Fifty years ago this summer, Kansas City’s hippie search was on.
Maybe 1,000 of them lived around town, guessed the owner of a Westport club called The Place for a 1967 newspaper article. At The Place and through much of Midtown, new music and other art forms were blooming.
Local journalists even tried to put a number to the hippies, who had been examined that May in a nationwide CBS broadcast titled “The Hippie Temptation.”
Yet during what America called the Summer of Love, The Star reported: “The Kansas City hippies still are so few that most who would call themselves hippies have gone unnoticed.”
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Later a newspaperman spent time at the Volker Park fountain, a budding hangout for guitar strummers and free spirits. He concluded with just a hint of satire that “there may be 20 bona fide hippies in Kansas City.”
Flower children and psychedelia were the rage on the coasts that ’67 summer, particularly in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and parts of New York City. The Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in June, and films such as “Bonnie and Clyde” set new standards for challenging authority.
A half-century later, Kansas City area residents recall they needed a couple of years before fully embracing the emerging culture, at least when it came to the shaggy look.
“The seeds of the Summer of Love were here. They just took a little more time to sprout,” said Allen Blasco, president of the Kansas Music Hall of Fame. “Back then we were always a bit behind the coasts.”
High school yearbooks support his recollection.
At Westport High — close to the center of the city’s flirtations with counterculture — hair over the ears, John Lennon spectacles and blown-out Afros didn’t really begin to appear in guys’ photos until the 1970 yearbook. Local girls through the late-’60s tended to wear their hair up for senior pictures.
Sly James, entering his junior year at Bishop Hogan High School in 1967, sang in a rock group called the Amelia Earhart Memorial Flying Band. In the Northland, meanwhile, the name of a jet-age airport just beginning to take shape was changed from Mid-Continent to Kansas City International, a facility that Mayor James this summer is prodding the city to rebuild.
(Voters in autumn 1966 easily approved a $150 million bond issuance for the three-terminal project. Kansas City now is weighing a $1 billion single-terminal plan.)
Returning to the polls in the Summer of Love, Jackson County voters approved a $102 million bond package to build the Truman Sports Complex. The plan’s slogan was “Catch Up, Go Ahead,” reflecting a sense that America’s heartland risked falling behind fast times.
“Most of the people here looked square as could be,” said folk singer and songwriter Danny Cox, who arrived from California in July 1967 to make Kansas City his home.
“Once in a while you’d run into someone who would take you away to get you high,” he said. But Cox rather liked the Midwestern reluctance to be reckless: “Thank God that Kansas City didn’t become Haight-Ashbury. Those kids were shooting up cocaine and panhandling on the streets.”
The Beatles’ George Harrison voiced similar disenchantment after visiting Haight-Ashbury.
“I thought it was gonna be all these groovy kinds of gypsy people,” Harrison said. “Instead it turned out to be just a lot of bums ... just very young kids who came from all over America and dropped acid.”
Tour buses brought sightseers through. They’ll be crawling through the Bay Area all summer as 50th anniversary commemorations roll out.
Whatever it was, the movement at the time mystified Kansas City.
As part of his research into the area’s rock ’n’ roll history, journalist and University of Kansas public affairs officer Rick Hellman came across a June 1967 newspaper reference to two local men surrounded by young autograph seekers as they exited an Athletics baseball game at Municipal Stadium.
Neither man was famous but for having shoulder-length hair, sideburns and hip clothes. Some fans whistled; one asked, “How many times do you comb your hair?”
In palatial Mission Hills, a Fourth of July garden party billed itself the city’s “first adult love-in.” But it was all a high-society joke.
One woman wore a tag reading, “I’m on a trip, are you?”
A gentleman arrived unsure how the generation he was mocking dressed itself. He wore a blue blazer and tie over patched Bermuda shorts. His socks stretched up to his knees.
The film “Georgy Girl” enjoyed a two-month run at the Kimo Theater in Midtown. Hardly subversive, the movie was heralded in posters as “the wildest thing to hit town since the mini-skirt!”
On July 27, 1967, readers of The Star were introduced to recent arrivals from Haight-Ashbury — bushy-haired Bob Ellison, 21, and wife Noelle, 18, who wore tinted glasses. “Hippies Migrating Here in Their Search,” the headline read, though the Ellisons rejected the term “hippies” as pejorative.
The young crowds in San Francisco had turned them off, so the couple left to explore the country. “It seemed nothing was happening anywhere else,” said Noelle Ellison. “Then we got to Kansas City. Something is starting.”
The profile of the Ellisons revealed that “hippie” had hazy meaning. “We don’t hate everything,” said Bob Ellison, who started a psychedelic light show at The Place (now the Westport Flea Market).
Some local hippies interviewed by The Star used drugs and others didn’t. One who served in the military insisted he was “super-patriotic.”
“Some observers say the highest concentration of hippies is at the Kansas City Art Institute,” the article said, but the school’s dean said their lives were “structured.”
About this time, singer Cox also landed in Kansas City, taking up residence at 43rd and Main Streets near the Vanguard Coffee House. There he worked with music promoter Stan Plesser to form Good Karma Productions. Later joined by folk artists Brewer and Shipley, Cox often played the Vanguard.
Then a high school sophomore, Mary Kay Culp recalled the first “be-in” that summer at Volker Park.
“We’d stand around and look at each other, maybe have a picnic,” said Culp, who now leads Kansans for Life. “It just became this curiosity.”
A just-released memoir of one hipster’s adventures hiking the country includes a chapter about his 10 days in Kansas City during the ’67 summer.
In “Groovin’: Horses, Hopes and Slippery Slopes,” Rich Israel writes that a Kansas City friend he calls Andy proudly introduced Israel around town as “a hippie from California.” It was the first time anyone had applied the term to him.
“People were starting to ‘turn on,’ but long hair was rare,” he recalls of the city.
For the title of his Kansas City chapter, the author borrowed an expression from Andy, while high on pot: Powerful funky.
“Powerful funky. It was the perfect marriage of two worlds, one Missouri rural and the other hip,” writes Israel. “You couldn’t describe the (1967) stage of the hip movement in Kansas City any better.”
That season would end on a bummer of a note, with Charles Finley getting the go-ahead to move his A’s to Oakland.
Then a November surprise: From England in came The Who — performing at Shawnee Mission South High School, of all places. They opened for the Buckinghams and reportedly ended their set with “My Generation.”
Coming years would see real changes in how their generation viewed the world.
In 1968, the massive Tet Offensive opened young eyes to the intractable horror that had become the Vietnam conflict. The murder of Martin Luther King Jr. spurred rioting in Kansas City and elsewhere. The assassination of Robert Kennedy would follow.
“Sixty-eight made us cynical; we weren’t so much the year before,” said Blasco, who in 1968 formed a band called Stone Wall. “We had icons taken from us and in the process had our innocence taken, too.”