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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Male Chiefs Cheerleaders Hold History in the First Super Bowl

The energy was indescribable; your own heartbeat couldn’t keep up with the palpable energy surging through the stadium. To be in Los Angeles inside the Coliseum as the Kansas City Chiefs represented the AFL in the very first Super Bowl is history in itself. To be on the field on national television was unforgettable.

My father, Larry Euston proudly holding up a
photo of the 1966-67 Chiefs Cheerleaders
My father, Larry Euston, was there on the field taking in the sights and sounds as the World Championship began- as a cheerleader.

I can remember telling classmates when the ever-so-common topic of the Chiefs came up about my father’s role in sports history. Wide-eyed and proud, I would say, “My dad was a cheerleader in the first Super Bowl!” Oftentimes, I was met with questioning eyes and confused stares.

“There were male cheerleaders?” would often be the response.

Without batting an eye and with my head held high, I would respond, “Yes. Yes, there were.”

Years have gone by since these schoolyard conversations, but the confusion still remains in the pages of history. Last year as the 53rd  Super Bowl was set to air on national television, networks reported two male cheerleaders, a part of the Los Angeles Rams squad, were the first male cheerleaders to appear in the Super Bowl.

This hit home for me personally. I’m so proud of my dad’s role in Chiefs history- and within the history of the NFL- that I couldn’t stand on the sidelines like he once did without yelling, as loud as I can, that this is not the truth. The very first Super Bowl had male cheerleaders.

Municipal Stadium was the home of the Kansas City Chiefs from 1960-1971. Image courtesy Randy Neil.
The story of cheerleaders within the Kansas City Chiefs organization is extensive and even extends past my father. Without the vision of one male cheerleader from KU who heard football was coming to Kansas City, my father may have never had the chance to cheer at the Super Bowl- just over 53 years ago.

Talk about a history that is never told….

Dallas Texans logo from 1960.
Image courtesy Texas State Historical Association
I had to pause for a moment and look up the history of Chiefs Cheerleaders on my own. If you drop a Google on it, the ever-so-reliable Wikipedia (kidding) states they were formed in 1971. The website connected to the official Chiefs that used to have some basic history on the cheerleaders is now gone.

Why is it so hard to find out the truth? Shouldn’t the Chiefs organization be proud of their place in history- and bank on it?!

Regardless, I am here to set the record straight once and for all.

It may come to a surprise to some that the beginnings of cheerleading both as a sport and in Kansas City rest in the hands of men. Cheerleading first appeared with the creation of an all-male pep club at Princeton in the 1880s. Princeton graduate Thomas Peebles took the idea of leading chants with him to the University of Minnesota where, in 1898, a man named Johnny Campbell rallied a group of students to energize the crowd. These organized cheers were the first cheerleading in the country.

A sticker from 1964 shows the original Chiefs logo.
Image courtesy Randy Neil.
Football in America was becoming vastly popular, and the founding of the National Football League (NFL) in 1920 brought the sport into the professional arena and grew to ten teams in four states. Forty years later in 1960, an innovative businessman named Lamar Hunt founded the American Football League (AFL) and started his own team, the Dallas Texans.

The logo for the Dallas Texans was a cowboy running, complete with a cowboy hat, boots with spurs and a gun drawn into the air. When the organization moved north to Kansas City, the logo- and their name- had to be revamped.

In 1963, Lamar Hunt chose to move his professional team to Kansas City where they were renamed the Chiefs. H. Roe Bartle (1901-1974), Kansas City’s two-term mayor at the time, had his hands in getting the Chiefs to Kansas City. Nicknamed “the Chief,” Bartle was the inspiration for the new team name of the Kansas City Chiefs. The logo was originally based off the gunslinger Dallas Texans symbol but was redesigned to feature a Native American running with a tomahawk in one hand and a football in the other.

Randy Neil holding up his official Chiefs
Cheerleader photo.
If people are up in arms about our Chiefs name today, imagine how they would react if we still had that logo on uniforms.

