Sunday, February 21, 2016


Some people think Kansas City was just a "cow town" back in the old days.  But these people are wrong.  And that is because even though there were a lot of stockyards, there was also some culture, too.  The first culture came when a man named Kersey Coates decided that a growing place like the Town of Kansas needed a nice building where plays and operas could be performed.  So he built an opera house.  And right across the street from it, he built a hotel.  These two buildings were way out in "the boonies," beyond the city limits.  Now this place is at 10th and Broadway, and it's part of downtown Kansas City.

Coates Opera House, Photo from Missouri Valley Special Collection, Kansas City Public Library

The Coates Opera House opened in September 1871.  The streets weren't paved, so in bad weather, everyone's shoes got muddy, and women's skirts got muddy, too.  But it was a big deal to go to the opera house, which made people willing to put up with these conditions.

Coates Opera House and Coates House Hotel, with cows

Then on January 31, 1901, the opera house caught fire and burned down.  This is something that happened a lot to theaters back in those days because the buildings were heated with boilers.  Also they had hot gas or electric stage lights.  So for the audiences crowded into the buildings, there was always a  risk that they would not be able to get out if a fire started.

Luckily, when the Coates Opera House burned down, the play had just ended, and the theatergoers had left.  The actors still in the building managed to escape by breaking out windows.  But even though no one got hurt, the touring company lost thousands of dollars in costumes and props.  And of course, the building that had served as the cultural center for Kansas City was gone.

 About the same time that the opera house burned down, a man named Colonel Willis Wood moved to Kansas City from St. Joseph.  Col. Wood had made a lot of money in the dry goods business, and he was very interested in theater.  So right away, he decided to build a new theater.  It was located on the northwest corner of 11th and Baltimore, and it opened on August 25, 1902.

Col. Wood loved opulence and extravagant design, so he hired architect Louis Curtiss to plan the new theater.  Mr. Curtiss followed the colonel's wishes, because that was what he was paid to do, of course.  The theater was an example of the beaux arts style, which I think means "pretty art."  But in my opinion, it was not very pretty.  Mostly, I think it was gaudy and overdone.  But no one asked me because I am just a little dog, and besides, I hadn't even been born back then.

The Willis Wood Theatre presented only first-class productions, and it soon got a reputation as THE place to see and be seen among the city's elite.  Often people began the evening with dinner at the Baltimore Hotel, which was across the street.  Then they walked through a tunnel to the theater to attend the play.  At intermission, they went back through the tunnel to visit the hotel bar, which led to the tunnel's being called "Highball Alley."

The view east on 11th St, showing the south side of Willis Wood Theatre

Mom bought a postcard of the Willis Wood Theatre, and that is how I got the idea to write this entry.  The marquee in the photo says The Sultan of Sulu, which turns out to have been a musical spoof written in 1902 by George Ade in the style of The Pirates of Penzance.  But that is not the play that the person who sent the postcard saw.  The date on the card is 1904, and the message says:

Dear Harriett,
We saw charming Ethel Barrymore here last Friday night in "Cousin Kate" and wish we could enjoy her all over again.  How are you and the world?  You see I'm still on deck and not run out by old hay fever.  [signature illegible]

Ethel Barrymore, who was born in 1879, was a member of the famous Barrymore family of actors.  Ethel was regarded as the "First Lady of the American Theater."  She first appeared on Broadway in 1895, but also acted in plays in London.  Many men were attracted to her, including Winston Churchill, who asked her to marry him.  But Ethel did not want to be a politician's wife, so she said no.

The role that first made Ethel Barrymore a star was as Madame Trentoni in Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines.  She was also well known for her title role in Cousin Kate.  In addition to her work as a stage actress, Ms. Barrymore appeared on radio, TV, and in movies.  She married Russell Griswold Colt in 1909 and had three children before divorcing him in 1923.  She died of cardiovascular disease in 1959.

Ethel Barrymore, c. 1908, photo from Library of Congress

Anyway, back in Kansas City, the Shubert theater opened in 1906 at 10th and Baltimore, just a few blocks from the Willis Wood Theatre.  Competition between the two theaters was fierce, and the Willis Wood eventually lost out.  The owners tried stock theater, burlesque, and then they installed a $20,000 pipe organ to accompany motion pictures.  However, movies did not draw the large crowds the theater needed.  So the theater went back to plays performed by stock companies.  In January, 1917, a week before the last of these was to end, and the Willis Wood was set to try movies again, a fire destroyed most of the building's interior.  After about a year, the remaining shell of the theater was torn down, and the 20-story Kansas City Athletic Club building was constructed.  At the time, it was the tallest structure in town.  It is still there, now called the Mark Twain Tower.

Meanwhile, the Shubert Theater continued successfully for another 30 years, booking some of the best productions in the country.  Owners Sam, Lee, and J.J. Shubert controlled some 1,000 theaters during the heyday of traveling shows.  They used their estimated $400 million to bankroll the most popular plays of all time.  In 1936 the theater was finally razed.  Today a parking garage for the use of Kansas City Library patrons stands on the theater's former location.


Monday, February 15, 2016


Photo by Mark Wagner

I decided to write about cactus wrens for two important reasons:


1.  Mom just finished writing an article on this topic for the cactus club newsletter, and she said I could use what she wrote.  Mom is a pretty good writer -- although not as good as me -- and since she already did all the research the stuff, I thought I would just take her up on her offer.


