Goodbye to Folk Alliance…and My Accidental Career

Folk Alliance International just wrapped up its fifth year in Kansas City.

Next year the conference, which attracts thousands of musicians from around the world, heads to Montreal.

And in 2020, the conference heads for parts unknown. That has a nice ring to it. I can relate.

Writing as a guy who literally stumbled into journalism in the late 1970s and who will soon stumble out — or, if you prefer, stumble on — I have to say I will sorely miss the annual FAI conference, which I’ve covered since 2015.

The annual shindig that wrapped up earlier this month at the Westin is not like anything else. It’s not really a festival, although the Folk Alliance plans to continue sponsoring an official, annual Kansas City Folk Festival moving forward. But the conference is it’s own weird thing.

The gathering is one part family reunion and one part schmooze-fest  (“It’s a fucking trade show,” is how one musician pal described it.) For any folk musician — or anyone who can rationalize applying the word “folk” to his or her music — this is the place to be. That covers almost everyone — from solo artists performing real folk songs to hip-hop singers, former rock stars and people patching together disparate genres to create something utterly new.


Soul/blues duo Hat Fitz and Cara of Australia rocked the house at Folk Alliance International 2018. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

The idea is that musicians from across North America and the world convene to perform a series of short showcases to impress music promoters, festival producers, DJs and anyone else in a position to boost somebody’s profile so that they may gain (or regain) “traction” for a career path that could easily lead to obscurity and poverty. Or maybe, just maybe, success.

I’ll miss the chance to meet and rub shoulders with that many musicians within four days of jam-packed performing. Before I became an oh-so-serious arts reporter covering theater and institutionalized arts organizations for the Kansas City Star, I had two roles — B-movie critic and pop music writer. Reviewing bad movies was fun (does anyone out there recall The Incredible Melting Man?) but interviewing musicians was even better.

Musicians tend to be unguarded, spontaneous, impolitic. They give you good quotes simply by thinking out loud. Sometimes they give you epithet-riddled poetry, a little like the playwright David Mamet when he wrote good plays back in the ’80s.


Mile Twelve, a progressive bluegrass band out of Boston, performs an official showcase at Folk Alliance International 2018. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

The decade sandwiched between the rowdy ’70s and corporatized ’90s is rightly recalled as an era of hollow movies and plasticized pop music, but interesting things were happening in Kansas City. Once I visited the old Grand Emporium (near 39th and Main) to review The Legendary Blues Band, the group that for years had backed up Muddy Waters. During a break I scored a quick interview with harmonica player Jerry Portnoy and at one point he stared at me through a cloud of cigarette smoke and said something like: “So you mean they pay you to go out and see shows and write things down in your little book?”

Yep. And it’s been a privilege.

Before I landed a job as a copy clerk at the Star in 1977, where my new employers were no doubt impressed by a resume that included college drop-out and liquor-store clerk, much of my time was spent playing the guitar and listening to Townes van Zandt, Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt on vinyl.

The job got me into the Star newsroom, a din of clattering typewriters and teletype machines where heavy-smoking copy editors ground out their butts on the linoleum floor. It was acceptable for reporters and editors to engage in shouting matches and post-shift drinkathons were a cherished tradition.


Jayme Stone’s Folk Life reinterprets historic field recordings in a private showcase at Folk Alliance International 2018. From left, Stone (banjo), Joe Phillips (bass), Moira Smiley (accordion) and Sumaia Jackson (fiddle). (Photo by Donna Trussell)

The world was low-tech and manageable. We bought records at PennyLane when it was still on Troost. Carless for two years, we took the bus and we walked. Sometimes I took cabs to movie theaters in Johnson County and KCK to fulfill movie-reviewing assignments.

I scaled the newsroom ladder, moving up to obit writer, then news clerk, then reporter. All along I cranked out movie reviews for the arts desk. In ’83 I formally joined the arts-and-entertainment staff. And that’s when I discovered the pleasures of interviewing musicians — Jay McShann three times in his east Kansas City apartment, Claude Fiddler Williams twice in his east-side home, Eddie Baker at the Charlie Parker Foundation. I talked to Claude “Blues Boss” Long, a blind guitarist, in his small northeast house. Over time I met the members of Colt. 45, Rich Hill, Ida McBeth, Priscilla Bowman, David Basse. The list goes on and on.

And then there were the telephone interviews: Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Dolly Parton, Tom Jones, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Mose Allison, Pete Seeger, Taj Majal, Tony Bennett and many more.

Some, like Goodman, could be guarded. But most were open and candid. Once I talked to Tony Joe White, the legendary Louisiana swamp rocker. Back in the day Tony Joe had played gigs in my hometown down in South Texas near the Gulf Coast and about midway through the conversation I said: “Look man, I know who you are. I’m from Kingsville, Texas, and I remember when you played the Inferno Club down there.”

Tony Joe fell silent. And after a long pause he said: “Man, you could’ve told me a thousand things and nothin’ would’ve been as weird as you bein’ from Kingsville, Texas.”


Canadians share a laugh during an impromptu collaboration in the BreakOut West Room at FAI2018. Celeigh Cardinal (blue dress) and her band perform with Madeleine Roger (center with acoustic guitar) and guitarist Sam Gleason (far right), who plays with Sarah Jane Scouten. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

Musicians aren’t quite as loose at the FAI conference. They’re on tight schedules and they need to impress people with their professionalism as well as their artistry. But a sense of shared happiness and gratitude permeates the gathering. Everyone’s glad to be among their own kind. Everyone’s happy to be part of something bigger than themselves. That’s why I kept coming back, even after I retired from the Star in 2016.

