A Case of Black and White: The Night They Beat Up Cab Calloway and Gave Kansas City a Black Eye

Note: This story appeared in slightly different form in the Kansas City Star Magazine on Feb. 28, 1988.

The Kansas City Star

It was three nights before Christmas and His Highness of Hi-De-Ho was on his way to the worst headache of his life.

This was 1945, the first holiday season since the end of World War II. It was time for people to put their lives back together, to get back to normal, to dance and sing their blues away.

Glowing caucasian Santas decorated Kansas City newspaper ads aimed at Christmas shoppers. Movie fans looked forward to the holiday releases: “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” a sentimental drama with Bing Crosby, would open on Christmas Day. A Technicolor Fred Astaire would dance and sing his way through “Yolanda and the Thief,” scheduled to open on Christmas Eve.

Dale Jones and his Hollywood Orchestra were appearing at Tootie’s Mayfair. June March and her Nifty Cuties inspired male fantasies at the Folly Burlesk, which promised “red hot” midnight shows and the “special attraction” of a “Royal Beauty Form Contest.”

But one of the biggest attractions of the holidays fell on Dec. 22 — a Saturday — when bandleader Lionel Hampton would perform at the Pla-Mor Ballroom.

Lionel Hampton

Hampton, the vibraphonist with the big smile and the big band, was among the best-known black entertainers in the country. “Tonite only,” an ad proclaimed in the Kansas City Star. Table reservations for the 9 p.m.-to-1 a.m. dance were required. Advance tickets cost $1.25, tax included. Hampton, baton in hand, smiled up from the newspaper page.

But although Hampton had plenty of black fans, there was no ad in the black  weekly, the Kansas City Call. The reason was simple: You had to be white to see the show.

~ ~ ~

There was nothing quite like the Pla-Mor. The ballroom’s official address was 3142 Main St., but it was just one part of the vast Pla-Mor Amusements complex.

Dancing. Bowling. Roller skating. Billiards. Ice skating in the winter, swimming in the summer. The Pla-Mor sold fun — clean fun — and plenty of it. And it was all in three massive buildings between Main and Wyandotte.

Founder Paul M. Fogel named the place for his kids, Pauline and Morris. But if some people saw the name as an invitation to “play more,” well, that was OK, too.

The Pla-Mor Ballroom (UMKC Special Collections)

The ballroom was a good place to fall in love if you were young and white in the ’30s and ’40s. It was easy to do in the age of big-band romance, when well-dressed young people moved across the 108-by-125-foot maple floor supported by 7,800 coiled springs. The red, blue and amber lights reflected by twin globes gave the place an atmosphere as intoxicating as a Technicolor musical.

But, like most places in Kansas City, the Pla-Mor conformed to a rigid color code. Paul Fogel would later testify that blacks were sometimes admitted and allowed to sit in a segregated area. But the black teenage pin-setters in the bowling alley couldn’t get their own food from the alley soda fountain. Whites had to bring it to them.

In Kansas City, however, racism was not unique to the Pla-Mor. Seating at Municipal Auditorium was segregated. The Swope Park swimming pool was, too. So was Fairyland Park. And Wynwood Beach, north of the river. So were theaters and schools. And there were two General Hospitals — one for whites and one for blacks.

~ ~ ~

“Come on out tonight,” Hampton told Cab Calloway. “We’re really got the place jumpin’ . . . I’ll make arrangements with the management.”

Hampton was invoking the power of celebrity. There were few exceptions to the normally inflexible rules of racial separation, but this was one. The rules said blacks couldn’t just walk in and claim a table at the Pla-Mor. But it was OK for one world-famous black entertainer to visit another. So neither Hampton nor Calloway had any reason to expect trouble.

Cab Calloway

Calloway, after all, was something of a local institution. Audiences here had seen him on his way up when he played Kansas City clubs and ballrooms in the late ’20s. His scat-singing, zoot suits and hair-whipping stage antics were documented in a string of hit 78s, Hollywood movies and even a series of Betty Boop cartoons. And his trademark scat refrain, hi-de-hi-de-hi and its infinite variations, provided irresistible fodder for newspaper writers. In entertainment columns and straight news stories alike, the Kansas City press routinely referred to Calloway as “The King of Hi-de-ho,” “Mister Hi-de-ho” or even “his hi-de highness of ho-de-ho.”

Calloway brought his Cotton Club Orchestra to Municipal Auditorium in mid-December for two shows — one for whites, one for blacks. Then he took a few days off to catch up with old friends.

One of Calloway’s Kansas City friends was Felix H. Payne Jr., a handsome man in his early 30s who had arrived back in town the day before Hampton’s show. Payne, the son of a Democratic ward heeler, had served in the American Red Cross during the war. On the overcast afternoon of Hampton’s performance, Payne and Calloway visited with Hampton at the Street Hotel near 18th and Vine. The Street was the place to stay for black bands. It even had a rehearsal room.

