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Kansas City, Where Things Are Up to Date

November 06, 1988|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — "Everything's up to date in Kansas City, they've gone about as far as they can go. . . ."

Only Oscar Hammerstein's first line in his lyrics for "Oklahoma!" is quoted in Kansas City tourism brochures and press releases. What would his second line be if he could walk through the Kansas City of today?

We've just strolled from the Court of the Penguins in Seville Square to the outdoor tables beside the fountain that sparkles around Bacchus, god of wine.

The tile roofs, ornate belltowers, filigree ironwork and pastel-colored buildings are reminders of Seville, Spain.

And why not? Seville is a sister city of Kansas City. So are Freetown in Sierra Leone, Africa; Morelia, Mexico; Tainan, Taiwan, and Kurashiki, Japan.

Kansas City claims more boulevard miles than Paris and more fountains than any city except Rome.

First Shopping Center

Seville Square and the Fountain of Bacchus are in Country Club Plaza. Built in 1922 on 55 acres five miles south of downtown, it was the nation's first shopping center.

The shops include Saks Fifth Avenue, Gucci, Bally of Switzerland, Bonwit Teller. There are also more than 30 restaurants in the plaza, featuring American and international cuisine.

The classic Fountain of Bacchus is matched by one of Neptune emerging from the waters with spear poised, and the Court of the Bronze Penguins is close to a giant fountain in which bronze horses gallop.

In the plaza the sculptured figure of a small boy holds aloft a fish he has just caught. Beneath a tree on the sidewalk a bronze boar offers its nose for good luck; the nose is shiny from being petted. The white marble figure of a sleeping child is so poignant that during winter a grandmother in the neighborhood often covers it with a blanket. A bronze of a young mother and child, closely facing each other, is called "Quiet Talk."

The tall figure of Massasoit, legendary Indian sachem, stands on a huge quartzite boulder carried from Minnesota to Missouri by a glacier more than 500,000 years ago.

Holiday Lights

From Thanksgiving through New Year's Day, Country Club Plaza is lit up for the holiday season. More than 48 miles of wiring outline belltowers, balconies, courtyards, streets and parks with twinkling colored lights.

Hotels overlooking the plaza are booked a year ahead for the holiday season, and airlines reroute flights to let passengers view the spectacle. Horses trot down the main shopping avenue pulling antique carriages.

But the plaza is only one attraction in a metropolitan area of 1.5 million residents. During our stay we were based at the Allis Plaza Hotel downtown, where the city's skyline is being shaped by pyramiding architecture such as the AT&T Town Pavilion and the 42-story One Kansas City Place.

Five brightly colored trolleys that stop in front of the hotel have names that salute Kansas City's jazz heritage: Count Basie Caboose, Blue Note, 12th Street Rag, A-Train and Bandwagon.

A round-trip fare of $2 covers sightseeing from downtown to the river front and Country Club Plaza.

A new song about the city would have to take in the jazz pubs, the opera, the symphony and ballet and 30 theaters and night spots.

The Folly Theater in all likelihood was the turn-of-the-century burlesque house in the song from "Oklahoma!" Gypsy Rose Lee later removed her garments there center stage. Now the restored theater features Broadway plays and concerts.

John Calvin McCoy, son of a Baptist preacher, deserves a verse in any city song. He came here in the early 1830s as a missionary to the Indians.

He also had the eye of an entrepreneur and recognized that the confluence of two rivers, at the beginning of the California, Santa Fe and Oregon trails, was an ideal location for a trading post. He built a general store and founded Westport, where caravans could buy supplies.

Statues and landmark sites such as Kelly's Bar preserve the era at a time when 300,000 people came through, heading west. John Sutter left in a hurry to escape creditors and became a central figure in the California Gold Rush.

Civil War Battle

Scouts Kit Carson and Jim Bridger took off from Westport. Albert Boone, grandson of Daniel Boone, was a merchant here. The biggest Civil War battle west of the Mississippi was fought here. The town became part of Kansas City just before the turn of the century.

The 1920s and '30s marked the "anything goes" era of political boss Tom Pendergast, who reached far beyond his own horizons when he persuaded Harry S. Truman to go into politics in 1927.

Those also were the years when Count Basie and Lester Young were creating the sounds of Kansas City jazz.

The quaint shops of Westport Square were the magnet for the opening last year of the $33-million Manor Square marketplace, restaurant, art gallery and entertainment center.

Kansas City's liveliest entertainment is in Westport bars and clubs, which offer jazz, comedy and country music.

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