But that’s always been true of musicians. The music is what matters. The music is what lasts. Folk Alliance gives you a chance to see artists perform in ballrooms and tiny hotel rooms, but in every case the music is what lingers. The music works its way into your psyche and into your soul — which, come to think of it, is precisely what it’s supposed to do.

To read my story on the 2018 FAI conference’s protest musicians, click here.





Four Days of Aggressive Folk Music in Kansas City: FAI 2017


The annual Folk Alliance International conference got underway Feb. 15, 2017 at the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City, kicking off four days of public and private showcases by bands and singers-songwriters from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia, France and other far-flung places, along with bookers, radio hosts and industry professionals. This year the conference attracted about 2,700 registered delegates.

As usual (this is my third year), the performers were full of surprises. The word “folk” can bring to mind hillbillies plunking on banjos or old lefties singing labor songs. But as the conference has illustrated again and again, folk is anything musicians want it to be.


Handmade Moments perform their public showcase at the Folk Alliance International conference in Kansas City. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

Handmade Moments, a high-energy, musically unpredictable Arkansas/California duo, delivered a prime example on opening night. The husky-voiced Anna Horton and gifted guitarist Joel Ludford wove a spell at their public showcase in the Brookside Room that was wild, exciting and unclassifiable. You could hear influences — jazz, bossa nova, punk, hip hop, the aggressive sax style of Fela Kuti — but in the end all you can say is that Horton and Ludford have created their own genre.

In their 25-minute official showcase they embraced the conference’s theme this year: Forbidden Folk. They sang originals about the ecological effects of fracking and other destructive human activities. And they offered a song about the current occupant of the White House. All presidents do damage, Ludford said in his introduction, but Trump “is the most accurate representation of the history of America.”

Their approach to songwriting is utterly original and incorporates vocal beat-box rhythm “tracks,” harmonies and sophisticated jazz-influenced solos on Ludford’s guitar. Horton makes an indelible contribution not only with her remarkable voice but also with her work on the bass clarinet, a commanding instrument almost as long as she is tall. But this instrument is not just an adornment. She puts real muscle behind it.


Handmade Moments performs a private showcase after their public performance earlier on the opening night of the 2017 FAI conference. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

Later that evening, when I caught the first private hotel-room showcases of the conference, Handmade Moments demonstrated their astounding versatility with a set that had a completely different feel. Horton and Ludford switched off on standup bass and sang quirky originals and old jazz tunes they learned during a spell in New Orleans.

As performers, Ludford and Horton are charming and funny, but it’s their music that sticks with you. The compelling and addictive thing about Folk Alliance International is the opportunity to hear music you never would have even known about, much less cross the street to hear. Handmade Moments did all that, and so did others.

Al Scorch, a singer-songwriter out of Chicago who records with Bloodshot Records, writes original material that is raucous, poetic and intense. He’s a genial, lumbering presence on stage whose candid asides between tunes are acerbic but endearing. His songs reflect social and political issues, but always with a human face. Scorch performs mainly on the banjo and fiddler Jess McIntosh gave him accomplished support at his showcase. Their punkish music has little to do with genres we normally associate with the fiddle and banjo.

Track Dogs is a four-member band that, although based in Madrid, consists of two Irishmen, one Englishman and an American. Their unique instrumentation includes guitar (Garrett Wall), banjo and flamenco rhythm box (Robbie K. Jones), trumpet (Howard Brown) and electric bass (Dave Mooney). As you might expect from that lineup, their music is eclectic, with strains of Irish traditions, Spanish influences, rock, pop and jazz. It’s a seductive stew.


Lead singer Garrett Wall of the Madrid-based Irish-English-American band Track Dogs. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

At Folk Alliance these guys performed with feverish intensity. As Wall explained during their set, they were trying to squeeze a 90-minute show into 25 minutes. A memorable original, “So Much Dust,” reflected on human existence:

You do all you can/To fight the good fight like a man/But times like these they take too much/And all we have to show is so much dust.

A song for our times.

The Jellyman’s Daughter, a three-piece Scottish band out of Edinburgh, shared a private showcase with The Bean Project from Melbourne, Australia. Emily Kelly and Graham Coe, founders of Jellyman’s Daughter, wove stunning vocal harmonies with Coe’s percussive work on the cello. The Bean Project founders, guitarist Ben Langdon and Bryce Turcato on French horn, created a distinctive sound, thanks principally to Turcato’s amazing solos on the horn.

To close Wednesday evening, I caught part of a private showcase by the The Railsplitters, an innovative five-piece band out of Colorado. I saw this exceptional bunch at last year’s conference. They employ the instruments of bluegrass, but they make their own music, which can be as creative as any jazz band.

Blues, a genre inextricably (and blissfully) tied to folk music, showed up in Kansas City thanks to at least two master instrumentalists.

Lloyd Spiegel, an Australian man-mountain, is arguably the best guitarist I’ve ever heard live. His mind-blowing finger work is so smooth that he hardly seems to break a sweat, and his voice is the other half of the show.