The logo was definitely not politically correct today, but it was a sign of the times. This logo was used until 1971 when it was replaced with the simple “KC” inside an arrowhead.

21-year-old Randy Neil, an alternate cheerleader and member of the pep club at KU, bounced around the idea of bringing his collegiate spirit to the sidelines at Municipal Stadium when it was announced the Kansas City Chiefs would be the city’s professional football team.

Randy recalled, “I just kept thinking in my head- I’m going to do this. I sat down at our kitchen table and typed a letter to Lamar Hunt in Dallas and gave him my background. I asked him, ‘Do you want a fully-formed cheerleading squad when you get here?’”

Just a short time later, Randy received a hand-written note back from Lamar Hunt that simply read, “Dear Randy – Go to it.”
Drawing of one of the girls' Chiefs uniforms. More images
of uniform designs can be seen at the end of the blog.
Image courtesy Randy Neil

Thus, the first cheerleaders in the entire AFL were born right here in Kansas City.

Randy wasted no time. He met with Lamar Hunt, came up with a game plan, and went out and hand-picked the first squad. Within a short time, he had a group of boys and girls- a total of about 18- ready to go before the Chiefs played their first game.

The budget was always a problem. The Chiefs agreed to come up with a mere $400 per year for miscellaneous expenses. The first official practice was held in the front yard of Randy’s parents’ home in Prairie Village. “We designed our own uniforms and paid for them ourselves. It was easy for boys, because we wore red blazers,” Randy explained. “The girls’ moms made their uniforms.”

Payment for their services came in the form of two tickets to home games which remained the standard for several years. The cheerleaders, led by Randy Neil, knew that promotional work was part of the package. In uniform, the squad made appearances at different events across the city to drum up sales for season tickets.

Ward Parkway Shopping Center was brand new and was looking for promotions to run. Randy sat down with the developers, the Kroh Brothers to try to sell sponsorship of their squad. It worked. “They decided to have a pep rally in their south parking lot. H. Roe Bartle appeared, there were marching bands, the entire team, and- of course- the cheerleaders,” Randy said with a smile. Around 3,000 to 4,000 people showed up.
The 1964 Chiefs Cheerleaders inside Ward Parkway Center.  Mike Nauman is on the top left; Randy Neil is on the bottom right. Image courtesy Randy Neil.

What Randy had assembled in Kansas City was getting attention from leagues around the country. His format for the Chiefs Cheerleaders, as can be seen in his carefully crafted scrapbook of memories, features several letters from teams such as the New York Jets asking for advice on how to assemble their own squads.
A promotional magazine printed by the KC Chamber of
Commerce showcases four of the cheerleaders in 1964.
Image courtesy of Randy Neil

AFL Commissioner Joe Foss also noticed. In 1965, nine members (four girls and five boys) of the Chiefs Cheerleaders were led by Randy to the All-Star Game in Houston. Representing the west, they wore red, white and blue uniforms.  

Most of the men on the cheerleading squad for the Chiefs came from Rockhurst High School and College. One of them, Mike Nauman, recalls trying out for the Cheerleaders after their first season (1964). An advertisement in the Kansas City Star read, “No previous cheerleading experience required.” They did ask that girls and boys be seniors in high school or in college.

“I remember a ton of girls tried out, and there were only a handful of guys from Rockhurst there,” Mike recalled.

Randy needed boys on his squad, and Mike and his friends from Rockhurst were just what he was looking for. “Hanging out with good-looking cheerleaders from across Kansas City wasn’t offensive either, so we just signed on,” Mike laughed.

Chiefs Cheerleaders also broke the racial barriers that were prominent in the early 1960s when Gwen Simmons, a Central High School student, joined the squad in 1964. She later cheered at Lincoln University in Jefferson City.

