Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Fun & Enlightening Few Days in Kansas City, Even If Not Everything's Up-to-Date -- Travelogue

Travel Recap

Kansas City, MO
Trip from Chicago by Amtrak Train
Tues., April 4-Sat., April 8, 2017

Includes concert by Radiohead
4/5/17 at Sprint Center - @@@@@

Of all the places in all the world I could've gone last week--at least among those representing relatively inexpensive domestic jaunts, as I've already slated an international escapade for late summer--I opted to visit the 36th largest city in the United States:

Kansas City, Missouri

That I also considered Buffalo and Memphis should suggest that while I've often visited "hipper" locales at home (NYC, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New Orleans) and abroad (London, Paris, Venice, Rio, etc.), I'm also an unabashed fan of grittier, mid-sized U.S. cities offering a wealth of history and attractions. (See past recaps/guides on St. Louis, Detroit, Grand Rapids and Milwaukee.)

Especially given that I prefer exploring museums to sitting on beaches, my domestic travels are fairly predictable and rather similar.

Generally a specific event provides the impetus--a rock concert, ballgame in a new stadium, theatrical performance, art exhibition, etc.--around which I go to art museums, other local attractions and restaurants, etc.

This was largely the case this time as well, as I was somewhat drawn by the chance to see Radiohead--a band I've long liked but didn't bother braving Lollapalooza for last year--at Kansas City's Sprint Center on Wednesday night (no Chicago or otherwise closer show was on the books).

But while I was happy to snag an aftermarket ticket for just $19.27 (including fees) and enjoyed their terrific show, this was more a convenient excuse to revisit a city I'd been to in 2002 and had been wanting to visit again.

In fact, I only really decided to go a few days before I did, and while initially imagining I would drive--with a stop in St. Louis for a Cubs-Cardinals game--a pre-trip safety inspection convinced me that going via Amtrak would be more prudent.

Though as with air fares, train fares can be considerably lower if booked with more lead time, last Monday I was able to secure round trip tickets for roughly what I might have spent in gas. (I skipped going to St. Louis, as well as Fulton, MO--home to an excellent Winston Churchill Museum--and a night with friends in Urbana, IL, but at just 7hr15min. each way, the train made for an excellent option.)

Not having a car while there would incur substantive taxi and Uber expenses, but I was able to book a Motel 6 for approx. $50 and tried to plan my days in ways that would limit local transportation costs.

As I was reminded, the attractions around Kansas City are rather spread out, so even if I stayed downtown--likely for 2-3x the Motel 6--I still likely would have used numerous Uber rides. (And this is without the Kansas City Royals being in town; their Kauffman Stadium is about 8 miles away from downtown.)

So I got to Kansas City without any issues, arriving after 10pm on the Southwest Chief into Union Station, the same depot Ernest Hemingway would've passed through in arriving for his first job--as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star--just a few months shy of 100 years ago.

In fact, the station would be among the beat the young Hem covered, and about it he wrote:
"Union Station was everybody going in and out of town... Some shady characters I got to know and interviews with celebrities going through."
From there, I caught a waiting cab--Uber would've been cheaper, as I later learned--to my motel. It was raining pretty heavily, and I learned that it had all Tuesday.

It still somewhat was when I awoke on Wednesday.

While I was still getting ready before 9:30am, the Motel 6 maid knocked on my door, and was even attempted to enter before I threw on some clothes and shoo'd her off. (A similar exercise would occur even earlier the next two mornings; other than this the motel was perfectly fine, if far off the beaten path. The only food available within walking distance was a gas station Subway.)

Particularly fortuitous given the rain, I had planned to begin my touring on Wednesday at Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City's major art institution, which I had recalled fondly from 2002.

Mind you, the only specific painting I remembered was John the Baptist by Caravaggio, one of relatively few works in America by the Italian Renaissance master.

And though I had checked the museum website before leaving Chicago and--unlike for other pieces--saw no mention of it being "Not on View," the first thing I learned upon arriving at the museum is that it indeed was not presently hanging.

