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Seeing God in Municipal Auditorium


This photo was taken from the Folly Theater building at 12th and Central, where I worked on a renovation project 1977-79. (KC Public Library)

I was forwarded the Scotty Moore website (Moore was the guitarist for Elvis Presley), which included a page with information about Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City. Presley and Moore played there in May 1956, and the page includes a wealth of post cards, photos and information about the building itself. (Thanks to Mike Webber for the forward.)

Reading it brought back a flood of memories on this Labor Day. Built in 1934 as part of a ten-year plan to bring the city up-to-date, Municipal Auditorium, by the time I first began showing up, was only 20 years old. Its art-deco style, subtle lighting and quiet elegance really impressed me, and I loved going there. Some of the other buildings created at this time, including the Jackson County Court House, City Hall and the Power and Light building, are equally mysterious and enigmatic. Another thing I liked about the Auditorium was that it wasn’t built on a flat surface. Standing at Wyandotte and 14th Street, it looked like it had been built into a hill to the north. You couldn’t tell from the inside, but you certainly could from the outside.

I can’t remember the first time I was there, but it was probably a large church event. I remember being in the Main Arena, which seated 10,000, and our local Lutheran choir joined with dozens of others to raise our voices to heaven – it was incredible.

As a child, I also went there for the special Philharmonic concerts for kids in the more intimate Music Hall. I really loved these. It’s where I found out that a hymn I knew as “What Child is This?” was based on the traditional English song “Greensleeves.” The melody haunts me to this day. Another time the power went off during the performance, and the Phil, undaunted, just kept on playing, something I wouldn’t see again until Joe King Carrasco and the Crowns pulled the same trick at Parody Hall in the early 1980s.

Billie and I caught a couple of Barnum & Bailey shows there, before we stopped doing the circus-as-entertainment thing. The arena was large enough (the blog says it was 92 feet floor to ceiling) to hold even the gigantic tank that a horse jumped into during the finale of one show, or the guy shot out of a cannon at another one as well as the many trapeze and high-wire acts that dazzled us.

The arena has an interesting ceiling lighting arrangement. This was the late 1950s, when nuclear paranoia was very real. When the sermons or services would fade into the background, I would stare up and imagine people above the ceiling, watching us from their perch. You know, the people who run the world only we don’t know it. And this was before psychedelics.

The interior of the Auditorium is drop-dead gorgeous. (KC Public Library)

The Moore site includes a photo of a concert by Louis Armstrong Nov. 7, 1964, that I attended. I had escaped Kansas City to attend St. Paul’s Lutheran High School down the new I-70 in Concordia, Mo. Our class took a field trip to Kansas City that Saturday, and we somehow got free tickets at a Katz drug store downtown. Sitting high behind the stage, we watched the musicians in their dressing rooms (which were just partitions) smoking and laughing in between songs. I thought they were smoking cigarettes at the time, but after learning more about Armstrong, I’m sure it was probably something else.

“Hello Dolly” had made #1 in March, and he sang it three times that night, something I wouldn’t see again until almost 12 years later, when Willie Nelson did “On the Road Again” three times July 23, 1976, in the Arena with Tompall Glaser and the Flying Burrito Brothers as opening acts.

Other memorable concerts there included a special British Invasion reunion in July 1973, with the original Herman’s Hermits line-up as headliners with the Searchers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Gerry & the Pacemakers and Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders. I remember they looked so old. Good acid. Good time, and I thought again about the people who control us all above the ceiling.

Blue Oyster Cult did a great show in January of 1978, with Black Oak and a third act, Millionaire at Midnight, who turned me in the direction of the burgeoning local music scene. I was forced to review Foghat/Bachman-Turner with Judas Priest opening. Ugh. The first time I saw Jethro Tull there, people were celebrating Independence Day by throwing fireworks. The second time, when I gave my ticket to be seated, I was told that the seats “didn’t exist anymore.” He wasn’t kidding; all the seats were pushed back and it was an early mosh pit out in front of the stage.

Neil Young brought his Time Fades Away tour to the Arena with Linda Ronstadt in 1974. Riverrock and Emmylou Harris and the Hot Band opened for Jerry Lee Lewis in the Arena on May 4, 1979. When he asked rhetorically at one point, “who’ll play this old piano when I’m gone,” a woman right behind us stood up and said, “Nobody, killer, nobody but you.”

The last time I was there was in the early 1980s to see the Kinks. Beginning in 1974, they had became an annual attraction at Memorial Hall and the Uptown Theatre. But that particular time they almost sold out the Arena, and I saw a younger generation, the children of the Kinks’ original fans, singing along with every song. Absolutely wonderful.

They were with Arista at the time, and I was friendly with the rep, who was traveling with the band. After the show, in the dressing room, Ray said, “I want to meet the obituary editor and music critic,” and we talked for a couple of minutes. I always hoped he would write a song about the obituary editor who wrote about rock and roll. So far, he hasn’t.

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