The 1964 Chiefs Cheerleaders. Mike Nauman is in the glasses kneeling in front; Gwen Simmons is on his lap.
Captain Randy Neil is kneeling on the right. Image courtesy Randy Neil
After the 1965 season, Randy decided it was time to move on. “I felt I had gone as far as I could with the support we had at the time,” Randy commented. Even though Randy left as head cheerleader, his relationship with the sport would last for years to come. He started what would be known as the International Cheerleading Foundation, holding clinics across the country. In 1979, he wrote The Official Cheerleaders Handbook. His book reached the New York Times bestsellers list and it is still in print today.

Mike Nauman holding up his original Chiefs sweater.
 From 1978 to 1981, he executive produced the National Collegiate Cheerleading Championships on CBS. He also returned as executive director of the Chiefs Cheerleaders in the 1980s.

As Randy exited the stage, my father, Larry Euston, received an invitation he couldn’t refuse. Mike Nauman was still cheerleading for the Chiefs and was also on the squad with my father at Rockhurst College. When a spot for a male cheerleader came up, my dad’s name was passed along by his friend, Mike.

It was as simple as that.

Starting in 1966, my father became one of the six men on the Chiefs cheerleaders that partnered up with the girls to do lifts and some acrobatic moves. The boys would hold up large “Go!” signs and large megaphones to get the crowd at the stadium hyped. Being on the field at Municipal Stadium was always a special moment for my father. “It was quite the feeling. You felt like a celebrity looking up and seeing everyone cheering as we got to watch the game from the field,” my dad recalled.

Bandleader Tony DiPardo would lead his 14-piece Zing Band and cue cheerleaders with his music. The squad included "very talented," according to my father, children that did stunts on the field. The uniform my dad sported was a white sweater with a red “C” in the center, a red dickey, and white jeans.

The 1966-67 Chiefs Cheerleaders. My father is holding 
the second girl up on the left.
Classy! I had to laugh when Randy said that he would never have allowed (gasp!) white jeans when he was head cheerleader. “We wore white slacks,” Randy emphatically told me.

Just as with most organizations, times definitely moved quickly- and every uniform seems to be short-lived in the pages of history.

A win on the road against the Buffalo Bills in the AFL Championship gave Kansas City an invitation to play the Green Bay Packers in Los Angeles on January 15, 1967. At the time, the NFL was a separate organization that many considered far superior to the AFL. In order to test this theory, the AFL and NFL agreed to play a World Championship Game called the Super Bowl.

Headline from the Kansas City Star Jan. 2, 1967 showcases the Chiefs win of the AFL Championship and their trip to the
first Super Bowl
Vince Lombardi, Green Bay’s coach and the namesake for today’s Super Bowl trophy, said that even the best team in the AFL “doesn’t compare to the top NFL teams.”

My father at Ward Parkway Center lifting
a girl trying out for the cheerleaders in 1967
Nevertheless, Chiefs Kingdom was on cloud nine when their young team was on their way to the championship. Around 12,000 screaming fans, led by the cheerleaders, stormed the airport to welcome the team home. Traffic on the Broadway Bridge was backed up as people honked their horns, rolled down their windows, and screamed “Charge! Charge!”  There was no room on the runway to even put down the stair ramp, so the team had to exit through the rear baggage door.

The Chiefs Cheerleaders assumed they would be going to the first Super Bowl with their team. “The word we got was that the Chiefs organization wasn’t allowed to pay for their own fanfare,” my dad explained.

That meant the Chiefs organization claimed they weren’t able to pay to have the cheerleaders go to the first Super Bowl in Los Angeles.

My father wasn’t about to take no for an answer. Just shy of 21 years old, my dad had been working at Milgram’s and knew that owner Lester Milgram (1917-1976) was a Red Coater and huge supporter of the Chiefs. “I went down to the Milgram office to talk to Mr. Lester to see if he could do something to help the cheerleaders get to the Super Bowl, but he wasn’t there,” my dad recalled.

