Harry Jacobs’ American Dream

(originally published 2/20/20)

I first heard of Harry Jacobs while researching the old Brookside Theatre. That was Harry’s building, his “baby” as he called it, until 1978 when it burned to the ground and broke a piece of Harry’s heart. But Harry’s heart, his humor and his boot-strapping philosophy were all intact and in full view when, two years before the fire, Harry wrote and published his memoir, The Road from Rags to Riches: An American Dream.

The cover of Harry Jacobs’ book. The book jacket design is not credited.

Harry’s book is a special sort of find for a researcher or lover of history. It captures an authentic voice of its time that offers an account of history’s smaller events often missing in historical accounts. And it tells a familiar tale – from rags to riches, as the book’s title says. No wonder, for Harry Jacobs was part of the wave of immigrants that came to the United States – largely from Europe – around the turn of the 20th century. It was a generation who shared Harry’s belief in the opportunity that hard work and a new world offered. Given his devotion to his adopted country, it isn’t surprising that he published his book in 1976, the year America celebrated its bicentennial.

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Harry’s American dream began in 1910 when as a young man of 20 he came to New York from Hungary. After a year of factory work, he was still restless. “I felt that New York must not be a true representation of America,” Harry wrote. “Surely there was a better life in this great country, and there was. I decided to go “West” to look for that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, with perseverance, patience and hard work. I found it in Kansas City.”

Harry Jacobs’ portrait from the back of his book.

He came to Kansas City alone, became involved in the local Jewish community to make friends, and found a job in a pants factory where he worked for four months until, as he wrote, “I got some nerve in my bones. I told the foreman what I thought of him, got into a fight and was fired with a black eye as severance pay.” His reflection on that incident more than sixty years later captures the philosophy of life Harry shares repeatedly through the book. “Sometimes these things work for the best. Heaven tries our virtue to affliction and often the cloud that wraps the present hour serves to brighten all our future days.”

At the age of 24, Harry married and started a family. He supported them through a variety of jobs, ending up as a salesman for Metropolitan Life Insurance. He worked hard, lived a frugal life, and when he had saved enough, he left insurance to try his hand at what had become the refined version of his dream – real estate. At the age of 30, he bought his first property. He built a few homes, mostly one at a time, and as he built he moved his young family to each one as it was completed and used it as a show home. As each house finally sold, they moved to the next. He did well, but was not extravagant in his dealings, and most importantly to him, succeeded solely on his own efforts.

Mrs. Stover’s Bungalow Candies, Harry Jacobs first tenant in Brookside. Courtesy MVSC, Kansas City Public Library.

Among the people Harry dealt with in his early days in real estate were the Grove Brothers, who, in the early 1920s, owned a piece of property just south of 63rd Street, across the street from where the Nichols Company had recently started a commercial district called Brookside. Harry saw the potential in that property, but it took him until 1932 to come to agreement on the terms of sale. He bought most of the property on the east side of Wyandotte (now Brookside Plaza), and the north end of the west side. On that spot, there was a tenant, but Jacobs quickly leased it to Stover Candy Company, now Russell Stover Candies. That company built one of its first retail outlets, known then as “Mrs. Stover’s Bungalow Candies.” The Kansas City version Art Deco in design, while the Stover’s standard looked like a small white cottage. Next door they served ice cream and sodas, under the name “The Oasis.” These businesses were there through the mid-40s, until the property was sold to Jacob Hyman, another Brookside tenant looking for an investment.

For the east side, Harry Jacobs had his own vision. Harry Jacobs would build something that looked very much like the Nichols’ model, with retail space on the ground level, and offices above. But the building would be quite different stylistically, and it would house a movie theatre, something unique for the neighborhood. The Brookside Theatre Building, with its brightly lit rooftop sign, was no doubt aesthetically everything Nichols didn’t want for the Brookside Shops – a garish and obtrusive appearance. But the sign accomplished something important – the word “Brookside” was clearly visible to anybody passing through.

Having a theatre in Brookside had been a big part of Harry’s American dream. Looking at it from the street, the theatre took up the southernmost quarter of the building. The rest was devoted to retail shops at street level, and offices in the basement and on the second floor. Most of the façade of the Brookside Theatre Building, as it was known, was an odd mix of architectural styles – a cupola and a flagpole on top of a sort of Georgian façade, but with a theatre marquee and a massive electric sign on the roof that could be seen for blocks, both in the art deco style.