Australian bluesman Lloyd Spiegel amazed with his fluid finger work at the 2017 FAI conference. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

A lot of people play guitar, but nobody does it quite like Spiegel, who has been making music professionally since he was 16 years old. He tells a fascinating story about legendary bluesman Brownie McGhee. After hearing Spiegel’s debut album, which included a couple of McGhee covers, McGhee called the Aussie father. The old bluesman made an offer: Let the kid come live with McGhee in Oakland, Calif. and he’ll teach him how to play the McGhee tunes he thinks he knows. Thus began a remarkable apprenticeship.

Since then Spiegel has spent considerable time in the states, including Chicago and Kansas City. He plays with a breathtaking authority, and he doesn’t just stick to blues. He can play lyrical material as well. Thursday night he proved himself an excellent storyteller between numbers in a 25-minute set — which included his instantly memorable original, “If I Killed Ya When I Met Ya (I’d Be Out of Jail By Now).”

Later on Thursday night I caught a private showcase by Tony Furtadoa formidable player on guitar and banjo from Portland, Ore. His style is rooted in the blues, but he performs a range of material, including originals. On guitar he often used a slide on his little finger, which he employed with dazzling results. The slide added texture and freshness to tunes like Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home.”


Guitar and banjo wizard Tony Furtado of Portland, Ore., performs a private showcase at the 2017 FAI conference. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

His repertoire also included a classic folk song, “Peggy-O,” and a Furtado original: “Astoria,” an addictive instrumental he performed on the banjo cello. In Furtado’s hands, the deep-toned instrument sounds more aggressive than a bluegrass banjo. He had to keep things tight in his 25-minute set, but I got the feeling he could have easily played the tune as long as his fingers were up to it.

One thing became clear during Folk Alliance International: Bluegrass ain’t exactly bluegrass anymore.


Barefoot Movement out of Nashville perform at Benton’s on the 20th floor of the Westin Crown Center. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

I caught part of a private showcase by The Barefoot Movement, a Nashville band whose sound transcends the genre. I’m glad I was there for a beautiful waltz-time ballad, “The Second Time Around.” Later I watched their full public showcase and took note of their versatility. Fiddler and lead vocalist Noah Wall, guitarist and singer Alex Conerly, mandolinist Tommy Norris and bassist Katie Blomarz are excellent instrumentalists. And lead singer Wall is a charismatic presence. And yes, they do perform barefoot.

Trout Steak Revival, like The Barefoot Movement and The Railsplitters, employs traditional bluegrass instruments to their own ends. The Denver band’s original tunes and arrangements are structured less like traditional bluegrass than…well, pop music. The band’s five members, Will Koster (guitar and dobro), Bevin Foley (fiddle), Travis McNamara (banjo), Casey Houlihan (bass) and Steve Foltz (guitar and mandolin), are all fine instrumentalists, and four of them can handle lead vocals, which tells you something about their versatility. Tunes like “Go On” and “Brighter Every Day” stick with you.


10 String Symphony impressed with unique original material and phenomenal musicianship at the 2017 FAI conference. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

I encountered two duos who are also part of the bluegrass family, more or less. The Brother Brothers combine fiddle and cello and sublime harmonies. Adam and David Moss really are brothers and they really can sing. 10 String Symphony, based in Nashville, consists of two champion fiddlers,  Rachel Baiman and Christian Sedelmyer. Their original material, represented no better than by “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” is innovative and exciting and they proved to be fine harmony singers.


The crowd loved Coco Love Alcorn at her public showcase at the 2017 FAI conference. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

Canadian Coco Love Alcorn might be described as a secular gospel artist. In her 25-minute set, I didn’t hear “God” or “Heaven” mentioned, but her music has a natural spiritual feel. Her lyric writing is economical and vivid. When she combines the words with irresistible melodies, the result is magnetic. Alcorn performed with two polished sidemen, bassist Connor Walsh and percussionist Jon Foster, both of whom provided backup vocals. The crowd loved her.


Alysha Brilla conquered the audience at her 2017 FAI conference showcase. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

Another Canadian, Alysha Brilla, wowed a packed house at Benton’s (on the 20th floor) with her charismatic stage presence, humor, transcendent voice and serious lyrics. In her brightly colored dress and blouse, she projected the image of a tropical flower — an explosion of color and grace, delicate but powerful. (And she played the only blue guitar I saw at the conference.) Accompanied by percussionist/bassist Sammy Duke, Brilla won the crowd over with her infectious originals, including “Immigrant,” “Bigger Than That” and “No More Violence.”


Songwriter Dan Martin performs in the Oklahoma Room at the 2017 FAI conference. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

My schedule didn’t allow time for many regional rooms — Alaska, Wisconsin, Sweden, Canada — but I did pop into the Oklahoma Room, where I caught a short set by singer-songwriter Dan Martin  that included his “You Don’t Know This Town Like Me” and the imaginative “Cannon’s Lament.”

Another talented Tulsa songwriter, Robert Hoefling, performed originals that included one of my favorites — “Midnight Daydream.” That short, deceptively simple song is a gem.


Robert Hoefling of Tulsa performs in the Oklahoma Room. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

One Oklahoman I didn’t get to see is Chris Lee Becker, but I picked up a copy of his CD, “Imaginary Friends,” which reveals him to be an acerbic, inventive and often raucous songwriter. There are some serious tunesmiths down in the state that boasts the birthplace of Woody Guthrie.


