How to Have an Iconic American Summer in KC
Quick: Name the three greatest cultural contributions America has made to the world. If your answers are jazz, baseball and barbecue, A) Word! and B) You need to get to Kansas City, Missouri, stat. From Charlie Parker to Satchel Paige to Arthur Bryant, this city of around a half million people has played outsized roles in all three realms—and in countless others, for that matter.
The disproportionately long list of local luminaries includes politicians, actors, writers and dancers: Calvin Trillin, Misty Copeland and, of course, President Harry S. Truman, to name a few. Read on to find a favorite (or several), then discover the best ways to enjoy a KC summer visit in the spirit of each celeb.
The Star: Paul Rudd
Considering all the actors with Kansas City roots, from Dianne Wiest to Don Cheadle to Ed Asner, you’d think there was something in the local water. In fact, a subcurrent of comedic genius runs strong here, as locals are reminded of each June, when five hometown boys—Paul Rudd, Jason Sudeikis, Rob Riggle, Eric Stonestreet and David Koechner—host the charity-driven Big Slick Celebrity Weekend.
The Can’t-Miss Experiences: Even if you don’t make the Big Slick, you’ll find plenty of ways to explore the city’s theatrical side in summer. The Kansas City Fringe Festival (July 19-29)—an offshoot of the famed Scottish version—is an 11-day potluck of theater, film and performing and visual arts. The event takes place all over the city and includes an opening night party, where the artists preview their shows so you can figure out what sounds good and what might be a little too fringe for your liking. For a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, head to an outdoor performance at the historic Starlight Theatre, where you’ll find such Broadway hits as "Hairspray" (July 27-Aug. 2) and "Love Never Dies" (Aug. 14-19). You can also catch "Much Ado about Nothing" (for nothing) thanks to the free Heart of America Shakespeare Festival in Southmoreland Park (June 12 - July 1).
The Star: Buck O’Neil
Any fan of Ken Burns’ seminal "Baseball" documentary knows that Buck O’Neil loved the game like no other. A former player and manager for the Negro American League Kansas City Monarchs and an eventual scout for the Chicago Cubs, he played alongside other KC greats—not least, Satchel Paige, still regarded by many as the best pitcher of all time.
The Can’t-Miss Experiences: O’Neil spent the last decade of his life safeguarding the legacy of the Kansas City-born Negro National League. Knowing the organization’s impact on the modern day Major League Baseball—Jackie Robinson’s move to the Brooklyn Dodgers from the KC Monarchs, for example—O’Neil lived to see his dream come true when the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum opened in KC’s legendary 18th & Vine historic district almost 30 years ago. The museum has since attracted presidents, celebrities, and of course, baseball players, who’ve made the pilgrimage to see thousands of artifacts, interactive displays, and, oddly enough, 200 Negro League-signed baseballs donated by Geddy Lee, lead singer of Rush.
If you happen to be in town on June 25, you can catch Jackie Robinson Day at Kauffman Stadium, where the Royals will be taking on the Angels. You’ll also find special events there throughout the season, from summer fireworks nights to local music showcases.
The Star: Calvin Trillin
Still a prolific contributor to the New Yorker as an octogenarian—with numerous books to his name—the award-winning author has long waxed rhapsodic about his hometown food, but nowhere more famously than a 1972 issue of Playboy. The story, simply titled No, opens boldly—“The best restaurants in the world, are, of course, in Kansas City"—then goes on to put the local barbecue scene on the culinary map.
The Can’t-Miss Experiences: Unlike Texas, which is traditionally beef-leaning in its barbecue—or the Carolinas, which prize their pork—Kansas City is a land of protein polyamory, where beef, pork, chicken, turkey—heck, even fish—have a role in the repertoire. You’ll find at least 100 barbecue joints here, each serving its own take on the local specialty. But start with Arthur Bryant’s, which Trillin called “the single-best restaurant in the world”—in part because of the house burnt ends, the charred and fatty portions of brisket that used to be handed out for free, but that will now set you back about 10 bucks (money well spent). Other local favorites include Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, home to legendary pulled pork, and Q39, where specialty sandwiches include Mr. Burns (burnt ends with chipotle barbecue sauce, pepperjack cheese and onion straws) and the Triple Threat (sausage, pulled pork and pork belly with apple coleslaw and zesty barbecue sauce). And if you’re here at the tail end of summer, don’t miss the American Royal World Series of Barbecue (Sept. 13-16).
The Star: Charlie Parker
Born and buried in Kansas City, the late, great saxophonist Charlie Parker is regarded as one of the top jazz musicians of all time. During the 1930s, he helped usher jazz from its traditional big-band style to the more innovative and improvisational bebop KC’s now known for. His influence—and that of Count Basie, who came here in 1929 to play piano for the Bennie Moten’s band—can still be found in the thriving local club scene.
The Can’t-Miss Experiences: If you’re looking for jazz with some real historical context, check out the Blue Room inside the city’s American Jazz Museum, where the Blue Monday Jam sessions are legendary. Another popular venue is the Phoenix, where you’ll find some of the city’s best musicians and old-school cocktails (the place used to be a saloon, after all). And true fans should plan a trip around the Charlie Parker Celebration (Aug. 16-25)—an homage that draws musicians from near and far to the city’s most famous jazz clubs.
The Star: Misty Copeland
Sure, this prima ballerina was mostly raised in California, but the fact she was born in Kansas City makes her indisputably local. And why wouldn’t KC claim her as its own? No one has made ballet so hot since, well, probably ever. Copeland is the first dancer of her day to make the cover of Time (where she was deemed one of the “100 most influential people”)—to say nothing of her cover appearances for Essence, Elle and Variety, among countless others.
The Can’t-Miss Experiences: Also Ginger Rogers’ hometown, KC showcases a variety of dance styles—especially during the Kansas City Dance Festival (July 14-21), when everyone from the Finnish National Ballet to Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet will perform. If you can catch a performance at the historic Folly Theater, so much the better. And for serious dance devotees, the festival includes classes, panel discussions and a meet-and-greet reception.
Regardless of when you're in town, you should try to book a guided tour of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, home to not only the Kansas City Ballet but also the symphony and opera. Designed by the renowned Moshe Safdie, this favorite among arts buffs has been declared "one of the most enjoyable, exhilarating arts centers" by the New York Times, one of the world's 15 most beautiful concert halls by CNN Travel—and countless other superlatives in between.
The Star: Harry S. Truman
Of course, no visit to Kansas City is complete without an homage to the 33rd president of the United States. While Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri, and spent most of his life in Independence, Kansas City is where the political career of the so-called “People’s President” really took off.
The Can’t-Miss Experiences: Start by popping into the first-floor lobby of the century-old Muehlebach Hotel. Once dubbed “The White House West” thanks to Truman’s fondness for its Presidential Suite, the hotel no longer takes overnight guests, but you can still visit the opulent lobby, where other denizens included Hemingway and Sinatra. In nearby Independence (about a 20-minute drive), visit Clinton’s Soda Fountain, where a teenaged Truman served phosphate sodas as well as his favorite butterscotch sundae with chocolate ice cream. You should also tour the tranquil Harry S. Truman National Historic Site, once home to the president and his wife, Bess, and now a repository of amazing artifacts. And at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, the extensive exhibits are supplemented with summer happenings for all ages, from the "Hats Off to Harry" puppet show to the History Happy Hours.