Supposedly the masterwork gets loaned out a lot, and though it was said to be back at the museum, it was "being examined" somewhere prior to another exhibition away from KC.

Certainly in the overall realm of life's inconveniences, this is no tragedy, but within context I was rather pissed.

I asked everyone I could--security guards, docents, the information desk, the museum's phone lines and Twitter feeds--if perhaps I could get special dispensation to see the painting even as it was undergoing compensation.


As would be reiterated, there is a plethora of great art inside and outside Nelson-Atkins--the exterior sculptures include many by Henry Moore--and as yet another fine metropolitan art museum offering free admission (a la Cleveland, St. Louis and others), the visit considerably enriched me. (The painting shown nearby is one of the best I've ever seen by Pissarro.)

But there's a song called "Kansas City"--not the more famous Lieber/Stoller sung by Little Richard, the Beatles and dozens of other artists, but a tune from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma--with lyrics I innately know that go, "Everything's up to date in Kansas City."

So it was rather ironic--and perplexing--that the first thing I learned on a trip to KC is that the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art website wasn't up to date.

I still spent nearly four hours at the museum and would recommend it to anyone as not only somewhere to visit in Kansas City, but even a reason to go there, yet obviously they need to do a better job of communicating about the visibility of their most famous painting.

To provide a sense of geographical perspective, the art museum is about 5 miles south of downtown KC, and a beautiful shopping district called Country Club Plaza--referenced locally as just "The Plaza"--is about a 10 minute walk west of the museum.

So I was glad that when I was finished at the museum, it had stopped raining--essentially for the remainder of my trip--and I was able to explore the Plaza and have some lunch before catching a city bus downtown for the Radiohead concert that night.

However, as I'd learned, en route to the Plaza, I was able to stop and see the Community Christian
Church, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and opened in 1942.

I have long been an FLW acolyte, and I was delighted to be able to explore the church interior, with employees even showing me around a bit (sans an official tour).

The church is somewhat famed for its Spire of Light, which I wasn't there at the right time to see, but I was happier just to see the impressive architecture, including in the sanctuary and a chapel.

Those unfamiliar with Kansas City--an no, I never got to the adjoining Kansas side--probably don't think an outdoor shopping area is anything unique or special, but with buildings modeled after those in Seville, Spain, Country Club Plaza is the most beautiful such district I've ever seen in the U.S.

I happen to live across the street from one of the earliest outdoor shopping malls--Old Orchard in Skokie, IL--and Country Club Plaza, which is privately-owned as a cohesive entity, predates it by 30 some years.

I had no interest in any actual shopping, but walking through several blocks of the Plaza was an absolute pleasure, as in addition to the beautiful buildings there were many lovely pieces of art, many replicas of famous European sculptures, but themselves nearly 100 years old.

One of these was a replica of Porcellino, a sculpture of a boar most famously on display in Florence, Italy.

On the plaque in Kansas City, it says there are only 3 replica boars, so I imagined I'd now seen them all--including ones in Sydney, Australia and Victoria, British Columbia--but according to Wikipedia there are actually a couple dozen replicas.

At Country Club Plaza is an outpost of a small local chain dating back 60 years, Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue.

It is a large, sit-down restaurant with a bar. My previous familiarity with "Burnt Ends," including at Chicago area restaurants, is that they are the ends of a brisket, but per the menu and waitress burnt ends can be beef brisket, ham, pork or sausage.

I ordered a sandwich on a sesame seed bun with brisket and sausage burnt ends, accompanied by fries and a corn bake.

The sandwich was tasty and sufficient, but not huge nor sparking thoughts of being "one of the best things I've ever eaten."

Fortuitously--but not unwittingly as I'd done my homework--across the street from Jack Stack BBQ was a bus stop for the MMAX, which took me downtown for $1.50.

I did a bit of meandering around downtown streets, seeing the stately old Municipal Auditorium, a lovely fountain (with Royal blue water) and the "Community Bookshelf," a parking garage next to the main branch of the Kansas City Public Library, adorned with huge representations of literary classics.

