Halloween, and other Lost Parties of the Country Club Plaza

(originally published 10/31/19)

Holidays and history are close companions. Holidays have their own histories of course. Holidays are about tradition, and tradition is history made a part of culture. Culture at every level, from the community-wide to the personal levels, when holidays are the frameworks for memories. Christmas with family, fireworks with friends, Halloween in the neighborhood.

As it turns out, according to History.com, Halloween in the trick-or-treat form most of us know, is a relatively new way to commemorate a holiday that, like others, has its roots in ancient rituals. Halloween changed in America with the immigrant arrivals in the late 18th, early 19thcentury. Here, people were eager to shake off the darker side of the holiday. They chose instead to find ways of celebrating the holiday as a community. That appears to have been the fashion in the 1920s and 1930s when the Plaza came into its own.

In the Country Club District, the Nichols Company effectively used holidays and celebrations as a way of creating community. Some, like the Plaza Lighting Ceremony, have endured to become pieces of the Kansas City identity. But not all of the Plaza celebrations have survived. Evidence of them even having occurred is limited mostly to a few photos. Halloween is the most notable of them, but as long as we’re on the subject, we’ll look at two far lesser and more distant events.

These 1940s era “cut-out” decorations seem out of scale, and hard to notice. The owl (top) is perched on the old Suydam Bg. at 47th & Mill Creek, while the Black Cat (bottom) was at the old Jack Henry store at Broadway & Nichols Rd. (Photo: SHSMOKC)

Photographic records show Halloween on the Plaza dating from the early 1930s to the mid-1940s. But having spoken with a few folks in recent years who claim memories of Halloween on the Plaza, it may have continued into at least the 1950s. The earliest picture dates to 1932. A large and surprisingly friendly looking jack-o-lantern, almost certainly made in large part with papier-mache, sits in an empty parking lot between Nichols Rd. and Ward Parkway, just east of Central. Framed by two scrawny haystacks, the pumpkin seems to be the extent of the effort, decorative but not inviting.

But perhaps there was more. A 1933 photo taken at the same lot shows the Plaza Witch’s shack amid a a field of more haystacks. Astrological symbols decorate the outside, and a sign that promises the Plaza Witch would read your future “for free!” The Plaza Witch’s hut is one of the most recounted memories readers and audiences have shared with me, leading me to believe it was present in the Plaza’s festivities – in one form or another – for most if not all of the years the Plaza celebrated the Halloween.

These 1940s era “cut-out” decorations seem out of scale, and hard to notice. The owl (top) is perched on the old Suydam Bg. at 47th & Mill Creek, while the Black Cat (bottom) was at the old Jack Henry store at Broadway & Nichols Rd. (Photo: SHSMOKC)

Candy must be inside that bucket of “witch’s brew” to keep the young children from being scarred by this formidable, grotesque witch. Photo: State Historical Society of Missouri – Kansas City

By at least 1937, there was an actual witch among the decorations. In a small park area where the Cheesecake Factory stands today, an oversized crone with the face of a ghost, the teeth of a vampire and freakishly small hands she stands. Dressed in classic witch garb with a long crooked stick in hand, she stirs a witches brew in a painted washtub. For all its grotesque nature, the three young children seem nonplussed by the ghoulish site.

By the 1940s, real estate was at a premium on the Plaza, and the empty lot that had been used for events was now the Plaza Medical building. Assuming they survived, I have no evidence of where the Halloween decorations and the Witch’s Shack stood in that time period. But there are photos of other types of decorations appearing on the buildings in later years.

Much like the Plaza Christmas lights, these later holiday decorations were affixed to the Plaza’s architecture. But these decorations, like the ones shown here, seemed poorly placed – too small and too high up to be truly noticed. It may also be indicative of that period when Halloween was switching from a community-based to a neighborhood-based activity, and Halloween as a Plaza event was becoming almost an after thought.

The Plaza Dog-Mart, a pet adoption event, was also held on the parking lot at Ward Parkway and Central in 1934. Courtesy: State Historical Society of Missouri – Kansas City

Of the two other “lost” Plaza events, I know only one picture, dated to 1934, that documents the Plaza’s Dog-Mart. The State Historical Society of Missouri-Kansas City Center, which provides this image, incudes a single note about the event. “Country Club Plaza merchants sponsored a dog mart where people interested in buying a dog could see and inspect almost every breed of dog.”

Finally, there is the Plaza Fiesta. The Fiesta was the idea of Eleanor Nichols, J.C. Nichols’ only daughter. She was a young woman in the 1930s, when she began working for her father, helping to create and organize promotional events, in conjunction with the merchants’ association. She seemed to have a talent for it, though she did not work there long. (More of Eleanor’s fascinating yet tragic story in an upcoming post.)

A mariachi band at the entrance to the Plaza Fiesta. The price of admission is posted at a quarter for adults, a dime for children. Courtesy State Historical Society of Missouri – Kansas City

Where the Halloween events were family-centric, the Fiesta started out as very much a party decidedly for adults, and among the Country Club District’s most notable residents. The parking lot located in the center of the District – as it still is today – was claimed instead for a large, upscale food court. Booths ringed the area, each with a chef in necktie and starched white apron, ready to serve the distinguished guests.

Those guests appear in other pictures from the Historical Society’s archive. Modern sensibilities induce a cringe reaction when looking at the cartoonish exaggeration of stereotypes, the least of which is included here. But for what it’s worth, the Plaza Fiesta was a promotional event, playing off the Plaza’s faux Spanish architecture. Perhaps it made sense that the trappings of the fiesta would be just as faux.

The Plaza Fiesta photos come from two time periods – mid-1930s and mid-1940s. The earlier photos are clearly professional photographs commissioned by the Nichols Company for promotional purposes. Photos in the later era seem informal, depicting scenes with a large crowd in attendance, comprised of a greater sampling of the community. Admittedly conjecture, but a possible (and ironic) reason for the Fiesta’s demise could have been its growing popularity. If the Plaza became so overrun by Fiesta goers, crowding the streets on a July afternoon, the Plaza Merchants Association might have understandably felt a loss of business. And that would have been the end of that.

Note: I found the pictures described here so engaging that I wrote this piece to share them, with admittedly little information on the actual events. I have scoured Nichols Company sources for more information, and will continue to do so. But I would welcome anyone who has a memory of Halloween on the Plaza, or any of the events described, to share that information here. Thanks.

(Featured Photo: The Plaza Witch’s Shack sat near Ward Parkway and Central in the early 1930s. Courtesy: The State Historical Society of Missouri – Kansas City.)

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