This was Payne’s first trip home in years. He had moved to Washington in 1938 to work for the Recorder of Deeds in the District of Columbia, his first in a series of government jobs. During the war he’d run service clubs in China and Burma.

Street+Hotel+circa+1930-1945His father, Felix H. Payne, ran clubs of a different sort in Kansas City — saloons and gambling halls. The elder Payne was a friend to black musicians, many of whom worked for him in the clubs and dance halls he ran, and he invited Calloway to stay in his two-story home on East 24th Street, just three blocks north of 27th, which marked the boundary between segregated white and black neighborhoods.

~ ~ ~

Light from the Pla-Mor’s vertical neon sign and pulsating marquee touched mounds of dirty snow that had been on the ground since Calloway hit town. A taxi, it’s exhaust pipe pumping vapor clouds into the 14-degree night air, pulled up in front of the ballroom between 10:30 and 10:45 and let Calloway and Payne out. Hampton was nearing the end of his first set

Calloway bought two tickets for $1.50 each at the box-office and he and Payne entered the lobby. As they started up the carpeted stairs to the ballroom, Will H. Wittig, the ballroom manager, stopped them. Now, Wittig was as familiar with the privileges of celebrity as anyone, and Hampton had already told him that Calloway and Payne were expected. But at that moment, Wittig wasn’t thinking about celebrities. He saw only nameless black men making a beeline for the ballroom.

For even though Calloway had played for thousands at Municipal Auditorium a week earlier and had been in movies and cartoons and had his face plastered on record jackets for 14 years, Wittig didn’t recognize him.

Entrance to the Pla-Mor Ballroom (UMKC Special Collections)

He took the tickets from Calloway and refunded the $3. The men would have to leave, he told them. The show was for whites only.

That’s when a suit full of bad attitude named William E. Todd walked out of the coat-check room and saw Wittig arguing with two black men. Todd was a husky little guy with heavy eyelids who moonlighted at the Pla-Mor as a security guard to supplement the $165 a month he made as a Kansas City police officer. His understanding of his responsibilities was uncomplicated: Protect the Pla-Mor’s property.

“Why, I was invited,” Calloway told Wittig. “I’m Cab Calloway. I came to see Lionel Hampton.”

Payne and Calloway, two sober and respectful citizens who had spent the day Christmas shopping and visiting with old friends, had bought the tickets as a professional courtesy to Hampton and expected to be treated as honored guests. The last thing Calloway anticipated was an excitable cop playing a drum solo on his head.

Calloway reached for his wallet to show his identification, but before he and Payne could explain who they were, Todd took charge. He grabbed their arms and shoved them toward the door.

“You heard what the man said,” Todd said. “Get the hell out of here.”

Payne resisted and then two men grabbed him and locked their arms around his head so he couldn’t see what was happening. Todd shoved Calloway off the steps to the floor. As Calloway tried to get up, Todd hit him with his fist. When Calloway got up again, Todd pulled a .45 semi-automatic and beat him on the head with the gun butt.

Calloway went down, blood streaming from his split scalp. The little finger on his left hand was broken, smashed by the gun as he tried to protect his head.

This was Calloway’s version of events, the one he and Payne swore to in court. But it wasn’t the only version.

Wittig and Todd said Calloway refused to identify himself. He and Payne smelled of alcohol and they were disrespectful, even sarcastic, Todd and Wittig said.

Calloway had told Wittig he was going up to the ballroom, no matter what kind of dance it was. Todd walked up to Calloway and told him again the dance was for whites. At the same time he pulled out his badge.

Calloway looked at it and then pulled out his own wallet. “I have one of those badges, too,” he said.

Todd told him he was under arrest. That’s when Payne drew his arm back to hit the cop. But before Todd had a chance to defend himself against Payne, Calloway jumped on his back, grabbed his throat and threw him to the floor.

When Calloway came at him again, Todd used his gun.

End of second version.

Soon on-duty patrol officers arrived and took Payne and Calloway into custody. They drove Calloway to General Hospital No. 2 — the one for blacks — and a doctor put eight stitches in his scalp and wrapped a white bandage around his head. Then he and Payne were booked for public intoxication and resisting arrest.

Back at the ballroom, Wittig was faced with a crowd of angry people. Hampton had refused to play a second set.

“The place was jam-packed and all at once someone came in and said they beat up Cab Calloway at the front door,” Hampton recalled. “So I went out front and got into an argument with the doorman. So I told the band, ‘That’s all, man. Let’s go.'”

The musicians packed up and left and the Pla-Mor paid out $2,000 in refunds. Hampton never played there again.

Calloway left for Chicago the next morning. On Christmas Day he celebrated his 38th birthday.