Early morning in late January 1978, the Brookside Theatre burned down. This image from the KC Star the next day shows a firefighter covered in ice.

Jacobs wanted to build a theater, but he was a real estate man, not a movie man, and he leased it to others to operate. A corporation calling itself Brookside Theatre Corporation (BTC) leased the facility for fifteen years. It was during these same fifteen years that the entire film industry was struggling with a series of anti-trust law suits against the major studios who stood accused (and ultimately convicted) of controlling everything from the distribution of movies to the price of tickets in an attempt to drive independent film producers from the market.

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The Brookside Theatre Corporation was caught up in the tangle. Try though they might, they had little luck securing the biggest box office draws, and as a result typically ran so-called “B-movies.” In 1952, BTC sued the major studios as a group (which included Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount, RKO, Warner Brothers and Columbia among others), and was awarded a judgment of $1,125,000. The studio plaintiffs appealed, but were denied. Thereafter, the quality of its bookings improved, but the Brookside Theatre would always be known more as a movie house showing movies often outside the mainstream. Finally, in 1978, the theatre was destroyed in a fire, and the Brookside Theatre building was condemned and demolished. (The fire was the subject of my 1/24/19 post). The property was redeveloped with a single tenant – an expanded and more modern version of the Milgram’s grocery store that had been there pre-fire. But the building was devoid of architectural style, at least compared to the flashy electric lighting of the original.

Jacobs did do some residential development in the 1920s and 30s, but not on a large scale, and not within the bounds of the Country Club District. He remembers, “In those days, the Nichols Company had restrictions that homes built on land bought from the company would not be sold to Jewish people. This was a very common thing in those days.” As far as I have been able to discover, the Nichols Company did not specifically restrict Jews in their deed restrictions, as was the case for blacks. But the company did have at one time a policy of not being the first seller to Jews. This may be a distinction without a difference, but it is worth noting that the company took no stance on homes in the Country Club District resold by their owners to Jewish homeowners. Harry could have found a way around the policy – using an intermediary buyer, for example – but he chose not to. “Being Jewish myself, I could not, in good conscience, buy land from [the Nichols Company] under those conditions. I had to buy a few lots here and there to build homes on.”

THarry was unwilling to buy lots for development from the Nichols Company, because of their policy regarding selling to Jewish buyers. But in 1948, the Jacobs family moved to Nichols’ Country Club District as home owners. Harry described the Mission Hills home on the left as “my dream home.” In 1963, He sold the house and moved into another Mission Hills home, this one on West 68th Street. Courtesy “From Rags to Riches.”

Harry Jacobs would also go on to develop other commercial properties, although he mentions only a few of them in his book, including the Raytown Plaza, Antioch Center, Gladstone Square and in Johnson County. He relates a story about all that went into the development of the Raytown Plaza, delineating every typical obstacle a developer must overcome, then declaring the project to be “one of the most successful shopping centers in all of the Kansas City area, and still is today.” (1976( Then, typically, Harry ends the story philosophically. “As I stated before, while I didn’t have much stormy weather, it wasn’t all sunshine either. The road from rags to riches wasn’t altogether smooth or paved with gold. There were plenty of rocks strewn along the way up.”

Harry’s book provides a reasonable chronicle of his personal life and professional exploits, but at its core it’s really more of a manifesto for life. He devotes far more pages to what matter to him than what happened to him. A sampling of the chapter titles give a sense of the world according to Harry Jacobs: My Philosophy and Thoughts on Business Practices; And Now My Ten Commandments on Love and Marriage and How to Win the Marriage Game; Patriotism; The Constitution and the Bill of Rights – Rights for Whom?; and “A Little Fatherly Advice to My Sons.”

Harry died in 1984, leaving the business to his son Leon, already a partner. His other son, Dr. Morton Jacobs, a well-respected Kansas City psychiatrist, housed his practice in his father’s properties for 35 years. The last time I checked, the company now known as Jacobs Properties still operates in Brookside as a family-run business. Harry would have been pleased, but in his own words, Harry’s personal “Definition of Success” transcends the legacy of a business that’s lasted 90 years. In his own words, Harry defines success as…

To win respect of intelligent people and the affection of all children. To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends. To accentuate the good qualities and minimize the inferior. To praise, not criticize. To appreciate beauty and to find the best in others.

(Feature Photo: The Brookside Theatre Building shortly after itwas built in 1938. Courtesy the Brookside Business Association).

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