Cushions commemorating the first Super Bowl
were given on the flight to Los Angeles
Mr. Lester’s personal secretary, Miss Francis was there to listen. My father explained the problem. “I just told her we found out we couldn’t go to the Super Bowl and I was hoping to talk to Mr. Lester.”

Did Miss Francis deliver the message? A short time later, my father and the rest of his squad found out that someone had arranged for them to take a charter flight so they could be there on the field cheering at the first Super Bowl. “I have no idea if I was 10 percent or 100 percent of the reason of why we got to go,” my father chuckled.

My father and the rest of the Chiefs Cheerleaders boarded a TWA chartered flight that was something to remember. They handed out bright red seat cushions stuffed with plaid blankets with white lettering that reads, in part, “First Super Bowl Game.” My father recalled, “We were served steaks branded with the Chiefs logo. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen.”

The cushion today is one of the pieces of memorabilia my father has from his days as a Chiefs Cheerleader.

New York Times headline from 1968
The hype of the big game wasn’t anything like we see today. The game itself was an experiment between two separate organizations not set on merging into one.

The nation could watch the Super Bowl on television on two different networks. NBC had the rights to the AFL games and CBS had the rights to the NFL games. Each network reportedly paid one million dollars to air the first Super Bowl.

The game was blacked out in Los Angeles to encourage people to attend, but the prices of tickets had many people upset. The cost was $12- just under $100 in today’s money. Just shy of 62,000 people attended the first Super Bowl, but the Coliseum could hold just over 78,000. It is the only Super Bowl on record that didn’t sell out.

The Chiefs Cheerleaders in Los Angeles for Super Bowl I. My dad is the back row on the right.
Courtesy Amy Appleton Dreyer
Being on the field as a Chiefs Cheerleader- the only cheerleaders at the first Super Bowl- is a memory I have heard my father tell and retell countless times. There he was, with his squad, greeting Len Dawson and the Chiefs led by Hank Stram down the tunnel and onto the field.

A patch from the 1960s given
to Chiefs Cheerleaders. 

Courtesy Mike Nauman
“Entering into the Coliseum was like going onto sacred ground,” Mike Nauman recalled. The Coliseum in Los Angeles was where all the major games were played. There were a select few, like my father and his friend, Mike, that were on the field at the Super Bowl. They knew being there on the field was something special.

But, they had no idea at the time that they were a part of NFL history.

As the records tells us, the Chiefs lost 35-10 to the Green Bay Packers that significant day in football history. After the following season, the Chiefs Cheerleaders eliminated men from the squad. A letter from Lamar Hunt thanking my father for his service is one of his prized pieces in his album. “Lamar Hunt was a class-act,” my father stated.

As Kansas City erupted in pure excitement when we brought the Lamar Hunt trophy back home for the first time in 50 years and prepare to go to Super Bowl LIV, I, along with most of us, cried tears of joy. We have waited so long for this! Then, I thought back to Randy, my father, and Mike- and how sometimes history is forgotten or told incorrectly.
Video from the first Super Bowl shows my dad cheering with
other cheerleaders as the Chiefs entered from the tunnel

Last year, national news proudly reported that for the first time ever in the history of the Super Bowl, men would be cheerleading. To be fair, these talented men on the LA Rams squad are professional dancers and are doing every move alongside the women.

Cheerleading as a sport has come a long way since the 1960s. However, these men were clouted to have been “the first male cheerleaders in league history.” This is simply not true. The old film from the Super Bowl game proves that my father and other men and women were there as cheerleaders- they made history.

A letter from Lamar Hunt in 1968 thanked my father for
his service to the Chiefs
Randy Neil also made history when he had the guts to send a letter to Lamar Hunt with the idea of starting the Chiefs Cheerleaders. From their beginning in 1963, there were men cheering along the sidelines, lifting girls and leading the crowd at Municipal Stadium in chants.

“In retrospect, it was a unique experience looking back,” Mike said. “We were a part of history.”

