Kansas City's Fairmount Park

by John M. Olinskey & Debra Topi

Chapter 8:  1899
VAUDEVILLE
Kansas City's Fairmount Park ~ Kansas City History, Sugar Creek History, Independence, Missouri History, and more
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 Last season's 4th annual Horse Show was the last, blowing 23K hurt.  The local entrepreneurs now had the new Convention Hall downtown to invest in.  Horses were losing their value and bicycles were also seeing depreciation.  Sales would soon plunge.  A new word was creeping into the vocabulary, au-tow-mo-bil, with the accent on the third syllable.

Park Management also changed.  Mrs. E. C. Loomis was now in charge of the Fairmount Hotel, while the park now had two managers, Mr. Lehman and Mr. Rosenthal.  The season was under the thumb of the Orpheum Amusement Company.  

Fairmount Park's eight season was unlike any other.  For the first time there were no new expensive projects.  Things also got started late.  Professor W. O. Wheeler was again put in charge of the new Fairmount Park military band.  The 3rd Regiment Band, which had been so popular in the years past, would not return.  On Sunday, May 21st, concerts were given at 3:00 P.M. and then again at 8:00 P.M. in the band stand.  Weekday concerts were put on hold. 

The grand opening of the new "Fairmount Park and Orpheum" was Sunday, June 4th.  This season's emphasis was on Vaudeville.  Nine big acts were the draw.  In the theater there was a complete high-class bill, like Melville and Stetson, Reno and Richards, Lorenz and Allen and the Four Nelson Sisters.  At the lake a gent by the name of Charles Marsh dove from a height of 49 feet into a lake with his bicycle.  Lenge's Orpheum Band was in the stand.  The park's mottos this year were "Cost You Nothing," "Everything For Free," and "Something Going On All The Time."

On an enchantingly beautiful Sunday afternoon, the Old Settlers Association held a basket picnic.  Some of the local history makers were in attendance.  Talks were given by military men like Major Warner.  General Blair sent a letter regarding the battle of Westport.  Fighting Joe Hooker arrived by train.  There were politicians like Congressman Cowherd.  The cloth was represented by Father Dalton.  Some who could not attend, many due to their health, sent histories for others to read.  Mrs. Sarah Lykins Russell, on of the oldest settlers to this area, read a paper on the early history of Kansas City.  Oldsters from both Kansas City, Kansas and Independence were invited to partake.  

Toward the end of June, the champion lady swimmer of the world, Cora Beckwith, a British subject, visited the park.  One hell of a swimmer, she had swam the English Channel when she was just 15 years old.  A few years later she floated for 12 hours a day for 40 days!  She was already credited with saving 49 lives, so she demonstrated what to do to save a drowning person.  She also showed off the famous Beckwith Backward Sweep.  Another European feature was the Faust family of some fame.  The former Horse Show grounds were again being used for baseball.  Teams like the Kansas City Billard Makers played Bruce Lumber Company.

Fairmount's 4th of July celebration reflected the worldliness of the new America, a world power.  Burmese Football is similar to soccer, except the ball is made out of wicker; whoever touches it or lets it hit the ground loses.  Good players, like Moung Toom and Moung Chit could pass it back and forth for hours without a foul.  Juggling was their forte.  Bubble thin glass balls that broke at the slightest wrong move were used, glistening in the sun like crystal, never touching their hands.  In the band stand was Lenge's Military Band.  A musical battle of Manila, complete with cannon, rockets, rifle fire and flashing lights, gave two performances a day.  The Manhattan Four comedy team headed the Vaudeville bill in the theater.  The usual fireworks display on the lake was again the biggest in town and "It Cost You Nothing!"

In the popularity contest this 4th of July, Fairmount Park came in first, Troost Park second, and Washington Park was almost deserted.  Only 300 people spent the day there, in what was to be the park's last 4th.

The remainder of the season was given to Vaudeville, for that was what the Orpheum Amusement Company was all about.  Martin Beck owned 10 Vaudeville theaters and a piece of 25 more from Chicago to San Francisco.

There were two types of Vaudeville; big time and small time.  Big time Vaudeville paid well, from $50 to $3,000 a week.  That was before expenses, but it still wasn't too bad.  There were two or three shows a day.  Small time Vaudeville was the pits.  It paid lousy and sometimes played 6 to 10 shows a day.  Fairmount was big time.

Vaudeville was described as an enemy to responsibility and worries.  Admission was 25 cents for a balcony seat and 10 cents for general admission.  A bill consisted of six or seven 20 minute acts twice a day; matinee at 2:00, evening at 8:30.  Shows throughout the circuit were all about the same.  The opening act was always a silent act like a bunch of dogs or a juggler; something to get the late arrivals to their seats.  A comedy team might be next, followed by a skit.  Before intermission, a dance or musical group would  give you a reason to come back.  After intermission was a comedy single followed by another musical number.  Last would be something like a troupe of European trapeze artists in bright red costumes, something to tell your friends about. 

At that time, Vaudevillians were made, not born.  A few grew up in middle class, but many were orphans.  Learning a trade was better than begging.  Many started by either dancing or juggling.  Working your way up the ladder was tough, as there were only a few headliners at any one time. 

Many very talented people appeared at Fairmount Park's Vaudeville shows this season, like Henry Lee, impersonator of famous people of his time (he not only did the mannerisms and voice, he would also dress in their likeness),   Francesca Redding, one of the first dramatic actresses of legitimate theater to play Vaudeville, and the Howard Brothers and their Flying Banjos, two of the greatest in their profession.

Erich Weiss, Hungarian born magician and escape artist, who took the name Harry Houdini, was not yet famous.  Harry and his wife Bess had struggled for years, till by chance he met Martin Beck of Chicago, owner of the Orpheum Co.  He was hired in at $60 a week.  Kansas City was his second stop, where he escaped from the Central Police Station in August.  At Fairmount Park he had the local cops apply handcuffs from which he soon escaped.  Next year he went to Europe and came back in 1905 worth $1,500 a week.  Vaudeville was not yet in its golden age and was already playing a huge part in American culture.

The season came to an early end this year.  Fridays had been amateur night since the 4th of July, and proved to be very popular.  So, as the month of August and Houdini's act slipped into memory, Fairmount Park had Amateur Week.  Lenge's Band provided accompaniment for the outdoor extravaganza held in the band stand.  Admission was free.  Prizes and maybe a job were offered for those with talent and lots of moxie.  So ended another successful season.

OTHER INTERESTING EVENTS IN 1899

  1. Boll Weevil crosses the Rio Grande and heads for the cotton.

  2. United Mine Workers of America organized.

  3. Carnegie Steel Co. is created.

  4. Armco Steel Co. has its beginning.

  5. U. S. Auto production reaches 2,500.

  6. Boston's last horsecar runs.

  7. Cholera epidemic begins.

  8. Aspirin is perfected.

  9. Missouri becomes the "Show Me" state.

  10. S. S. Kresge chain store opens.

  11. Coca Cola is bottled.

  12. Borden's Canned Milk Co. starts up.

  13. Wesson Oil is developed.

Copyright 2005 John M. Olinskey

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