~ ~ ~

On the afternoon of Dec. 28, the King of Hi-De-Ho looked as if he’d felt better. The wrap-around bandage was gone, but small patches covered his head wounds and his finger was in a plaster cast.

When he arrived at Municipal Court on the top floor of Police Headquarters he was, as usual, fastidious. Every hair was in place and his handsome gray suit with shoulder pads struck just the like balance between flamboyance and respect for the court. Payne wore his Red Cross uniform and looked intense, even a little intimidating. His father was there, too.

In Municipal Court: from left, Cab Calloway, Felix H. Payne Jr. (in uniform), attorneys John G. Killiger and Maurice J. O’Sullivan, Kanss City police officer William E. Todd and Lucille Bluford, who covered the hearing for The Kansas City Call. (Black Archives of Mid-America)

Before the court proceeding began, Calloway was charged with a third misdemeanor  — creating a disturbance in a public place.

On a normal day, Judge Earl Frost never saw more than 50 people in court. Today he saw more than 700. Many of them were black. Reporters and photographers were on hand.

Calloway and Payne told Frost they had been sober that night. They hadn’t even had a drink that day. Payne said he hadn’t had a drink since Bombay.

Frost asked Payne if he had known the dance was for whites only.

“I knew what the score was,” Payne said. “I was born in Kansas City.”

Wittig told Assistant City Counselor Willis Z. Schad that, yes, he recognized the right of one creative artist to visit another.

“But he did not make himself known,” Wittig insisted. “I didn’t know who he was. Had he presented himself at the door and said, ‘I am Cab Calloway, I wish to see Lionel Hampton,’ he would have been escorted up on the stage and been allowed to sit on the band stage.”

When Todd said he didn’t recognize Calloway until after the beating, a wave of derisive laughter swept the courtroom. Frost called for order.

After two hours of testimony, Frost dismissed the charges. But he didn’t let Calloway and Payne go before lecturing them.

“If, when you went to the box-office to purchase tickets, you had asked for the manager and identified yourself, not only would you have avoided this incident, but also I am certain the manager would have given you an escort, as he states, and presented you as an honored guest,” Frost told them.

An editorialist for the Kansas City Star agreed with Frost’s sentiments.

“Race problems require unusually intelligent handling at all times . . . ” the opinion piece read. “The incident at the Pla-Mor is the opposite of what is required. Fortunately, Earl Frost handled the case judiciously.”

The Kansas City Call’s editorial was angry: “The beating of Cab Calloway by a policeman at at a Kansas City amusement spot is the type of incident that should set the people of this community to thinking. They should take notice of what happened .  . . because it is the customs and habits of the community which led to the fray.

“Such a thing could not have happened in New York, Chicago or Columbus, Ohio, or 300 miles away in Des Moines or Omaha . . . But in Kansas City and other cities with a ‘southern exposure’ there is a double standard for Negroes. In some phases of public life, like the payment of taxes, going to war and getting killed, Negroes operate on the same standard as other citizens. But when it comes to obtaining food, shelter and entertainment in public places, Negroes are ‘out of bounds’ if they seek the same rights and privileges of others — even Japs and Germans in our midst fare better than we.”

In a second editorial, the Call attacked Todd: “A man who assaults men with guns . . . does not belong on the police force, which sets such high standards for its officers that it says the score or more of Negro applicants who have sought appointment ‘do not meet the qualifications.’ If Todd is an example of the type of men that the Kansas City police department wants, thank God we have no Negro men who do qualify.”

Actually, there were black officers on the police force. But, true to the city’s rules of racial separation, they were relegated to patrolling black districts.

In February of 1946, six civil rights groups, including the Kansas City Urban League and the NAACP, demanded that Todd be fired — only to find out that he no longer was on the force. The Board of Police Commissioners had cut Todd’s salary from $165 to $120 a month and assigned me to jail duty. On Feb. 6, he had resigned.

But for Calloway, who claimed he now blacked out when he tried to sing high notes, vindication in Municipal Court wasn’t enough. He sued the Pla-Mor for $200,000.

~ ~ ~

In May of 1947, after the Pla-Mor counter-sued for $100,000 and many verbose legal documents were filed on each side, Calloway’s suit came to trial in Jackson County Circuit Court.

Judge James W. Broaddus, who looked and talked a little like Will Rogers, was presiding. Broaddus was a Civil War buff. One of his heroes was Robert E. Lee.

“I never realized until I got into that trial what a good Southern Democrat he was,” said John G. Killiger, who with Maurice J. O’Sullivan represented Calloway. “He wasn’t in favor of uppity blacks.”

Neither was the all-white jury. Paul Sprinkle, the Pla-Mor’s attorney, played his audience like a fiddle. Racial feeling permeated the trial, even though Killiger and O’Sullivan weren’t fighting a civil rights battle.

