Chances are that whether you have resided in the metro for a long time or are just passing through, the connection between many cement structures scattered throughout the city and the name Tom Pendergast hardly means anything to you except maybe: "Wasn't he mayor once?"
To set you perfectly straight, he wasn't. But more on that later. First, you must know that the big guys behind MTSI (Metropolitan Transit Services Inc.), known affectionately as "The Metro" and the host of those trackless tourist trolleys traveling the streets from the Plaza to the City Market, have decked out a short bus in steel gray, vintage paddy-wagon attire to transport participants of their latest creation, the Gangster Tour, which gives sightseers a look at Kansas City's shady past.
Custom-designed and patterned after a real 1930s paddy wagon, the ride is plush, with tiny TV monitors and air conditioning. While pin-striped driver/ host Johnny Holliday is running yellow lights and dodging pedestrians, the group of 15 is entertained with a televised account of Kansas City history so alluring, it's hard to conceive that the stories being spun actually transpired in and around the ho-hum facades and everyday streets passing by outside the window.
Besides Holliday, the TV tour introduces three other early 20th century characters: the narrator, an aging, Walter Winchell-like media commentator; Tommy Holliday, Johnny's ne'er-do-well thug brother; and the classic "doll," Velma, Johnny's soft-hearted, jitterbug-loving girlfriend.
Each character represents a different perspective from Kansas City's Pendergast era (circa 1920 to 1940). Velma reminds Johnny to point out all the swingin' "hot spots" of the city -- drawing wagon riders' attention to the area where reportedly more than 200 houses of prostitution once stood -- including the Drum Room, located in the old President Hotel, which was the heart of the alcohol bootlegging industry in Prohibition Kansas City.
The nameless radio narrator is the voice of moral, small-town reason, who sees "Boss Tom" Pendergast and his paid circle of friends as a slow poison in the city's drinking water. Johnny's brother, Tommy, fits the bill of overdone goodfella, wanna-be bad boy who finds a generous and practical beauty in the city's less-than-mainstream political machine.
It's a regular fedora-topped drama. And the ringleader? None other than the enigmatic city "leader," Pendergast -- which takes us back to cement. After taking the Gangster Tour, well ... let's just say riders will never look at certain local landmarks without seeing laundered dollar signs. From the beautifully paved Brush Creek to the Kansas City skyline and the blue-lighted runways of the downtown airport, the Gangster Tour shows how all that cement was courtesy of ancestral city manipulator Pendergast, who controlled Kansas City's purse strings and lifeblood in his time but was only once elected to office -- alderman of his ward.
Throughout the televised tour, Johnny stops to point out some of his favorite historic landmarks, including an unobtrusive parking lot in the City Market where madam Annie Chambers and her million-dollar house of ill repute once flourished. The tour also includes a leg-stretch point along 12th Street, where the tallest City Hall in the nation, made of -- what else? -- cement, reaches into the clouds.
The melodrama unfolds each Wednesday through Saturday at 1:30 p.m. and rolls out of the West Transit Pavilion of Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Road. Tickets range from $19 to $24. For reservations, call (816) 221-3399.