of their research with me. What is emerging is an era in Waldo’s history where it was undoubtedly one of the area’s biggest draws for entertainment – some wholesome, some not so much.

The Victor Hugo Inn

Long-time locals may remember the Kiddieland amusement park in the early 1960s, at the northwest corner of 85th Street and Wornall Road. But before that was the Victor Hugo Inn. I first learned about the inn when a Waldo resident showed me a 40s era postcard of it. The restaurant appears to be a converted house, quite possibly the first house built on the property. Little is known about this place other than what is written on the back of the postcard.

“Located on Wornall at the Northwest corner of 85th, Kansas City, Missouri. The finest and most exclusive place for CHICKEN AND RAINBOW TROUT DINNERS. VICTOR HUGO has a most unusual refined and elegant home-like atmosphere where no liquors are served, just fine food. They cater to evening and afternoon parties, also weddings. In addition to making a specialty of the Chicken dinners they serve Rainbow Trout right fresh from their own Crystal Springs Hatchery in the Ozark Mts. Of Cassville, Mo where trout are scientifically fed and cared for and shipped to the finer Hotels and Cafes in all parts of the U.S.A. For reservations JA 5335”

The inn’s name is part of the curiosity. Victor Hugo, of course, was the great French novelist of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame fame. There is no apparent connection between either the writer or with France in anything thematic about the restaurant. The name may have been an homage to the Victor Hugo Inns in the Los Angeles area during the 1930s and 40s, which were well known to serve Hollywood’s most famous names.

Mary’s

Of all the anecdotes I heard about Waldo’s shady side, the most frequently mentioned name was Mary’s. Through the generosity of another Waldonian, I finally found some images of the place, although most likely after its more seamy days were behind it. When I lived in Waldo, the building that housed Mary’s was the home of Waldo Pets, at 8011 Wornall Road. It was and is an inconspicuous building on Wornall, with one exceptional feature. It was known to have, or have had, a single apartment on a small second floor. My understanding was that in recent years the property’s owner lived there (though even that I cannot verify), but in the stories I heard about Mary’s, the apartment was more of a short-term rental, as in hourly. Mary’s was also reputably a place where female wrestling was a popular attraction, but again, this is not verified information.

What is verified by the photos my Waldo friend shared with me is that by the 1940s when these photos were taken, Mary’s had the appearance of a nightclub, with lots of small tables, a large open dance floor, and a stage at the back. Closer inspection of the interior, however, reveals a pretty shabby nightspot – mismatched chairs, a sagging ceiling, and dingy carpeting. During the Waldo Pets era, the stage was more or less intact, though at the time, I didn’t recognize it as a stage, just a platform with no purpose in the back of the room. Only one other feature belies the building’s past. On the outside, carved into the lintel over a simple wooden door, is the proof – it says simply “Mary’s.”

The White House Inn

Just a few weeks ago, I was contacted by someone whose special interest is Kansas City’s considerable organized crime history. He asked if I knew anything about Waldo’s role in that history. I didn’t, so he shared what he had with me, which was intriguing, but not yet as definitive as I would prefer. Still, here’s what I feel comfortable in sharing with some reasonable certainty, because this contributor (and I love this) is very good about sourcing his research

Many published pieces on Kansas City’s crime history place “The White House,” (obviously named) at 85th Street and Wornall Road. Only one gives a specific address, 301 W. 85th Street, which would put it on the southeast corner of the intersection. But the only known photo shows two buildings on a large lot, and so it’s hard to imagine the photo situated on that, or any, corner of that intersection. The known dates place the White House Inn to the early days of Prohibition and ties the tavern’s early years to “Big Jim” Balestrere and his bootlegging syndicate. The following are the great sources the contributor shared:

From The Mafia and the Machine, by Frank Hayde: “He (Balestrere) also built the White Horse Tavern outside the city limits where underlings ran crap games and sports books.”

From Open City, by William Ousley: “With the advent of the roaring 1920’s (Walter) Rainey, like so many others, join the rush to cash in on the bootlegging racket. He leased the White House Tavern, 301 W. 85th Street, from Big Jim Balestrere while at the same time running bootleg liquor as a sideline”

Also, “In 1954 Rainey’s name surfaced…in connection with reports of dice games taking place at the Spaghetti House on west 85th street, owned by Jim Balestrere, the same site formerly housing the White House Tavern Rainey had previously run.” (ed. – The White Horse Tavern may or may not be the same as the White House Inn. Some sources refer to both at the same 85th & Wornall location at different times, while at least one other mentions the White Horse Tavern being nearby, at 80th and Holmes.)

From Mobsters in our Midst, by William Ouseley: “A federal grand jury report issued in 1950 identified a “Nick Civella” as a partner in a gambling operation at 85th Street and Wornall Road.”

For me, this is enough evidence to say the reports of Waldo’s wild and wooly days are at least in part true. After all, places like these are where events become stories embellished with each new telling. But it also makes those places I’ve heard about for years seem a little harder around the edges than I’ve characterized them in my story telling. Which means I have more work to do. I’ll get back to you when I find out more.

(Top photos: Mary’s, a sometime supper club on Wornall Road; Postcard of the Victor Hugo Inn )

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