When I had learned about this a few years ago, I thought the books sheathed the actual library, which would've been one of the coolest designs in the world. 

This isn't quite the case, yet it was still rather striking and I'm glad I made a point of seeing and photographing it.

The Radiohead concert was ticketed for 7:30pm at the glass-sheathed Sprint Center, and a bit before 5:00 I had made my way to the adjoining College Basketball Experience (and Hall of Fame).

I knew it would close at 6:00 and I likely didn't really have enough time to justify the admission fee, but coming on the heels of the NCAA Tournament and in an ideal location (especially as it began to rain heavily for just a spell) I figured I'd check it out as best I could.

Except that in trying to enter, I was told it was "closed for a special event."

I still don't know what that meant. Perhaps Thom Yorke was shooting hoops inside.

So once the rain stopped, I circled the exterior of the Sprint Center, winding up within the courtyard of an entertainment square called KC Live (within the Power & Light District).

I grabbed a slice of uninspiring Hawaiian pizza at a restaurant called the Pizza Bar--I don't mean to be brazenly dismissive as it provided a good place to charge my phone--and eventually made my way into the arena.

As I discussed with an area resident sitting next to me with his two teenage sons, the rather grand, 19,000+ seat Sprint Center opened in 2007 despite Kansas City lacking professional basketball and hockey teams, or even a regular college tenant.

The arena annually hosts the Big 12 Men's Basketball Tournament, has been a repeat venue for NCAA Tournament games and seemingly gets its share of concerts, but its existence seems especially strange given the extant Kemper Arena less than 2 miles away (though not in the downtown district).

Kemper opened in 1973 with NBA and NHL teams who were gone from KC by 1985, so the need for Sprint is a bit confounding, even if it now draws most of the arena-sized events in the area.

Opening for Radiohead (on their entire, brief U.S. tour) was Dudu Tassa & the Kuwaitis, an Israel-based band featuring an electric guitar-playing singer--presumably Dudu Tassa--a drummer and bassist (playing a striking Hofner bass), but also a 3-piece string section.

The music they played, which sounded terrific, was clearly rock 'n roll, but with Arabic (or possibly Hebrew) lyrics. I really enjoyed them.

And Radiohead was fantastic.

I'm a big fan of the British quintet; this was my 9th time seeing them since 1998 and the 4th time I've traveled more than 2 hours to do so.

But while I enjoy much of the more discordant music they've made in the 21st century, I still mostly love the more straightforward rock of OK Computer and The Bends from the '90s.

Sometimes they've delivered far too much of the former and too little of the latter for my preferences--such as the last time I'd seen them in 2012--and though it likely sounds like the gripe of a Radiohead-lite fan, I've never heard them perform their great 1992 hit, "Creep."

And still haven't.

Yet while I didn't expect Radiohead to do a '90s-heavy "greatest hits" set--which wouldn't be true to who they are--setlists from the few 2017 tour stops prior to Kansas City indicated five songs per show from OK Computer, which is celebrating its 20th Anniversary.

Of course, I only got three songs from that landmark album--"Airbag," "Lucky," "Karma Police"--but along with some other relatively low-hanging melodic fruit ("Street Spirit," "Fake Plastic Trees"), most songs they played surprised me...and sounded terrific, accompanied by mesmerizing visuals. (See Radiohead's KC setlist here.)

Sure, I would have loved to hear "Creep," "No Surprises," "Paranoid Android" and some others, but at least in recent memory, this was the best Radiohead show I've seen. I give it @@@@@ (out of 5), as the band gave me enough of what I relished while staying true to their enigmatic selves.

After the show Uber surge pricing back to my motel was around $54 for what seemed normally about a $20 ride, and there were no cabs near the arena, so I walked a few blocks to the Crowne Plaza hotel. Even though they called a cab for me, it never came, so when an Airport Shuttle pulled up, I arranged a $25 cash trip to the Motel 6.