The Lemon Bucket Orkestra brought organized chaos to Benton’s during the Canadian band’s 2017 FAI public showcase. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

I first encountered the Lemon Bucket Orkestra in the Westin lobby, where the 11-member band (including a “gypsy” dancer) played a spontaneous set of what sounded like Eastern European and maybe Middle Eastern jams performed frantically with a punkish, theatrical sensibility. Later I caught part of their showcase at Benton’s, but the noise level quickly drove me to the elevator. During the setup I noticed that almost every instrument, including the tuba, was individually miked. Strange, since they would have been plenty loud with no microphones at all.


Ariana Gillis pumps intensity into an upstairs hotel room at the 2017 FAI conference. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

The conference theme this year was Forbidden Folk, a nod to folk music’s long, honorable tradition of protest songs. I heard a few, but none so effective as “Freedom,” an original song by Ariana Gillis. At her late-night private showcase, Gillis delivered a plaintive call to action.

Freedom, freedom where have you been? she sang. I’ve been missing you so long.
Guns and soldiers, bullets, patrollers. Freedom never felt so wrong.

Says it all in the hyper-polarized, fragmented political era in which we find ourselves.

Folk music seems to have a North American identity, thanks to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and others. But this conference draws people from all over the world. Indeed, FAI’s executive director, Aengus Finnan, is a Canadian born in Ireland.

 Nobody has a patent on folk music, American or otherwise. And now there’s a curious sub-genre: Americana performed by non-Americans. That concept is the brain child of radio host Michael Park. His show, “The International Americana Music Show,” is carried on a number of  U.S. public radio stations as well as international outlets.


The French band Doolin’ brought its unique brand of Celtic and Americana to the 2017 FAI conference. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

Park hosted his own stage at the conference and that’s where I saw the French band Doolin. In an intense, 25-minute set, the five-member group sometimes performed in English, sometimes in French, but regardless of the song’s origins the band delivered it expertly.

Instruments include guitar, whistle, bass, accordion and electric bass. These guys are fun to watch onstage, and if the music sounds more Irish than American (besides a cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”) no one was complaining. Without question, this is a great band.

Blair Dunlop, a singer-songwriter from England, shares his countrymen’s proclivity for an expansive vocabulary and a dry sense of humor. How many Americans would use “ascertain” in a lyric, as Dunlop does in “She Won’t Cry For Me”? In “Sweet on You” he sings: “If you don’t like Ry Cooder, how could I ever be sweet on you?” In a new song he incorporated the phrase “hydraulic electricity” into the lyrics, “which,” he said, “is my career highlight to date.”

One afternoon I stepped into a private showcase where The Changing Room, an elegant folk band based in Cornwall, shared an absurdly small space with two American songwriters — Mary Battiata of Washington DC and Ali Sperry of Nashville.

Forcing three acts to share a 25-minute slot seems crazy, but all involved persevered. Batavia, a former Washington Post reporter, has a soft, traveled voice and an appealing laid-back presence. Sperry shared a memorable romantic ballad, “Our Biography,” which she co-wrote as a duet with Robby Hecht.

The Changing Room sings in English and Cornish. Led by founders Tanya Brittain and
Sam Kelly, the band creates a unique sound with a combination of accordion, guitar, harp and banjo. “A River Runs Between,” an original, was lovely.

I attended the conference with my wife, Donna Trussell, who took the pictures you see here. Asked in the second or third day how she was doing, her response spoke for me and a lot of other people: “Exhausted. Happy.”

Robert Coleman Trussell is a musician and freelance writer covering the arts in Kansas City. He wrote an advance piece on the conference and FAI’s future in Kansas City for the January issue of KC Studio.

Shtick and history: Renaissance Festival offers mud, sweat and cleavage


As I approached the main gate to the Kansas City Renaissance Festival, I heard war drums pounding away just inside the compound, and my pulse quickened.

What lay in store? Acrobats? A stunt show? Dueling swordsmen?

To my right was an impossible-to-miss figure standing on the periphery of a grassy field where an archery competition apparently was to be held. Certainly there were archers in the Renaissance era — generally considered to span the 14th to 17th centuries as a bridge between the Middle Ages and modern Europe — but this fellow would have been an odd sight on the streets of Shakespeare’s London or Michelangelo’s Rome. I shall call him Thor, because he was costumed as a bearded Norse warrior holding a massive hammer in one paw.

Thus, even before I entered the grounds, was I introduced to the fungible definition of “renaissance” at the annual Renfest, which began decades ago as a fundraiser by the Kansas City Art Institute but is now a commercial enterprise operated by a Minnesota-based company.


The King and Queen lead the daily parade through the festival grounds. Photo by Robert Trussell

Inside the gates, I saw a number of young women wearing plastic elves’ ears (Were there more elves in the Renaissance than other eras?), a man wearing what appeared to be a Plains Indian feathered headdress and, of course, a few court jesters.

So, too, were there “bawdy” wenches with expansive decolletage, costumed strollers greeting visitors with “Good day, sir,” and boys and men dressed as medieval knights. There were moments when the mashup of incongruities became so vivid that I felt like I had stumbled into the multispecies cantina in “Star Wars.” Sadly, I saw no White Walkers (the frozen zombies from the pseudo-medieval “Game of Thrones.”)