Photo by Karen Hartshorne  ©2013

2.  One place that cactus wrens live is in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, which is where my chihuahua ancestors came from.  So I figure there are still lots of chihuahuas around who hear cactus wrens singing all the time.  And because we have this special connection, that is another reason to write about the bird.  So anyway, here is what Mom wrote:

Unlike other North American wrens, the cactus wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus) is easy to spot because of its large size.  It has a loud, rasping voice and is much bolder than other wrens.  The bird is quite common in the desert southwest and has been designated the State Bird of Arizona.  There are eight species of the wren in Mexico and a few more farther south.

The cactus wren is well-adapted to low, dry habitats, building its nests in chollas, saguaros, yuccas, and other spiny plants.  It can also be found in mesquite brush and in coastal chaparral where cactus grows.  In residential areas, the birds are often a nuisance because their natural curiosity compels them to fly through open windows into cars or houses.

Pair of cactus wrens

Pairs of wrens stay together for life.  Once they have claimed a territory, they occupy and defend it
throughout the year.  The male and female work together to build a football-sized nest from grass and straw.  It is lined with feathers and has a side entrance. The female lays 3-6 eggs, which she then incubates for about 16 days.  Both parents feed the chicks, who leave the nest between 19 and 23 days after hatching.


Sabino Canyon, AZ, Photo by Alan Vernon

The diet of cactus wrens consists primarily of insects, including ants, beetles, grasshoppers, and wasps.  Occasionally, they eat seeds, fruits, small reptiles and frogs.  The birds begin foraging late in the morning, poking through ground litter and turning over stones in search of insects.  As the day becomes hotter, the wrens’ activity slows and moves to shadier microclimates.  Almost all of the birds’ water comes from food.  They rarely drink from free-standing water, even if it is available.

The cactus wren is not listed as being endangered or threatened; however, it is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the same as other song birds.  In the wild, wrens can live to be 7-10 years old.

Monday, February 8, 2016


Today is the first day of the Year of the Monkey.  If you were born in 1920, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016, or 2028, you are a Monkey.  Of course, the Monkey people from the year 2028 haven't been born yet, but they will be.  Unless the world ends first or something like that.

The Monkey is the ninth symbol in the 12-year Chinese zodiac.  It is an animal that represents irrepressible curiosity and creative energy; however, it can also be seen as a naughty trickster.  People born in a Monkey year are energetic, inventive, gregarious, wise, intelligent, cheerful, and witty.  They are excellent problem solvers.  As bold risk-takers whose consciences don't bother them much, they are not afraid to experiment and test their wildest theories.

On the negative side, Monkeys can be snobbish, egotistical, deceptive, stubborn, reckless, suspicious, and manipulative.  They are opportunistic and not always trustworthy.  Beneath their youthful zest for life may lie an unscrupulous adolescent.

People born in a Monkey year are generally healthy, but they sometimes suffer from circulatory and heart problems, diabetes, arthritis, anxiety and panic issues, obsessive-compulsive disorder, antisocial personality disorder, or bipolar disorder.

Some famous people born in the Year of the Monkey include Leonardo da Vinci, Harry S Truman,  Eleanor Roosevelt, John Milton, Paul Gauguin, Bette Davis, Charles Dickens, Diana Ross, Gustav Mahler, Annie Oakley, Charlie Parker, Elizabeth Taylor, Omar Sharif, Isaac Stern, and Peter O'Toole.

The best jobs for Monkey people are those that offer excitement and challenge.  Examples would include being professional athletes, stockbrokers, realtors, lawyers, actors, writers, journalists, and diplomats.

If you consider all the good and bad qualities of the Monkey, you end up with the prospect of a year in which anything can happen.  The energy and motivation of the animal will create a fast pace, with better communication, more humor, and more wit.

It should turn out to be an optimistic year where finances, politics, and real estate will see an upturn.  However, there may be an undercurrent of insecurity.  It's a time for people to start new projects and devote themselves to even the most unlikely schemes.  Those who can hang on for the wild ride and outsmart the Monkey trickster will come out unharmed.  But the dull and slow-witted who cannot handle stress might come unglued!

Friday, February 5, 2016


It is almost time to say goodbye to the Year of the Sheep, but before we do that, I want to show you some artwork that has sheep in it.  I was actually surprised to find out how many artists had painted pictures of sheep because, in my opinion, they should have been painting chihuahuas -- or at least some kind of dog.  But as we all know, artists are kind of quirky, and they tend to do whatever they want to do.  My best explanation for why artists have painted so many sheep over the years is that artists like to paint landscapes.  Sheep are often found standing around in landscapes, but you hardly ever see a chihuahua in a landscape.  This is because chihuahuas have the good sense to stay inside where it's warm and dry, which sheep do not.

Anyway, here are a bunch of pictures, and I will not offer any critique of them, so you are free to have any opinion you like, even if it's the wrong one.

Sheep and Goat; artist unknown.  Freer Gallery of Art

A Goat, Sheep and a Dog Resting in a Landscape, Philipp Peter Roos (1651-1705)

Our English Coasts, 1852, William Holman Hunt, Tate Museum

Sheep, 1942, Salvador Dali

Sheep Shearing, 1675-80?  Adam Colonia, Dulwich Picture Gallery

Dog Protecting Sheep in Winter, Edwin Landseer (1802-1873)

Woolmark Co. Sheep Art Campaign

Sheep by the Sea, 1865, Rosa Bonheur, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.

A Flock of Sheep in a Snowstorm, Joseph Farquharson (1846-1935)

Telephone Sheep, 2006, Jean Luc Cornec, Museum Für Kommunikation, Frankfurt