Thursday morning, I decided to begin my day with a bit of blackjack at one of three casinos relatively
near my motel, going (via Uber) to Ameristar rather than Harrah's or Isle of Capri.

I'm not much of a gambler, but have long enjoyed playing blackjack in moderation, so commonly avail myself of convenient casinos while on vacation.

I prefer quiet mornings to bustling nights, and largely got what I wanted at a table where it was just the dealer and me.

However, it was a $10 minimum table; I would have preferred a $5 minimum table, but there was only one and it was filled with people who didn't seem to be leaving anytime soon.

After opening on a losing streak, I had a nice run, but then went cold again. I walked away only having lost $25. I would have happily lost another $25 at the $5 table, but never could get a seat.

Seems a bit silly that they didn't open another $5 table.

It was nearly 11:30am when I had an Uber come and take me to the "world famous" Arthur Bryant's Barbecue.

The restaurant has origins going back to 1908, opened in 1940 and has stood at its current location--1727 Brooklyn--since 1958.

I love the tenor of the place, which has long-served the city's African-American community--which had been centered nearby at 18th & Vine--and had visited in 2002.

Here, "Burnt Ends" did seem to mean just brisket, with a sandwich basically meaning an open-faced pile upon a few slices of white bread.

As at Jack Stack BBQ, I enjoyed my food, but don't know that I can say it was better than barbecue I've had in Chicago--including the Burnt Ends Sandwich at Real Urban BBQ.

Still, I was glad I went--and that I got there about 10 minutes before the lunch line got really long--and the Red Cream Soda was a real treat.

I then walked a long block or two to the 18th & Center district, which had once been the epicenter of African-American life and culture in Kansas City. Helping to give rise to jazz and blues, it supposedly rivaled Chicago and New York as a mecca for blacks following the Great Migration.

Though this past--and to a less overt degree, present--certainly saw its share of injustices and tragedies, the largely rebuilt tourist district on 18th Street celebrates notable glories.

The great jazz saxophonist Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, hugely influential progenitor of bebop, grew up and began his career in this area, and behind the museums I will soon mention is a park with a beautiful oversized sculpture--by Robert Graham--of the late legend's head, titled Bird Lives.

I really enjoyed just sitting there looking at the  big Bird while listening to "Ornithology" and "Parker's Mood" and imagining a teenage Charlie traipsing that very ground--sax case in hand--to cut his teeth in the jazz clubs of 18th & Vine (or 12th & Vine as celebrated in Leiber & Stoller's "Kansas City," which is now just an empty yet commemorative lot that I didn't see).

I then walked past another musical sculpture and small pavilion before entering the "Museums at 18th & Vine" complex through its back door

For a $15 combo ticket I spent a fine four hours in the American Jazz Museum, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and a common area with a film depicting the history of the 18th & Vine district.

I could also have heard several hours of free music in the jazz museum's Blue Room club but I lost steam around 5 o'clock and the music wasn't starting until 7:00.

I began my visit by watching the movie about the area's rich history--Kansas City once rivaled New York and Chicago as a mecca for African-American culture and epicenter in the rise of blues and jazz--and viewing a gallery jazz portraits by Juliette Hemingway and Javari Eugene-Poet Chase.

Having visited the American Jazz Museum in 2002, I was hoping it might have been updated or augmented, but it didn't seem to be.
There are nice kiosk displays on jazz luminaries such as Parker, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and others, and some prime artifacts such as one of Bird's saxophones--played at the famed Massey Hall concert--and one of Ella's dresses, eyeglasses and microphones.

But several of the interactive displays weren't working, a movie no longer runs and there was hardly a word to be found about several jazz legends I would have liked to learn more about (John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, etc., etc.).

Considerably more insightful--about its acute topic and the history of African-Americans in the U.S.--is the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame museum, which I warmly and fairly acutely recalled from my visit 15 years earlier.

Detailed text explains the proud--but unjust in its need to exist--Negro Leagues that were founded at a YMCA just two blocks away by a man named Rube Foster.

