The Neon Signs of 18th & Vine
By Claire McDonald and Marissa Baum
Most of us are familiar with the welcoming neon sign which towers above the Historic 18th & Vine Jazz District. There are a handful of neon signs along 18th street, but imagine a time during the Jazz Age when the entire neighborhood was illuminated with glowing signs advertising shops, restaurants, and clubs. You can experience a piece of 1920s nightlife by stepping into the permanent exhibition of the American Jazz Museum. On display are original and replica neon signs that once filled the business and entertainment district with a colorful glow.
At a time when Prohibition ruled in other American cities, thanks to Tom Pendergast, spirits flowed freely in Kansas City, making it a hotbed of revelry and nightclubs. Some say nearly 120 clubs and 300 bars operated during prohibition, most open 24 hours a day. This raunchy reputation earned Kansas City the nickname “Paris of the Plains.” likening it to the French city known for its lascivious nightlife. The 18th & Vine district and the clubs on 12th Street were centers for jazz and entertainment.
The modern neon sign welcoming all to the 18th & Vine district sits atop the building where the Hotel Street once operated. Reuben Street’s hotel, (more commonly referred to as Street’s) was the most luxurious hotel available to African American travelers. Street’s was the preferred spot of Negro League baseball players when they passed through Kansas City for a game against the hometown team, the Kansas City Monarchs. At Street’s one could find sixty well-appointed rooms with running hot and cold water. For upscale dining, there was the Rose Room, where Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson could all enjoy the fine dining experience denied to them at all-white establishments elsewhere in the city. Hotel Street also boasted the original Blue Room jazz club (the namesake for the Museum's own jazz club) which hosted jam sessions where the distinctive Kansas City swing sound developed.
Three doors down on 18th street, one could find The Subway Club, where musicians played into the wee hours of the night. Next door to the Subway Club, was Elnora’s Cafe, one of the few fine dining options for African Americans. Elnora’s was well known for being open late enough to serve hungry jazz fans leaving the clubs after late night sets.
Directly across the street from Elnora’s, on the south side of 18th street, was Fox’s Tavern. The Museum’s sign reads “Fox’s Tap Room” but photographs from the period show a sign for “Fox’s,” indicating that there may have been different names for the same venue. Fox's original location was in the Hotel Street, but when a new building opened on the South side of 18th street, Fox’s moved to a new prime location between the Monarch Baseball Club office on its left, and the Piccolo Club on its right.
Some of the neon signs in the American Jazz Museum’s collection are not from 18th & Vine, but instead from 12th street, another vivacious late night center. A well known proprietor along 12th street was club owner Milton Morris. The Milton’s Tap Room sign on display at the Museum once stood outside one of the many clubs Morris operated. Morris was a recognizable character in Kansas City. A personal friend of President Harry Truman, Morris unsuccessfully ran for elected office multiple times and was one of the club owners who gave Count Basie his start. In a Kansas City Times article, Basie recalled that Morris paid him $5 a night, and his band members $3 plus room and board. Morris stands out as an example for his recognition of the value of jazz musicians and the role they played in creating the lively atmosphere that people flocked to night after night.
These signs preserve the rich history of 18th & Vine and 12th Street and the popular venues that earned Kansas City a national reputation. It was here that the Kansas City jazz style, beloved all around the world, flourished because of partygoers, flowing spirits, and excellent cuisine, all under the glow of neon lights.