People strolled around munching fried chicken served in paper cartons and enormous turkey legs. You could buy a $6 domestic beer if the sun made you thirsty. As you moved through the fairgrounds, there were times when the air was filled with the smell of hot grease and others where the dominant aroma brought to mind a cow lot. And, thanks to the recent rains, you had to sidestep patches of mud.


Mounted knights join the parade and will soon meet in the lists. Photo by Robert Trussell

But there wasn’t much to do with the real Renaissance. Nowhere did I find a single reference to William Shakespeare, Johannes Gutenberg or Galileo — not that a visit to the festival is meant to be a scholarly pursuit.

No, the general era conveyed by the stage shows, attractions and gift shops spread across 16 acres in Wyandotte County invites a description no less vague than “olden.” As in Ye Olde (fill in the blank) Shoppe.

The war drums, it turned out, weren’t warlike at all. Just loud. They were part of an early-afternoon performance by Soul Fire, a “gypsy” troupe of young men and women who danced, tumbled (rolling in the dirt), twirled flaming batons and indulged in PG-rated banter with the audience.

Within minutes it was time for the parade — the daily procession in which most if not all of the resident performers fell in and toured the festival grounds with drums and trumpets. Knights on horseback, kings and queens, dancers and clowns shuffled, marched and pranced through a Sunday-afternoon throng of spectators. Bringing up the rear was the masked Executioner, an axe resting across one shoulder, who repeatedly called out: “Parade’s over! Bye-bye! You can all go home now!”

I followed the parade through the wooded festival site to the jousting arena, which is one of the festival’s big selling points.

The bleachers were packed by the time I got there and when the fellow dressed something like Henry VIII told the audience through his wireless microphone that they were to see merely a demonstration, the spectators were audibly disappointed.

“There will be no bloodshed today,” the King told them and a collective “aww …” rippled across the crowd.

I expected some bad theater and the alleged jousting didn’t disappoint. There was more talking than fighting as the King and Queen traded quips with the armored Sir Arthur, Sir Malcolm and Sir Duncan, who sat on costumed horses. The shaky accents, I could tell, were meant to sound British. First the mounted knights competed by spearing rings tossed in the air by a female squire. Finally, it came down to the real matchup — a joust between Arthur and Duncan.

On the third pass, Arthur unseated Duncan, who slowly fell to the dirt without injuring himself. Then they fought with swords. Let it be said the level of violence was less than shocking.

The festival has plenty of entertainment for family and kids. There’s a stand near the lists that sells foam swords. There’s a petting zoo. You can pay to ride horses, ponies, llamas, camels — even an elephant. There’s musical entertainment at stages throughout the park. But there’s also stuff for people in the market for something less than wholesome.

That’s why I ducked into the Dungeon Museum and paid $2 for a quick walk-through. The first window showed me the skull crusher, which worked something like a vise. The minimal written information in each display informed me that most of these interesting inventions were employed to extract confessions. No kidding. I’d confess to anything if the skull crusher were wrapped around my cranium.

It’s a short tour and the ineptly crafted mannequins representing torture victims won’t score points for realism. Yet the museum, whether by design or not, stood as a reminder that the Renaissance, for all its stunning achievements in art, philosophy and mathematics, had a grotesque side that reflected the worst in human nature.

With that happy thought, I called it a day and headed for the exit.

This article was originally published in the Kansas City Star on Sept. 23, 2015. Visit


Filmmakers and theater artists in KC find symbiosis

This story originally appeared Sept. 23, 2013 on

By Robert Trussell

Forrest Attaway had nobody but himself to blame.

One day the actor found himself on a remote country road somewhere out in Kansas, where filmmakers Mitch Brian and Todd Norris were shooting him from various angles and distances to put together a 60-second trailer promoting the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre production of “The Rainmaker.”

“There was not a QuikTrip or anything within 30 miles of this place,” Attaway said.

469385283_640In the play Attaway plays a character named Starbuck, a confidence man who blows into a drought-stricken rural community selling his services as someone who can bring rain.

“Originally my idea was Starbuck’s just standing out in the field and the camera pans in and moves in on one eye and you see a lightning bolt in his eye,” Attaway said.

Brian and Norris didn’t have the equipment to do it in one shot the way Attaway envisioned it. But they accomplished the same thing in a series of cuts that go from an extreme long shot of Attaway coming down a dirt road to an extreme close-up of his eye where, indeed, a lightning bolt flashes.

It wasn’t a particularly hot day, but they were able to shoot Attaway from far enough away that heat waves can be seen rising from the dirt. And in the editing process they turned the lush greenery on the roadsides parched and brown.

“They made it a better idea,” Attaway said. “I love those cats.”

A still from the Jetpack trailer for "The Rainmaker."

A still from the Jetpack trailer for “The Rainmaker.”

The slick trailer for “The Rainmaker,” shot in muted colors, is one of several Brian and Norris have made over the last year or two for local theater companies. Their first effort was a short promotional film for the Living Room’s 2012 production of “Bucket of Blood,” a play Brian wrote based on the 1959 Roger Corman cult film, in which interviews with artists involved were intercut with scenes from the public-domain film.

Since then they’ve shot trailers for “Burn This,” “Fool for Love” and “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll” at the Living Room; “The Rainmaker,” their first for the MET; and “The Mountaintop” and “Venus in Fur” for the Unicorn. Their latest is a promo for “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” which opens at the Fishtank Peformance Studio this weekend.