When we think of the cheerleaders along the sideline today, we picture beautiful, talented women dancing with their pompoms and jeweled uniforms. But the founding of cheerleading here in Kansas City started with the vision of a 21-year-old junior from KU and ended after the Chiefs Cheerleaders, including my father, were the first men and women to cheer in a Super Bowl game.

* Additional images below are courtesy of Randy Neil.
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*** Check out my new podcast, Kansas City: 2 States, 1 Story with 610 Sports radio personality Bob Fescoe! It's FREE and easy to download! To listen to the episodes, CLICK HERE!

May 1964 tryouts at Ward Parkway Center; a WDAF-TV photographer documents the moment. Image courtesy Randy Neil

Chiefs Cheerleaders appeared with WHB DJ's at the Benjamin Stables Rodeo in 1964. Image courtesy Randy Neil

Randy performing a one-armed lift with Marilyn Moot at the 1964 tryouts at Ward Parkway Center. Courtesy Randy Neil

The 1964 Chiefs Cheerleaders. Mike Nauman is on the left in the glasses; Gwen Simmons stands to his left. Randy Neil
is in the suit behind the drum. Image courtesy Randy Neil

The 1964 Kansas City Chiefs. Image courtesy of Randy Neil

Randy's personal calendar from August-September 1964 shows how busy the Chiefs Cheerleaders
were with promotional events and practices. Image courtesy of Randy Neil.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Envisioning the Beginnings of the Country Club Plaza

Spring 1912

He certainly was glad he brought his work boots in his automobile as he climbed the muddy hill to the north. His motor car couldn't even make the journey- roads did not yet exist on this undeveloped plot between bustling downtown and his subdivisions to the south. The marshland was an eyesore; it was dotted with shacks, shanties and a quarry that blasted at all hours of the day.

He knew he had to do something about it as he continued to convince the wealthy to call his beautiful houses home sweet home. He was a visionary- a man beyond his years who could look at this land and see something truly stunning for its future.

Adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses, J.C. Nichols took a handkerchief out of his jacket pocket and rubbed his nose. After taking a deep sigh, he put one hand on his hip and the other above his forehead to block the sun. An employee unfolded a map in front of him and pointed out the different parcels of land. It would be difficult to buy up this property, he reasoned. It would take years to track down all these names listed on the map in order to make his vision a reality.

Regardless of the challenge, Nichols knew it was important to the suburbs to continue his mission. As he stared to the south, he could see the continuation of roads from Westport and downtown into his new community- he wanted to create a shopping area that would serve his beloved Country Club District. Yes, it would take years. And yes, there would be naysayers that would scratch their heads in disapproval. He paid them no mind.

Jesse Clyde Nichols had a plan. He always did.

* * * * * *

Jesse Clyde (JC) Nichols' graduation photo
from the University of Kansas 
When out-of-town visitors come to Kansas City, one of the first spots to see is the Country Club Plaza. With its unique architecture, show stopping fountains, gorgeous landscaping and holiday lights showcased on tv stations nationwide, the Plaza is quintessentially Kansas City.

The early history of the Country Club Plaza embraces the growth of the city to the south and the innovation of one brilliant man who saw past a swampland; he could envision the future of the suburbs- the need for shopping nearby that catered to a new, growing mobile society.

Jesse Clyde Nichols (1880-1950), better known by his initials “J.C.,” made a name for himself as a suburban planner who greatly influenced how our city grew to the south. In 1907, he began development of what is known as the Country Club District, deriving its name from nearby Kansas City Country Club (now Loose Park). What started as a ten-acre piece of land far away from downtown, the area grew to fifty subdivisions that shied away from the grid system of streets and embraced the natural landscape with all its curves.

I could go on for days about J.C. Nichols and his contributions to Kansas City. And, don't worry- it will happen- very soon!

J.C. Nichols's objective was to "develop whole residential neighborhoods that would attract an element of people who desired a better way of life, a nicer place to live and would be willing to work in order to keep it better." Skipping over Brush Creek and building first to the south, Nichols knew he needed to ensure his developments offered all the modern conveniences of the era in order to attract wealthy and influential people to the area.

