Kansas City's population at the time hovered around 55,000, and the local boozing problem was getting out of hand. Civic leaders were demanding that something be done about the taverns, gambling halls and whorehouses doing such a boom business in the oldest part of the city. At the time, the area now known as the River Market was the hotbed of those vices. Sex entrepreneur Annie Chambers had her famous bordello at Fourth Street and Wyandotte, walking distance from the cluster of beer halls and faro parlors a few blocks south at Missouri Avenue and Main Street. This was Kansas City's "entertainment" district.
By the 1920s, this same neighborhood had been sanitized by default: Most of the bars had followed the population south. The once-bawdy stretch of Missouri Avenue between Main and Grand had grown dull and commercial, its red-brick buildings home to ordinary businesses such as the Trimble-Compton Produce Company at 112 East Missouri Street, a few steps away from the shabby Ashland Hotel. The Ashland lingered until the 1940s, but the sturdy structure at 112 had better fortune: As a retail venue, including a long stint as the home of Kansas City Light & Fixtures, it weathered the ups and downs of the aging neighborhood and survived the swath of interstate highway that cut it off from the rest of downtown.
The interesting thing about the newest incarnation of 112 East Missouri Street, Harry's Country Club, is that it looks as if it's been there since the Pendergast era. Thanks to the artistic design work of John O'Brien and a lot of vintage woodwork and molding, the two-month-old saloon and restaurant has the appearance of a nicotine-stained honky-tonk that started serving up beer and burgers when Walt Bodine and Charlie Wheeler were still in diapers.
The charm of this illusion is that it's been done so artfully and entertainingly that it comes across not as kitschy and imitative but rather, as music writer David Cantwell notes, like "an homage to the great old honky-tonks ... adoring rather than mocking the past."
Harry's combines the best features of Kansas City's historic saloons, speakeasies, nightclubs and roadhouses, right down to the black-and-white publicity stills in the men's room of lacquer-haired go-go girls. No ordinary go-gos, by the way, but the chicks who performed with the Fendermen back in the 1960s at Genova's Chestnut Inn, once a mecca for live entertainment on 12th Street. In its heyday, the Chestnut Inn lured acts such as Tammy Wynette and Conway Twitty to town. There's a reason why Harry Murphy's juke joint is called the Country Club, and that's Murphy's fondness for the royalty of the Grand Ole Opry: Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, Charlie Rich and even the young Willie Nelson, barely recognizable as a young, clean-shaven heartthrob in one framed photo on the wall.
Huge glass ashtrays wait in front of nearly every stool at the long wooden bar. (Smoking's allowed at the tables, too.) And hanging over the mirror on a little shelf is the house selection of "yard beers" (the kind of brews that "people drink in their back yards," bartender Harry Murphy Jr. says) -- Falstaff, Schlitz, Hamms and Old Style, two bucks a can. People drink plenty of them at Harry's -- Cantwell downed a Falstaff, a Hamms and a Schlitz over dinner one night (he liked the Schlitz best) -- because there's nothing quite like a cold, cheap beer with a "city fried" chicken breast that's drenched in a gravy heated up with roasted poblano chiles.