The Kansas City Monarchs long stood as the most esteemed franchise, featuring--among many others--the great Satchel Paige. They, and eventually the Royals upon their genesis, played at Municipal Stadium.

In recent years I had read that Geddy Lee--a white, Jewish, Canadian rock star as part of the band Rush, of whom I'm a big fan--had donated a vast collection of baseballs signed by Negro Leagues veterans.

Most of the names didn't mean anything to me, but it was wistful to note that so many talented baseball players were denied the chance to play in the major leagues--until 1947 when Jackie Robinson, himself a former KC Monarch, broke the MLB color barrier.

Lee's collection is displayed in several cases next to the museum's centerpiece Field of Legends, on which sculptures of Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson and several others are positioned for immortality.

Overseeing the field, appropriately, is a sculpture of Buck O'Neil, a player and manager for the Monarchs, who became the first African-American coach in the major leagues--with the Cubs--and was the driving force in establishing the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

When I had gone to a Royals game in 2002, I had seen the still quite ebullient--in his 90s--O'Neil, and bought a signed copy of his I Was Right on Time autobiography in the museum's gift shop.

I had originally intended to stick around and hear some jazz--though the Blue Room performer that night, Lester "Duck" Warner, seems to be more of a blues bassist--but I was worn out and decided to take an Uber back to my motel.

I also passed on the chance to see a performance at the Gem Theater across the street--supposedly
only the facade is original--and couldn't find anywhere to justify spending another $40+ roundtrip Ubering for food or entertainment, so I just walked to the Subway at the gas station and ate in my room while watching TV.

Which brings us to Friday.

I had ascertained that the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum in Independence, MO was essentially no further from my motel than was downtown KC, and got there as it opened at 9:30am, after having the Uber driver--for which I gave him a few bucks in cash--take me to Truman's longtime house so I could snap a few pix.

Truman lived in the house at 219 N. Delaware Street with his wife Bess long before becoming the 33rd U.S. President, would return there during his time in office and maintained it as his primary residence until his death in 1972.

At the museum and library--the latter of which can only be utilized for research by appointment--I watched a fine introductory movie, stopped by Truman's grave in the courtyard, saw his famed "The Buck Stops Here" desk sign and stepped into a replica Oval Office before spending hours in galleries devoted to his life and presidency.

The beginning of the presidential galleries featured several newspaper front pages from Truman's tumultuous first four months in office, when he succeeded FDR, oversaw the fall of Berlin and surrender of Germany and dropped two atomic bombs on Japan.

The subsequent room posited about the propriety of having done so, but portrayed that Truman was fully comfortable with his decision and never second-guessed himself.

Another newspaper front page also featured prominently as there was a copy of the Nov. 3, 1948 Chicago Tribune pronouncing--incorrectly--DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.

Especially in having been at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum the day before, I found it interesting that there was no mention in the Truman Museum about Jackie Robinson.

The breaking of baseball's color barrier would seem to be among the most momentous--then and now--things that happened during Truman's time in office, but I guess the president didn't have very much to do with it.

Declaring my independence from Independence, I had an Uber bring me to Crown Center, a KC complex of multiple office buildings and a shopping mall developed by the Hallmark Cards company, which has its headquarters there.

A Hall's department store is the anchor retail tenant.

All of Crown Center's quick-serve restaurants were long-lined at lunch time, but especially as I recently wrote a blog post about posh taquerias, I opted for a local place called Unforked.

I circumvented the line a bit by taking a seat at the bar and ordered a trio of tacos from a rather enticing menu: a Barking Pig, Tilapia Tango and Crispy Avocado. They were all really good.

After lunch I proceeded to the Hallmark Visitors Center.

Though not on a huge scale, nor featuring a factory tour, this is one of the "Kansas City museums" I really enjoy, perhaps due to my love of making greeting cards.

The staff at the Center's front desk were exceptionally friendly, and I began my hourlong visit by viewing a film about the history of Hallmark.