Mill Creek Boulevard from 42nd St. facing north in 1911 shows how isolated the area would have been.
Image courtesy of John Dawson
Around 1912, J.C. Nichols stood upon a hill near present-day St. Lukes, gazing south at a “marshy, weed-invested oxbow of Brush Creek valley.” His Country Club District was growing, but lack of zoning laws at the time had eyesores such as shanties and shacks dotting the valley too close for comfort to his beloved developments. It was imperative he protect his investment.

Even when he gazed at the land that would become the Plaza, he knew how difficult it would be to track down all the people who owned small parcels that would become part of his plan. Many of these landowners had never even step foot in Kansas City, and it would take years to track them all down.

Lyle Rock Company at 49th and Baltimore
Along the hillsides on the south side of Brush Creek was a dump, a hog farm emanating a horrid smell, and Lyle Rock Company. The hills were covered with brick kilns, trash and quarries. Located between Ward Parkway and 49th from Main to Wornall, the Lyle Rock Co. yard was known for its black smoke barreling into the sky from the valley.

The company was a constant complaint for neighbors who had purchased homes in the Country Club District. Even though Lyle Rock Co. had established their quarries in 1907, those moving south were unforgiving- the business was a constant problem. People living around it called it a “war zone.” Explosions rocked people’s foundations- one witness said a two-pound stone from a blast shattered his brand new front porch. J.C. Nichols called it “unsightly in its condition.”

It took J.C. Nichols nine years to buy up the land in the area, including Lyle Rock Co. In 1921, Nichols spent one million dollars to acquire forty acres at the future site of the Country Club Plaza. In total, 26 houses and stores in bad condition were leveled to the ground.

An illustration from the Kansas City Star of Lyle Rock Co. smoke
barreled onto the newly-established JC Nichols neighborhoods.
On the east side of his newly-purchased land was a stream flowing from Westport into Brush Creek called Mill Creek. Nichols set after getting the city to pay for a road there to join his neighborhoods and serve as an anchor to a commercial development he had envisioned for the future; however, the city refused to pay for it. Not one to let a setback ruffle his plans, Nichols built the road, 16 feet wide, and called it Mill Creek Parkway (now J.C. Nichols Parkway). Upon  completion, it was time to plan something never seen before: Nichols was to build an outdoor shopping mall.

It certainly would have been easy to plan another housing development, but Nichols was a man ahead of his time. Although most Kansas Citian's didn’t own automobiles, he could see that the car was the future. Accessibility, he reasoned, would spread retail sales past Petticoat Lane and the stores downtown.

Edward B. Delk's original design for the Plaza in 1922. Image courtesy of Robert and Brad Pearson.
The architecture of the Country Club Plaza was essential in order to ensure its success with the elite. Prior to construction, Nicholas found inspiration from his own travels to Europe where he admired the arches in Spain, villas nestled into the hillsides in Italy and the height of buildings in France. In order to execute his vision of something beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, Nichols hired architect Edward B. Delk (1885-1956) and sent him to Spain, Mexico and South America to study the planning and design of buildings. He enlisted none other than George Kessler, landscape designer of the Parks and Boulevard system along with Herbert Hare to sketch in green spaces and tree-lined streets.

Edward Delk (1885-1956).
Courtesy of Oklahoma Wesleyan University
In April 1922, he announced a five million-dollar, 30-acre shopping center to serve his elite neighborhoods to the south. Adamant about the automobile, J.C. Nichols devoted 46 percent of his land to go to wide streets and parking lots. Prior to his vision of the Country Club Plaza, commercial buildings failed to add any type of parking for cars. His plan included no building over three stories high with harmony in design and color, wide streets, and parking lots. He justified parking by bringing up that downtown hadn’t predicted the streetcar on their congested streets let alone the automobile.

