The Short Event-filled Life of the First Convention Hall

(KC 1900 Series: # 9)

For those in the day-to-day trenches of it, the work on the convention hall had been a struggle to find time to breathe. The Convention Hall initiative had been announced in June 1897, but the fundraising work had begun some weeks before that. The site selection officially started that fall, but real estate deals had been proposed from day one. In the first quarter of 1898, the competition for an architect began, but the actual plan had been in the discussion since 1894, a plan suggested by the architect who was eventually chosen.

And so it was with the bookings. No need to wait until the hall was finished before starting to book acts. In fact, no need to wait until the hall was even started. As soon as the plan was established, there was plenty of regional and national interest in the hall. Eventually, thirty acts would appear in the Convention Hall between the time of its grand opening and its last performance the day before the fire. And while there was plenty of local groups who were ready to book – like the Priests of Pallas and the Epperson Megaphone Minstrels – the hall’s national exposure had attracted the interest of an artist whose music established a new genre that became the soundtrack of the era.

John Philip Sousa

Early in 1898, just as the committee was preparing to open up the design competition, J.M. Loomas, President of the Priests of Pallas came to see E.M. Clendening, Secretary of the Commercial Club. He brought a letter from the business manager for John Philip Sousa, arguably the most famous musician in America. The letter offered the band’s availability for the first week of October, during which Sousa and his band were willing to perform sixteen concerts – the equivalent of two per day, for the total fee of $6,000. This being early December, Sousa’s manager advised in the letter that the band couldn’t guarantee that availability until the end of January. Sousa was no longer affiliated with the U.S. Marine Band, but his own band, formed in 1892, was one of the more popular touring acts during America’s “ragtime” years.

John Philip Sousa, 1910. MVR, KCPLibrary

Such enthusiasm there was among the committee for this idea that they wasted no time in advising Sousa’s manager of their interest. This would give the whole project a specific goal, a timeline for completing the hall by early October, a full ten months later. Sousa could be the centerpiece of the hall’s grand opening, and the whole affair would coincide with other fall festivities, most importantly the Priests of Pallas celebrations.

In the end, the building was not ready by October 1. The committee had to renegotiate an agreement with Sousa, but as it turns out, to the betterment of both parties. Sousa offered a couple of options; in the end, Sousa would only do one concert, but something he had never done before – a dance. The Sousa band would provide music for a ball, to be held as part of the hall’s opening day festivities.

As the Kansas City Star touted when the event was announced a month before opening:

The first town on earth to dance to Sousa’s music, played by Sousa’s band under Sousa’s direction will be Kansas City… Think of all that glory crowded into one night!…Sousa’s band, under John Philip Sousa himself, will begin a new career here that night. It will be a new experience for that greatest of all bandsmen to lead his own musicians through the intricacies of dance music while dancers really dance to it.

Subscribers & Prizes

On New Year’s Day, 1899, the hall served as the venue for distributing the gifts to the hall’s subscriber donors. Among the some 8,000 gifts given away over three days were several heads of prize winning cattle, a couple of thoroughbred race horses, real estate, plans and materials for the construction of a house, a piano, a billiard table, typewriters, a buggy, a bicycle, various pieces of jewelry, and one hundred dollars each in gold and silver. The gifts were somehow assigned to individual subscribers – presumably by a ticket-like number on each certificate. The Committee had to follow that format, cumbersome though it may be, because to have a random drawing for the prizes constituted a lottery in the State of Missouri, where lotteries were prohibited.

“Armour Rose” decorated the tickets that gave entrance to the awarding of prizes to subscribers. Ironically, the heifer was not given as a prize, but rather was sold at auction for $40,000. The committee had originally hoped to sell the animal for $1,000.

The first day the drawing was a celebration. The Third Regiment band played in between sessions of drawing tickets. Short tours were provided by the hall manager, Mr. Loomas. But the hall was very much incomplete, so on days two and three of the drawing, the tickets were selected amidst the sounds of construction all around the building.

