197 Kansas City, MO: Hallmark

[New York Life Insurance Building]

Jim in Wichita told me about Kansas City, "You'll love it. It's like San Francisco without the culture. KC is where people from Wichita dream of going for more culture and big city life." Like San Francisco, Kansas City has a two-word name and plenty of hills. The isolated outcroppings on which downtown was built had a disjointing effect, creating pockets so that there was no cohesive core. On one hill stood the Hopperesque New York Life Insurance Building, an 1870s building festooned with stone, brick, and terra cotta. Kansas City's first skyscraper, it was touted as thoroughly modern and fireproof (a nearby hotel still had painted on its side a sign blaring, "Fireproof! Rates from $1.50"). A two-ton bronze eagle guarded the front door and has become an emblem of downtown. Perhaps, Hopper would prefer the nearby Midland Theater--the third-largest movie theater in the country when it opened in 1927. Otherwise, downtown feels lackluster. City Market was empty. I expected Kansas City to have a little more bustle. Most of what the town identified itself with was actually outside of downtown.

Over at the renovated Union Station, under the huge clock that inspired locals to say "Meet me under the clock," a display honored the Harvey House restaurant. Waitresses show up often in Hopper's paintings, and Fred Harvey, a Kansan from England, invented the waitress. Rail passengers either brought food with them or ate at Hopperesque dives near train stations. Harvey offered railroad depot restaurants with excellent food and service.

Legend has it that, one evening, Harvey had to separate two male waiters having a knife fight, and he decided then and there to hire women. Will Rogers quipped, "Fred Harvey kept the West in food and wives." Harvey also invented an occupation that afforded Hopper free female models.

Near the train station, Crown Center was an urban development featuring shops, business offices, hotels, restaurants, and theaters—all connected by a skywalk called "The Link." The project was privately funded by Joyce Hall, who founded Hallmark Cards here in Kansas City. He resented his given name, Joyce, but, noted about using his middle name, "Clyde isn't any great shakes."

He began working at the age of eight and sold cosmetics for the forerunner of Avon. In 1909, he decided to start a post card business in Omaha, but a salesman suggested Kansas City instead. Joyce purchased a one-way ticket. Joyce named the company after the quality assurance halls of fourteenth-century English guilds. In 1944, Hall struck upon Hallmark's slogan, "When you care enough to send the very best." In his autobiography When You Care Enough, Hall wrote "If a man goes into business with only the idea of making a lot of money, chances are he won't. But if he puts service and quality first, the money will take care of itself."

Hallmark is the second-largest specialty retail chain in the country. Film fan Hopper might enjoy knowing that Hallmark is also the largest producer and distributor of miniseries and television movies. The company employs about 5,600 Kansas Cityans. Hall said, "The sad thing about getting big [is] I used to know everybody."

Hall maybe was busy getting to know other people, such as Sir Winston Churchill, whose paintings appeared on Hallmark Cards. Other cards reproduced original work by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and other museum-quality artists. Amateur artists whose works adorned cards included Fred McMurray, Jane Wyman, Groucho Marx, and Henry Fonda.

Hall also employed two of Hopper's contemporaries equally credited (like Hopper) with capturing Americana in images. Walt Disney got the idea for a certain cartoon character when he befriended a mouse that clawed through his wastebasket when he worked at Hallmark. Hall also fingered Norman Rockwell to rally Kansas City through the aftermath of 1951's biblical-sounding flood of forty days and nights. The deluge arrived on a Friday the thirteenth to boot. Rockwell painted The Kansas City Spirit to bolster spirits, and Rockwell's Christmas card designs became Hallmark best-sellers.

Rockwell's original Kansas City Spirit beamed on the wall of the Hallmark visitors' center. Also on display behind windows, like animals in a zoo, were workers producing cards at machines. It was funny to see the mass production of things that were marketed under giving a personal touch. A woman seeing me taking notes asked if I wanted some information, and gave me a packet of corporate handouts. She provided me with sanctioned words about the place, just as their cards provide sanctioned words for any occasion. Hallmark provides words to fill the awkward silences that seem to inhabit so many of Hopper's paintings and that make Americans so uncomfortable.

A Hopper painting could never be used as a Hallmark card.

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