The design, centered around a diagonal, tree-lined thoroughfare called “the Alameda” (renamed Nichols Rd. in the late 1940s). When construction began in Spring 1922, Nichols commented, “It is essential the new district be not only attractive to the eye, affording also a maximum of convenience, but that it be made commercially profitable.” Despite J.C. Nichols’ ambition for his Country Club Plaza, developers and business owners thought he was crazy. It was too far from downtown and blocks away from the streetcar line- no one would go there, they contended. Before the Plaza opened for business, people called it “Nichols’ folly.”

J.C. Nichols didn’t listen to the naysayers. He simply stated that he believed his Plaza plan could become the model of outlying business districts around the country.

He was right.

Aerial view of the Plaza before development.
Image courtesy of Robert and Brad Pearson
Spain was the model for architecture. Buildings were planned to feature tile, iron, open plazas and balconies for optimal beauty. Keeping his promise to only feature buildings three stories or lower, J.C. Nichols worked with Delk to design ornate towers to grace the skyline in the Mill Creek valley. “Two proposed towers should give striking character to the otherwise general low roof lines of the remainder of the development,” Nichols said.

In November 1922, the first building, called the Suydam Building after its first tenant (an interior decorating company) opened its doors at current-day 47th and J.C. Nichols Parkway. The Marinello Beauty Shop opened up inside and offered Kansas City’s first place to get the “permanent wave.” By the following year, the Plaza featured an art and gift shop, baby shop, a drug store, a mechanic, a florist, photographer and a millinery shop. At first, customers were scarce, so Nichols asked merchants to park on the street to make the new business district look busier than it was.

He touted the shopping district as “The Country Club Plaza: Where shopping is a pleasure.” Within the year, J.C. Nichols got his wish- people began to drive their motor cars to shop on the Plaza and its first fountain featuring a boy and fish began shooting water. This fountain was moved to 76th and The Paseo in 1968.

Suydam Decorating Company in the Mill Creek (Suydam)
Building in 1923. 
Completed in March 1924, the first of Delk’s planned ornate Spanish-inspired towers was finished at 47th and Mill Creek Pkwy. It served as a striking gateway to the Plaza. In 1925, the Triangle Building at 47th and Wyandotte was completed and housed Piggly Wiggly, the nation's first self-service grocery store.

Shortly thereafter, Wolferman’s opened on the Plaza and became the second grocery store in the development. The advertisements for Wolferman's showcase, surprisingly, how cleanliness was a cornerstone for their business. "It is a marvel of hygienic cleanliness and modern equipment from the spotless bakery with its white tiled walls and floor to the sausage kitchens, ice box and meat department." Elite customers phoned in their orders and distinctive Wolferman’s trucks would deliver groceries to customers’ doors. In the same year, the Tower and Balcony Building were open for business.

Wolferman's Grocery Store in the 1920s
Enticing motor cars also meant it was important to make sure a station was readily available to fill up and service vehicles. Skelly Oil Company opened its doors and gave a free half pound of Martha Washington chocolates with purchase when it opened in 1924.

J.C. Nichols wanted to encourage clean streets and upscale businesses and wouldn’t allow merchants to load and unload goods in the streets- he designed loading docks in the back, an innovation at the time. He would walk the streets at night and take meticulous notes, scribbling down when fingerprints could be found on doors or when a window display was quite impressive. A letter typed and delivered to merchants the next day would warn or praise the merchants.

In December 1925, merchants decided to decorate the pristine sidewalks with mini Christmas trees. Likely in the holiday spirit, a J.C. Nichols employee who helped lease space along the Plaza named Charles Pitrat stood at the Suydam building, wishing merchants a Merry Christmas.

J.C. Nichols with the Plaza Christmas lights
in the 1920s.
In his hand was one simple strand of sixteen indoor Christmas lights that, stretched out, was six feet long. Feeling festive, Pitrat gazed up at the cornice of the building and grabbed a ladder. He hung that simple strand above the entrance without much thought; thus, the beginning of the Plaza Christmas light display began.