Visit a theater company’s website and you find videos, but often they fall into two categories: yakking talking heads and performance footage shot from a stationary camera. Brian and Norris are offering a third option: Deftly edited little movies meant to stimulate the viewer’s curiosity.

“We’ve all seen those bad local TV commercials with bad lighting,” Brian said. “And it never makes me want to see the play.”

Norris put it this way: “What’s more fun as a filmmaker? To shoot a rehearsal? Or make a minimovie?”

Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo in a still from the "Venus in Fur" trailer

Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo in a still from the “Venus in Fur” trailer

Not so long ago, filmmakers in Kansas City did their thing, and theater folk did theirs. There wasn’t much overlap between the two communities. But that’s changing. When Attaway directed “Fool for Love” for the Living Room earlier this year, he cast one experienced stage actor — Robert Elliott — but for the other roles turned to performers who had mainly worked in film — Amy Kelly, Jason Miller and Curtis Smith.

“I like the more real, gritty kind of film acting,” Attaway said. He added that the trailers Brian and Norris are shooting might be one way to achieve what every theater company wants: Finding a younger audience.

“Anything we can do to bring that younger audience in has to have that familiar feel to it,” he sad. “We were all raised on television and movies.”

Brian, who had supported himself as a screenwriter for years, had never considered writing a play until sitting through rehearsals and performances of the Coterie Theatre’s second production of “Night of the Living Dead,” in which his daughter played a zombie.

“After watching ‘Night of the Living Dead’ for 10 performances, I realized I knew how I could do this,” he said.

Jeff Church, the Coterie’s artistic director, approached him about writing a “Living Dead” sequel. The result was a 2009 production of “Maul of the Dead,” a comedic gorefest directed by Ron Megee, which began with zombies chasing security officers into the lobby of the Off Center Theatre before the audience had been seated.

“For me it was great,” Brian said. “I didn’t want any blackouts. I wanted to write sustained action, which you don’t get to do when you’re writing a movie.”

Subsequently, Brian wrote “Sorority House of the Dead,” an homage to 1980s slasher movies, which was staged by Megee at the Living Room. Then came “Bucket of Blood,” also performed at the Living Room. Now he’s firmly in the Living Room orbit. All three plays have been published and have been produced elsewhere, including two productions in Australia.

The cross-pollination between art disciplines in Kansas City is at an all-time high, Brian said.

“There’s a lot of creative synergy right now,” he said. “There’s a lot more crossover. There’s just a creative vibe going on in Kansas City.”

Norris said shooting the trailers has introduced him to a community of artists he hadn’t known.

“Mitch is much more familiar with the theater scene than I am,” Norris said. “I am very new to this so one of the fun things for me doing these promos is meeting all these terrific actors. So for me it’s like networking.”

An image from the "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll'" trailer for the Living Room.

An image from the “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll'” trailer for the Living Room.

Shooting the trailers has fundamentally changed the way Norris thinks about actors and playwrights.

“It went from a zero to a thousand for me,” Norris said. “I was one of those guys who had never seen good theater. My perception of theater was: ‘This is kind of lame, sort of stupid.’ But when I started seeing good theater at the Living Room and other places, I was like, ‘Oh, now I get it.’ I’m kind of a born-again theatergoer right now.”

When Attaway approached Karen Paisley, the MET’s artistic director, and pitched the idea for shooting a “Rainmaker” trailer, she didn’t hesitate.

“I said, let’s go for it,” Paisley said. “It’s interesting when you’re working with a modern audience. We can’t make theater be a medium that it isn’t, but helping people access something in their imagination in a mode of communication that is acceptable to them is not a bad idea. I love the whole look of it.”

Cynthia Levin, the artistic director of the Unicorn, said she first saw some of Brian and Norris’ work at a fundraiser for the Living Room. She invited them to shoot a promo for “The Mountaintop,” the final show of the previous season, which resulted in a moody black-and-white piece showing actors Walter Coppage and Chioma Anyanwu performing short clips of dialogue.

Levin said she was pleased with their work and wanted them back.

“The quality is fantastic,” she said. “They’re filmmakers. They do really great work, and I just knew I wanted them to do something for ‘Venus in Fur’ to open the season.”

Brian and Norris first worked together when Brian directed “Stay Clean,” a short film based on a James Ellroy story. Norris was the director of photography. They’ve worked independently and in partnership with others, but the work they do together falls under the umbrella of their company, Jetpack Pictures.

Where can they be seen? There’s no central forum for that. Some of Brian and Norris’s work can be seen on the Unicorn and Living Room websites. Videos cannot be embedded on the MET’s website at the moment. But the minimovies get shared widely on Facebook and Jetpack Pictures has its own Vimeo channel.

Brian said he and Norris hope to expand their client list and make trailers for other theater companies in town.

“No one has been disappointed yet,” he said. “A lot of it is getting people to trust you. We’ve both been making films since we were kids. So we have got a combined 70 years of filmmaking experience. It sounds awful but it’s true. We live and breathe this stuff.”

© 2013 Kansas City Star

Drag queens, circa 1880

Note: This article appeared in the Nov. 26, 1880 edition of the Kansas City Evening Star.  There was no byline. This is a verbatim transcription.