Displays depicted the venerated timeline of the company while galleries illustrated that Hallmark's renown goes well beyond cards.

There were displays devoted to unique Christmas trees Hallmark employees had made for the company's owner, a section on Keepsake Ornaments, a chance to watch clips of Hallmark Hall of Fame TV programs and kiosks in which to watch quite moving Hallmark commercials.

At this point I imagine most tourists may have had enough, but knowing I was leaving town the next morning and wanting to see the World War I Museum and Liberty Memorial, I shlepped up a steep hill to get "over there."

I only had about an hour to see a museum for which the $16 admission covers two days. But without reading anything in too much detail, I was able to see most of the main galleries.

This came 100 years and 1 day after the United States entered World War I, with a huge commemoration taking place at the museum the day before, attended by U.S. and foreign dignitaries.

I had heard of the event shortly before leaving Chicago but was unable to secure a ticket, and with the museum being closed on Thursday and--per many Uber driver reports--traffic snarled, I had stayed away from the area.

But though I would have valued at least another hour viewing the special exhibit galleries and going to the top of the Liberty Memorial tower, I'm glad I saw what I did.

And it was a downhill shlep to Union Station afterward, where I had a 6:00pm reservation at Pierpont's.

Apologies to lovers of KC BBQ for my not overly singing its praises, but--as per the @@@@@ review I posted to Open Table--this was easily the best dining experience of my trip.

I was intending to splurge on a 14 oz. Kansas City Strip steak--what else?--for $45 but benefited from the restaurant's generous "Small Plates Tasting Menu."

For $47 dollars, I got a 10 oz KC Strip which was more than sufficient, a Crab Cake appetizer better than I'd had in Baltimore, Blue Crab & Sweet Corn Bisque, whipped potatoes and asparagus alongside the steak and a Honey Crème Brûlée that was absolutely heavenly. (The small plates menu features several other options for each course.)

And without wishing to sound too creepy about it, I had a lovely waitress named Courtney who helped to make my dinner even more enjoyable.

Still in Union Station--which serves Amtrak but is otherwise devoted to dining, entertainment, shopping and museum space, and was hosting a massive Science Fair--I attended a local production of Avenue Q by MTKC.

Without the Royals in town and no jazz of note, my best Friday night entertainment options were two musicals, the other being She Loves Me. But I'm slated to see that in Chicagoland soon, and though I'd seen Avenue Q five previous times, including its original Broadway and much-heralded-though-short-lived Las Vegas productions, its one of my favorite shows.

The chance to see how it was interpreted by a professional troupe in a regional city was quite appealing, and rather rewarding.

Though I empathize with budgetary concerns that probably dictated the decision not to have the typical Avenue Q streetscape as a set piece--but rather an open stage with video supplying scenic references--the acting and singing in the show directed by Julie Danielson was top-notch.

I particularly liked Kayli Jamison, who played and puppeted Kate Monster as well as anyone I recall, and it was nice to see the City Stage theater space rather full, despite my being able to buy a ticket just the day before.

On my Seth Saith rating scale, I'd give this production of Avenue Q @@@@, but perhaps @@@@1/2 had I not seen the show done a bit better elsewhere.

The next morning--at 6:30am--I made it back to Union Station without incident, and with perhaps the nicest Uber driver of many I enjoyed chatting with on the trip, but I had rather a scare just before I was to begin boarding my train back to Chicago.

My printed ticket wouldn't scan, and in looking at it, I immediately knew why. Instead of saying April 8 for a return date, it said August 8.

I had made the reservation with Amtrak by phone and had them email me the ticket, so I knew the fault wasn't mine, but having to go see the ticketing agent and have him call to seek permission to allow for the change was rather perplexing 12 minutes before departure.

But it all worked out. As did the entire trip. Sure, seeing the Caravaggio, playing $5 blackjack, finding the college basketball museum open and better enjoying the famed BBQ might have made things more perfect, but if nothing else, along with a good time I was left with a tale to tell.

And a few more photos to share.


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