To be fair, there were few witnesses and no grand flipping of the switch on Thanksgiving night. It took a few more years for Christmas lights along the Plaza to become a showcase. In October 1928, the Plaza Theater opened its doors at 207 W. 47th St., seating 2500 and showcasing the tallest tower at the time at over twice the height of any other at 72 feet.

The $750,000 construction of the Plaza Theater building was a monumental occasion, and for the Christmas season in 1928, the new building featured the first-ever outdoor strand of continuous lights on 47th St.

Just one year later, the buildings were outlined in multiple colors and followed the architecture so significant to the Plaza. For every year since, minus 1973 when Nixon called for conservation of energy, the Plaza lights have been a staple of Kansas City’s rich history. It is said that the Plaza lights inspired companies to make stronger bulbs that were weatherproof, thus the creation of outdoor Christmas lights.

The Plaza Theater in 1932. Image courtesy
Missouri Valley Special Collections, KCPL
In 1927, J.C. Nichols turned his energy toward developing the abandoned quarries on the south side of Brush Creek on Ward Parkway. Fifteen acres in total, the new landscape plan for beautification included high-rise apartment complexes and hotels that still exist today.

There was one flaw in J.C. Nichols plans. He didn’t add parking for cars because he was under the impression that apartment dwellers wouldn’t be able to afford them. He was gravely mistaken. By 1930, 60 percent of the nation owned a car, and the number post-Depression only grew higher. The ability to be mobile, as he had predicted for his elite neighborhood clientele, had trickled down to the working class.

This mistake was something he deeply regretted. 

J.C. Nichols’ vision for The Country Club Plaza solidified his Sunset Hills and Mission Hills neighborhoods as the most desirable in Kansas City. In 1915, these communities housed ten percent of the elite; by 1930, 59 percent of the most prominent families called his neighborhoods home. Their popularity, no doubt, had much to do with the gamble he took when developing the Plaza.

The Plaza apartment buildings on the south side of Brush Creek replaced
Lyle Rock Co. They also lacked parking.
Using his vision of Spanish architecture and the future of the automobile as a means of mobilizing Kansas Citians as never seen before, the Plaza, with its wide parkways lined with trees, beautiful towers, sculptures and fountains, has become one of Kansas City’s most iconic districts that is recognizable to people across the nation. The Plaza’s Spanish influence- including modeling two towers after landmarks in Seville- didn’t stop in our own city. Today, you can travel down “Kansas City Avenue” in our sister city of Seville, Spain.

Jesse Clyde Nichols said in 1922, “I realize, in the laying out of these plans, that it will take many years of Kansas City’s growth to carry out our development. But I really feel that this plan is no larger undertaking, nor more difficult to accomplish, than the development of the Country Club District in the beginning.” 

The Plaza in the 1930s
Visionary J.C. Nichols proved everyone wrong when the Plaza became the first outdoor shopping mall in all of America and the model for cities across the nation on how to capitalize on suburban development. It may have taken him years to plan, but the early Country Club Plaza is more than a shopping area. It is a tourist destination due to its architectural integrity, tree-lined streets and high-class shopping- all things he had expertly envisioned while standing on top of the hill and gazing down at the eye-sore of Mill Creek valley in 1912.

His plan, indeed, worked.
* * * * * *

The influence of J.C. Nichols on KC will be featured SOON! Please stay tuned!

* Please go to Facebook, search "The New Santa Fe Trailer," and LIKE my page so you don't miss my writing!

**If you like my writing, you would LOVE my free podcast with radio personality Bob Fescoe! Kansas City: 2 States, 1 Story is all about our history in KC. Please consider downloading the episodes so you can take a listen anytime-anywhere! Click here to see what we've been up to. It's FREE!

*** Recommended reading: The J.C. Nichols Chronicle by Robert and Brad Pearson

Images below are all courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, KCPL.

Plaza Apartment buildings in 1938
Plaza Lights in the 1950s
The Plaza lights today