“That didn’t enter our thinking,” Killiger said. “Calloway wasn’t trying to open up the Pla-Mor. These people — particularly Calloway’s New York lawyer, and Calloway, too, I think — felt we were entitled to damages . . . Now these other things, of course, were in the background and that’s what beat us.”

After three days of conflicting testimony, the jury convened for 90 minutes. O’Sullivan’s impassioned invocation of the Constitution and his belief that “the citizens of Jackson County are above race prejudice” failed to move them. They returned to the jury box and called it a draw, awarding damages to neither side.

But Sprinkle’s fire-stoking courtroom rhetoric — delivered calmly but forcefully  — left an opening for an appeal. At one point Sprinkle said he had heard a lot of talk about Calloway as a great artist. And that reminded him of the divine right of kings and the excesses of movie stars.

“We have the divine right of artists or musicians,” Sprinkle said. “Therefore, they can do no wrong. Therefore, they are entitled to come into court and say, ‘We are musicians, we are artists, we have done many things, therefore we are entitled to recover.’

“Then I think back about some artists. I can remember Fatty Arbuckle. He was an artist and he dearly paid for the penalty of his crime . . . I can think about Charlie Chaplin. He is an artist.”

Sprinkle, his rhetoric rising to a dramatic peak, rolled on despite O’Sullivan’s exasperated objections.

“I can think about many artists,” Sprinkle said. “I can think about a little artist over in Germany who started the World War. He was an artist. He had a little mustache. He thought he could do no wrong . . .”

Later in the trial, Sprinkle got this jab into the record over O’Sullivan’s objections: “You know, as I listen to these witnesses testify, here is Cab Calloway, now 39, and Felix Payne, 34. And I wondered: Why wasn’t Calloway out doing his share when the war was being fought? . . . Why did he spend his time in this country and other countries playing for the public? Why is that all he has ever done?”

Finally, Sprinkle appealed to the jury by painting Calloway as an outsider.

“You know, in trying this lawsuit, I represent a lot more than the Pla-Mor . . .,” Sprinkle said. “I represent Kansas City. I represent this community. I represent the Kansas City way of life. I represent the way we live and the way we expect others to live. And members of the jury, when you go home tonight and look your families in the eye, I want you to be able to say, ‘Well, I represented Kansas City also, and we didn’t let New York come out and take a chunk out.”

Reflecting on the trial more than 40 years later, Killiger doubted Sprinkle actually held the prejudiced views his courtroom statements suggested. There were times when Sprinkle even represented black clients.

“He was just trying a lawsuit and doing a good job,” Killiger said.

~ ~ ~

The Pla-Mor never paid a dime to Cab Calloway. But the Missouri Supreme Court decided Sprinkle had been a bit overzealous. In 1948 it ruled that Calloway was entitled to a new trial.

There was no basis to compare Calloway to Adolf Hitler, the court ruled. Or to Fatty Arbuckle, a silent movie star who fell from grace after a lurid sex scandal. Or to Charlie Chaplin, another star, whose habit of marrying teenagers inspired the national press to cover every unseemly detail of a paternity suit brought against him in the early ’40s.

Neither was Sprinkle’s suggestion that Calloway was a slacker during the war relevant to the lawsuit, the court said.

And regarding Sprinkle’s claim that he represented the “Kansas City way of life,” the court wrote: “While [ Sprinkle ] disclaimed, elsewhere in argument, any intention to invoke ‘the racial angle,’ the implication in the argument is, we think, unmistakable. Even the wayfaring man would have got that.”

The court’s ruling, as it turned out, was the final episode. A second trial was never held.

“The thing was, it cost Calloway . . . a pile of money to come out here, because he had a whole band sitting idle,” Killiger said. “So it was just kind of dropped by mutual agreement.”

After the first trial, he said, they decided there was little chance that a Jackson County jury would find in favor of Calloway. Looking back, Killiger saw that he and O’Sullivan got an education in Kansas City racial attitudes.

“That was a damned abortion of an outcome,” Killiger said. “O’Sullivan, particularly, was a very liberal-minded guy and I think we were both shocked at the prejudice in the court. Maybe we were naive. We just didn’t anticipate the depth of racial feeling.”

Sample the music that made Kansas City famous.

To learn more about Kansas City’s jazz age and African-American history, visit the Marr Sound Archives, Black Archives of Mid-America, Kansas City Public Library Missouri Valley Room and the American Jazz Museum.

Keep up with arts news at kansascity.com.

© 1988 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

One Comment

  1. I began reading this because I am in search of info about my grandfather that worked at the pla-mor. As I went on there wasnt really anything that would of been about him but I couldnt stop reading, Thank you for this wonderful story. I hope to find info about the swimming pool at Pla-mor if you have any info.
    Again thank you


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