The Kansas City Evening Star (from microfilm)

The Kansas City Evening Star (from microfilm)


Female Impersonators — Their Manners, Customs, Life and Amusements

A Queer Set of Men Who Make From Thirty to One Hundred and Fifty Dollars a Week

By Aping the Frailer and Fairer Sex — Some Ridiculous Love Scenes

Among the many queer people on this terrestrial ball, the variety actors and actresses may be set down as the queerest. They constitute a little world in themselves to which all other people are merely visitors. They have their grades, their heroes, their scandals, their butts of ridicule, their philosophers, their aristocracy, middle class and lower ten thousand just like the busy world of which they form a very important yet exclusive factor, all of which is introductory to the subject of female impersonators in general and some in particular who are the queerest of all these.


Two of this class are now performing at one of the variety theatres. Their stage names are Lansing and St. Leon, and an Evening Star reporter interviewed them in regard to their business with very satisfactory results. One fact that would interest anyone from a Methodist deacon to a sport is the number of “mashes” that these men in the guise of women have made in their travels. It is an actual fact, well substantiated, , that men of intelligence and wealth have fallen madly in love with them. Some of these cases, The Evening Star proposes to relate.


While playing on the island opposite Philadelphia, Lansing made the acquaintance of a rich resident of the Quaker City, who became very much infatuated with him. Lansing was playing Columbine in the Farette pantomime troupe, and formed the singular acquaintanceship in the green room of the theatre. The man was a prominent citizen , and the case became very interesting to the actors and actresses , who carried out the joke so well that the duped man did not discover the sex of his idol for several months. In the meantime he fairly revelled in his absorbing love passion, and every day presented Lansing with silk dresses, laces, jewelry, or some costly article to the great delight of the recipient and his friends. He pressed


to let him see her outside of the green room, but Lansing invariably refused, and never met him unless fully equipped for the stage. Finally the enamored suitor became so pressing that the secret could no longer be kept, and so one night the object of his affections, just before going up on the stage, revealed his sex. The distinguished resident of the city of white window-blinds was paralyzed for a few minutes, and then solemnly declared that he did not believe it, and continued his attentions for several more months, until he was thoroughly convinced that he had been duped, when he desisted, much disgusted with the turn of events.


In Terre Haute, Ind., about five weeks ago, a prominent railroader beheld the fascinating can-can performed by St. Leon and Lansing and was very much struck with it. Without troubling himself to investigate the programme, he went into the green room and inaugurated a very violent flirtation. He ordered wine at a big price per bottle and the two female impersonators drank it. Then he ordered more which went to join the first bottles and he furthermore kept on ordering until $100 of the costly beverage had been consumed, by which time he was very much elevated, though strange to say the alleged females were reasonably sober. Then he proposed that they go out with him on


and after much solicitation, they agreed, but first excusing themselves they retired and resumed their natural garb, after which they returned to the green room, “guyed” him a little without being recognized and quitting the theatre went up the street leaving their friend leaning against a telegraph pole waiting for his lady companions. It was three o’clock in the morning and very cold, but the railroad official waited with a persistence worthy of a better cause. Returning in fifteen minutes they watched  him until they became chilled, when they walked past him on their way home, leaving him still braced against the post


Here in Kansas City the dupes are numbered by the dozens, and over $100 in bets have changed hands upon the question of their sex. They receive visitors every night who become smitten with their bogus charms and furnish any amount of fun to the actors and actresses in the green room.

Kelly and Leon sheet music from the Harvard Theatre Collection

Kelly and Leon sheet music from the Harvard Theatre Collection

Female impersonators form a very exclusive class among actors. As a rule they are, outside of their business, very effeminate, and are not in high favor with the members of the profession. Ricardos, Justin Robinson and Leon, who traveled with Kelly & Leon’s minstrels, are among the most noted. Leon was thought, by those who ought to know, to have been a woman, and there are many facts to bear out this belief. The writer was personally acquainted with


at the Grand Opera House, Chicago, now the New Chicago Theater. At that time there existed between the men an intense affection, which was of the nature of a passion, which should or could exist between men. In addition to this, they loved each other far in excess of even the most intense masculine relationship. Many are familiar with the history of Leon’s humorous intrigue with Coal Oil Johnny, from whom Leon received presents of fabulous value — by some estimated as high as a million dollars; at any rate, whether he received these presents or not, he assisted in no small degree in despoiling that very famous young man of all his many dollars. Leon died in Australia several years ago.


Another very famous female impersonator is Gus Mills, now playing his second season in Leadville. He is the most singular of his tribe. He not only personates female character on but also off the stage. He dresses like a woman on all occasions, associates with the opposite sex, associates with the opposite sex, with whom he is a great favorite; cuts, fts and sews all his own dresses, underwear, etc., in fact performs all the duties of a woman and completes this strange anomaly by falling in love with men. As a female impersonator he draws a huge salary and is a most remarkable success, but as a man he is a gigantic failure and not worth the powder that would blow his effeminate soul to purgatory.