Epperson’s Megaphone Minstrels

The Epperson Megaphone Minstrels performing at the Convention Hall

In the relatively short life of the first Convention Hall, there were plenty of other entertainments held in the hall both before and after its official opening. When it was clear that the hall wouldn’t be ready for the Sousa Band by early October, there was still the need to continue to raise money for construction and, soon, operation. Instead of the Sousa band, the Committee looked to a tried and true – and highly popular – entertainment at the time, the minstrel show. In this case, it was a local group known as Epperson’s Megaphone Minstrels, funded and partially led by U.S. Epperson, a prominent Kansas City business man.

Minstrel shows are most often associated with whites performing in black face. In some shows, everyone on stage was in blackface. While there were notable differences from show to show, the minstrel show followed a general form. An interlocutor was part emcee for the change of scenes and acts, and part straight man for the jokes. The show moved briskly through the vignettes, and featured all types of music of the day, particularly ballads, ragtime and spirituals, and almost always a few tunes crafted for the occasion. Minstrel shows could have a hundred or more performers, all men. Most of the performers were part of the orchestra; however, because amateur shows like the Epperson show were rooted in the membership of social or professional clubs, there were performers in the orchestra whose instruments were rudimentary and rhythmic – triangles, tambourines, wood blocks, etc. Everyone, including the orchestra, performed on stage. The interlocutor and the acts performed in front of the orchestra. E.M. Clendening, the Secretary of the Commercial Club was also one of the interlocutors for the Megaphone Minstrels.

Program from later performance by Epperson’s Megaphone Minstrels, in service to the ongoing maintenance of the Convention Hall (#2).

Then there were the “end men” who, in blackface, performed the role of clown, making fun of the black race or making fun of the white race’s misperceptions about blacks. There’s no question that at their core minstrel shows were a vehicle for disparaging the black population; after all, the name “Jim Crow” originated in association with a buffoonish Negro character in a minstrel show. But it’s also interesting to note that minstrel shows regularly included barbs and ridicule directed toward many issues of the time. For example, some would knock the aristocratic North for its corruption and its condescending, patriarchal view of blacks. Others might possibly mock Southerners’ for what was characterized as their parochial attitudes, or even lampoon topics having nothing to do with race, like women having the vote. And throughout the history of minstrelsy in America, in addition to all-white shows and mixed-race shows, there were all-Negro minstrel shows as well. When vaudeville began in the early 1900s, blacks who could not get hired for vaudeville moved to the minstrel show, increasing the number of shows in the country. In the surviving pictures of the Epperson show, only the two “end men,” were in blackface.

U.S. Epperson circa 1930

Uriah Spray (U.S.) Epperson had grown up in Kansas City, and came from a modest background. He was 39 during the period of the Convention Hall opening, and was in the middle of a 22 year career as general manager of the Fowler Meat Packing plant. The years of his wealth building were still in his future, when he would create both a fire insurance underwriting company, and a land investment company. But his real love and the beneficiaries of his philanthropy late in life was the cultural life of the city. Epperson had formed the Megaphone Minstrels around 1895, as a means to raise money for Kansas City’s new parks system. The Megaphone Minstrels appeared in the hall, such as it was, on October 1, 1898, the original opening date. In April 1899, the Megaphone Minstrels performed for what for was billed as an “Easter Monday Ball,” underwritten by William Rockhill Nelson, for the support of proposed public baths, which were never completed. The Minstrels were deployed similarly once it was known the building would not be ready for John Philip Sousa by October 1.

Opening Day, February 22, 1899

The day so long in the planning finally arrived. Opening day would truly be a full day of excitement, with two Sousa concerts, and the all-day chance to roam inside the new building to see what all the money, the effort, the time, and the good will of the community had bought. There were 10,000 in attendance for the afternoon show, and another 12,000 again that evening. The best sense of what those ceremonial moments must have been like was expressed in some articles and speeches left behind. The Kansas City Star wrote:

Sousa on Stage on opening night, as illustrated in the Kansas City Star the next day

“As John Philip Sousa stepped out of a small door in the rear of the sounding board of the huge Convention Hall shortly after 2 o’clock this afternoon, he stopped for an instant, and on his face was written a look of mixed astonishment and admiration. It was not the wild burst of applause that caused his expression of wonderment, for that is an old story to the great bandleader, but it was because he saw before him a sight that even to a man of Mr. Sousa’s wide experience was never duplicated. He saw a hall interior, the like of which is not found in the United States, unless it be Madison Square Garden, in New York. He looked upon thousands of faces and double that the number of hands, every pair trying to outdo his neighbor’s in his appreciation of the occasion. He beheld a large number of American flags that were probably bigger than anything ever brought together under one roof for decorative purposes, and palms that had they been gathered together in one bunch might have reminded one of a tropical jungle.  And this made John Philip Sousa stare. Why not? Even he never saw its like before.

