Last week, I groggily poured myself a cup of coffee at 7 in the morning and flipped on the tube to watch the news, but Turner Classic Movies came on instead. It was way too early for me to appreciate the languid beauty of 1930s movie star Loretta Young, but the title of the film was somewhat provocative — Week-end Marriage — and before I knew it, I was sucked into the ridiculous plot. The film's story is stupid — Young nearly ruins her marriage by getting a better job than her sexy, shiftless husband — but one scene in particular fascinated me.
At one point, Young and her man dine in a cafeteria. A Hollywood version, mind you, but I'm guessing it came somewhat close to what a nice '30s cafeteria might have looked like. The patrons slid round black-lacquered trays (they'd be pretty stylish today) down a polished marble bar and shouted out orders — "Give me some of those potatoes, will ya?" — to the employees behind the line, all females tidily dressed in starched aprons and little white caps. No glass sneeze guards, of course — this was the prehygienic era.
As I sipped my coffee, I lost interest in the film but started thinking about cafeterias. I grew up loving them, probably because my parents, who were children of the Great Depression, loved them.
Back in the hot summer of 1932, when Week-end Marriage opened at the Liberty Theatre at 11th Street and Main, hungry moviegoers leaving that building could take their pick of six cafeterias within a few short blocks. The wildly popular Forum Cafeteria at 1220 Main was the creation of self-made millionaire Clarence Hayman (who started his career as William Rockhill Nelson's stable boy). The Forum not only served thousands of meals every day from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. but also advertised that it offered "33,000 cubic feet of washed pure air per minute." If the 27-cent T-bone steak wasn't alluring enough, the air conditioning certainly was.
Although the Forum Cafeteria on Main closed in the 1970s, long before I moved to Kansas City, almost everyone I know who is old enough to have dined there recalls it fondly. My friend Jeanne says that going to the restaurant — even in its waning years, during the late 1960s — was a big thing. "It was downtown," she says. "And the food was delicious."
My friend Addison ate at the Forum several times in 1973 and recalls it as something out of a film noir: "It was slightly grungy by that point. In those days, 12th Street still had a wild nightclub scene, so the neighborhood had this aura of corruption. And there was a tawdry element to the cafeteria, too."
That makes me wish the Forum could have hung around long enough to be incorporated into the Power and Light District as a fabulous relic of a very different urban Kansas City. Despite a marketing campaign that encourages visitors to leave their inhibitions in the minivan, the shiny new mix of restaurants could use a pinch of real tawdry.
It's sad to think that the day of the cafeteria seems to be over. By 1963, there were only six left in the metropolitan area, including the Forum, the Myron Green Cafeteria and the Charl-Mont downtown. The last glamorous cafeteria, if you could call it that, was Putsch's Cafeteria on the Country Club Plaza (where Houston's resides today).
A vintage color postcard of Putsch's from the 1960s shows its curvy orange leatherette sofa and the visually sumptuous array of food on the line. Yes, cafeterias were often as inexpensive as greasy diners, but the sensory overload of the meal made it feel like so much more. There was the tactile experience of loading up a plastic tray while quietly sliding it over metal tubing. And the visual thrill of the beckoning, jewel-like Jell-O cubes, the artfully arranged little salads, the mounds of golden fried chicken or thick chopped steaks floating in thick brown gravy — and the beautiful desserts! Then there were the tough decisions that had to be made: chicken potpie or pork cutlet? Mashed potatoes or broccoli rice casserole?