There is another singular circumstance connected with this subject and that is that off the stage there are many men who are so effeminate that they dress constantly as women, act like women and become as womanly as possible. In all large cities, and to a greater or less extent in Kansas City, these men are to be found. In Chicago they are so numerous as to form a class by themselves, and it is no uncommon thing for a score of them to be seen at a masquerade ball, acting their parts so well that they make any amount of conquests. To while away the hours they congregate in each other’s rooms and occupy themselves in cutting and fitting


in which they dress when they give their private parties, known as “drags,” where they take the place of women and invite a select gang. The “drags” are kept very quiet or the police would not hesitate to raid them. So secret have they kept these dances that they have never been exposed by the lynx-eyed reporters of the Chicago papers; still they exist, as can easily be proven if search is made diligently.

There are worlds within worlds, circles within circles, and The Evening Star has opened one of the innermost to the gaze of the public. It is a strange subject, and the people are strange characters. What is their economy in this world is “one of those things no fellah can find out,” and must be relegated to the list of unanswerable conundrums, in which are included the questions “Of what use is the bedbug, the New Jersey gallnipper and a lawyer.”


1. “Coal Oil Johnny” refers to John Washington Steele, a 19th century heir to an oil fortune who spent astounding sums according to his whims but died in near poverty. I haven’t dug very deeply but at the moment I’m unaware of any evidence corroborating the assertion that Steele lavished gifts on a female impersonator named St. Leon.

2. Gus Mills was a well-known female impersonator who did, indeed, appear often in Leadville, Colo. His most famous role, apparently, was Pocahontas.

3. Kelly & Leon refers to Edwin Kelly and Francis Leon, who led a blackface minstrel troupe and performed internationally. Leon was highly regarded as a female impersonator, prompting a New Zealand critic to write: “Were it not announced that this artist belonged to the male sex, people would be quite ignorant of the fact, as neither by word, look, nor gesture is it betrayed.” The performer named St. Leon, interviewed by the Evening Star, was likely not Francis Leon, but someone cashing in on his fame. Francis Leon often was billed as “The Only Leon.”

4. The abrupt change in tone in the final phrase of the paragraph on Gus Mills suggests the brutal hand of a disapproving editor — perhaps William Rockhill Nelson himself.

5. I have no explanation for the obscure quotes in the mystifying final paragraph of the article.

KC Fringe: Where comedy and tragedy share time and space

The Kansas City Star
How nice it would be to see every single KC Fringe performance. Alas, that would be impossible unless your humble theater critic could be cloned three times over.

But the best of five shows I caught during the first weekend of the annual festival was “Thank You Notes: Headed to Heaven With Flat Jimmy Fallon,” a play by Vicki Vodrey, for whom raucous humor and profound tragedy are in no way incompatible.

Scott Cox and Vanessa Severo in “Thank You Notes: Headed to Heaven With Flat Jimmy Fallon.” (Megan True/Kansas City Star)

Steven Eubank directed the show, which is playing at the Unicorn Theatre during the festival, and had the benefit of a superior cast in the form of Vanessa Severo, Scott Cox and Mandy Mook. Severo plays Angela, a suicide victim who becomes an irreverent presence at her own funeral as her twin brother Ethan (Cox) reads a eulogy composed entirely of “thank-you notes” Angela wrote before she died.

The play is an eccentric comedy in the early going, but its seriousness is revealed as Angela’s notes become increasingly revelatory. The funeral becomes a transformative event for Ethan and his wife, Betsy (Mook).

Severo and Cox are equally matched, each handling difficult roles with spectacular results. This play is disturbing, but it’s also inspiring. Vodrey has a unique voice. There’s one more performance at 8 p.m. Friday at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St.

Other shows from the first weekend:

•  “Ice Cream Social … Issues” by Natalie and Talia Liccardello is a clever comedy about a family intervention that goes as wrong as possible. People have gathered for an ice cream social in a church basement in an effort to get help for a family member who is a heroin addict. Everything deteriorates rapidly. Manon Halliburton, as a Xanax-gobbling aunt with control issues, is excellent. She delivers a memorable comic performance and anchors an excellent cast. Directed by Warren Deckert, who demonstrates a keen eye for character details.

Performances are at 6:30 p.m. today and 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St.

Manon Halliburton, left, and Danelle Drury in “Ice Cream Social . . . Issues.” (Megan True/Kansas City Star)

•  “Tack Driver,” written and directed by Jerry Genochio. I caught this on the opening night of the festival, and I imagine it’s considerably different now. This is Genochio’s first play, in which Kyle Hatley and Matt Rapport are cast as brothers who swore an oath to kill their abusive stepfather. Apparently rewrites could continue right through the festival. At times on opening night, Hatley and Rapport performed holding pages with new dialogue. It’s intriguing and rich with possibilities — and it’s fun to watch Hatley and Rapport work together. It’s at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Off Center Theatre in Crown Center.

•  “Foreign Bodies” by Arika Larson. Larson’s three-character comedy imagines what might happen if a gay man and a lesbian fell in love. Directed by Scott Cordes, this smart comedy of manners about sex and love in an urban, digital world highlights Greg Brostrom, Kate O’Neill and Missy Fennewald. It continues at 6 p.m. today and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central St.

•  “4Play,” a quartet of one-acts by Jose Faus, Ken Buch, Michelle T. Johnson and Jack Phillips. This grouping of short comedies covers religious mania, sex, love and hypocrisy with varying degrees of success. Best of the bunch: “As the Guiding Light Turns,” a witty piece by Johnson about church politics and sexuality. See it at 11 p.m. Friday and 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St.

Read more theater news at

(c) 2012 by the Kansas City Star

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

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