Charles Campbell, President of the Convention Hall Committee of the Commercial Club, made an address to the crowd, in which he said, “You all look happy and contented, and well you may be, for today you are by your own fireside, sheltered ‘neath the friendly roof of your own home. It is yours to keep forever. The bondholder shall never have it, for not a dollar of debt is against it. It stands as a fitting monument to the progressive and generous people who, by their contributions, whether one dollar or thousands of dollars, have made it possible for you all to be here today at the opening of this grand building. You have built better than you knew.” Then finally, Campbell made the official pronouncement. “And now to Kansas City, the peerless Queen of the West, in Commerce and Trade, Agriculture and Mining, Manufactures and Machinery, Architecture and Building, Science, Art and Music; to the garden fields to the north and east, the rugged hills and forests to the south, the golden prairies to the west; in peace and prosperity, to charity and good will to all mankind, and to “the Stars and Stripes Forever,” this building is most respectfully dedicated and now declared formally opened.”

Another Kansas City Star illustration of opening night. The stage where Sousa and his band play is in the background.

Mr. Campbell bowed and left the stage. Then Sousa waved his baton, and the band began “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” when from the topmost point of the sounding board directly above his head a large, fluffy national emblem unfolded itself from a decorated box where it had been concealed, until it hung there with each red and white bar and star and blue field displaying its own individuality, while around it, on all its edges, sparkled red, white and blue lights. At the same moment Sousa raised his baton and really before the flag’s colors could be made out the hall was filled with the strains of the stirring “Star Spangled Banner.” The effect was instantaneous. Men and women stood and waved hats and handkerchiefs until the air was filled with waving black and fluttering white.

Other Events

The announcement of the planning of the opening day events was likely at least part of the reason that, almost immediately after that, the Committee started having to field requests for future dates. Again, the reality of the demand for the hall was well ahead of the committee’s plan for its future. Once the Convention Hall project was announced to the public, requests for future use of the hall came pouring in. The Convention Hall Building Committees minutes during late 1899 and early 1900 were replete with requests, not all of them honored. The hall was not yet fully completed, so there were legitimate accommodation issues. There were also issues of scale – some proposed events were too complex, or anticipated large attendance, and until the Committee had some experience actually in the hall, they were reluctant to book such risky events.

Then there was the matter of rates. Rates had generally been established, but it seems, according to the minutes, that every organization that requested dates in the new Convention Hall wanted to renegotiate the rates, and not just the dollar amount. Some wanted it free, some wanted to have to pay direct expenses only, others agreed to pay the rate if certain accommodations were added, as in one case, a special floor. Still another, a nonprofit, wanted to borrow 200 chairs at no cost. The sheer time it was taking for the appropriate Convention Hall Building Committee members to try to define policies, and to be present, debate and then counteroffer was eating up scarce time and risking forfeiting income. By December the board had made the decision that rates were to be straightforward and consistent.

The occasion of that decision was, ironically, a request from the fire department. The city’s chief of the Fire Department, George Hale, requested a rental price reduction for “entertainments” to be given by the department for two days in mid-December. He was denied. The Universities of Kansas and Missouri asked to hold their November 30, 1899 game in the hall, but they were denied as well, and ended up playing at the old Exposition Park.

Gleaned from the Convention Hall Committee’s financial report at the end of 1899, and miscellaneous minutes of the committee, the following are some of the other events that took place between opening day and March 30, 1900, just five days before the fire.

(Banner photo: The full compliment of the membership of the Epperson Megaphone Minstrels, on the performance stage of the Convention Hall.)

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