The Priests of Pallas shaped Kansas City’s spirit
A spectacle of elaborate floats, concerts and exhibits drew thousands
By Diane Euston
Starting in the 1880s, city leaders saw a need to showcase Kansas City in a new light. An extravagant week-long event called the Priests of Pallas was created, welcoming and entertaining thousands of people from 1887 to 1912 and again, briefly, in 1922-1923.
The Origins of Priests of Pallas
A group of businessmen known as the Flambeau Club, headed by Lambdin E. Irwin, led the way. New Orleans had Mardi Gras, they reasoned, and St. Louis had the Veiled Prophet. The Flambeau Club opted to promote Kansas City as the “Athens of the West.”
The theme was promoted through a fall festival named Priests of Pallas, which paid homage to Pallas Athene, the event’s patroness. Characters participating in the festival parade were based on Greek mythology.
The First Priests of Pallas Parade and Celebration
On Oct. 13, 1887, the first parade was held in downtown Kansas City, beginning after dusk. A crowd waited at the gates of the “Priests’ Den,” a warehouse on Lydia Avenue between 7th and 8th streets where floats were tucked inside out of view. That night featured a military march and the 100-plus coalition of the Flambeau Club. The second day featured a march of various labor unions along with a band, and the last day showcased a Greek-themed parade after Athena received her laurels.
One of the biggest attractions at this very first Priests of Pallas parade was a famous political couple. In attendance was 50-year-old Pres. Grover Cleveland, accompanied by his new 21-year-old wife. Parade onlookers weren’t just there to get a glimpse of the parade floats and festoons–they hoped to get a firsthand look at Mrs. Frances Cleveland.
As the crowd waited at the gates of the “den,” the Flambeau Club emerged and marched forward, with young members of the organization carrying torches and setting off fireworks. Then emerged a beautiful float surrounded by robed guards with the queen Athena at the center.
The Priests of Pallas parade was such a success that businesses along the routes would even rent out window space so people could get a clear view from above.
The Masked Ball
The details of this parade and festival were very secretive, and one of the most important events was the Priests of Pallas masked ball, an elegant affair that included a souvenir gift. The city’s finest residents impatiently waited to see if they would receive an invitation to the exclusive party. The invitation itself made its own headline in the newspapers. The Kansas City Star wrote, “The invitation cards are out and surpass in artistic design and beauty anything of the kind ever seen in the west.”
A man named “Jackson” would deliver invitations to the Kansas City elite. The Flambeau Club claimed that only Jackson was the one to invite people and they had no control over the guest list.
People clamored at the offices of Flambeau Club president L.E. Irwin to find out if their exclusive invitation had been lost in the mail. One man who was not on the list insisted there must have been a mistake. Irwin apologized and said, “If you want it corrected, you will have to address a communication to ‘Jackson,’ Essex building, who I see by the papers attends to such matters.”
When the man stated he would purchase a ticket to the masked ball, Irwin responded, “An invitation is an honor that cannot be purchased.”
The Festival Over the Years
By 1889, it was predicted that 100,000 people would come to Priests of Pallas, and 20 floats were designed that year. By 1902, the city claimed 500,000 people attended the festival, and the events had grown to include three parades and two balls. The Karnival Krews (a clown parade), the masked ball, a Priests of Pallas ball and a final parade were all part of the festivities. If those numbers are correct, then Kansas City’s population during the fall festival would have tripled its size.
By 1905, floats pulled by horses and mules were replaced with the streetcar line to execute the parade’s route as it zig-zagged through downtown. Always featured each year was an elaborate float with Athena proudly waving to onlookers.
In 1912, the parade was eliminated despite the city’s cries for it to continue. Then-president of the Priests of Pallas, George M. Myers, said, “I do not think the festival will hold another Priests of Pallas ball without a parade, which means, I believe, a parade will be back next year.”
Unfortunately, the parade and festival was abandoned in 1912 after serving as a city showcase for 25 years.
The Revival of Priests of Pallas
The problem with the large undertaking was money. Ten years after Priests of Pallas said goodbye, the organization began to plead with businesses across the city to contribute to the parade and festival so the tradition could continue. An estimated $100,000 was needed, and two of the largest contributors to answer the call for funds were R.A. Long and William Volker. Even though the financial goal fell a bit short, Kansas City was thrilled to see the parade return on October 3, 1922.
Georgia Brown, director of the ballet and events for Priests of Pallas, needed 128 girls ages 18-20 to ride on floats and dance, and she urged girls to try out through an announcement in the Kansas City Times. “Oh yes, I forgot to say I’d rather the girls wouldn’t be too plump,” she said. “You see, plump persons don’t go with floats.”
A new float “den” was erected at 10th and Garfield in an old streetcar barn and hundreds of people flocked to be a part of the parade. Wanting to maintain the old traditions, the masked ball made a return in 1922, but “Jackson” was not the one dispensing tickets anymore.
“One invitation to the Priests of Pallas ball will be given for each $5 contributed to the festival fund,” the Kansas City Star reported. “A gift of $100 will entitle the giver to twenty invitations.” Thus, an elite Kansas Citian could now buy their way into the grand masked ball.
The theme in 1922 was “Opulence of Autumn,” and a pageant was planned at the Convention Hall with 250 people in the cast, including “fifty living models.”
The revival of the Priests of Pallas festival was such a big deal that school board meetings and businesses across the city closed shop. In fact, a jury in the middle of deliberation at the courthouse was released “in order to permit the jurors to go home and prepare to see the Priests of Pallas parade.”
The Beginning of the End
Just one year later in 1923, the failure of merchants contributing to parade funds made it next to impossible to continue. They needed $50,000, and the merchants’ association assigned an amount to contribute based on the size of each business. While some merchants didn’t pay their promised share, the parade did continue.
It was a fatal accident a year later that brought the event to a stop. A nine-year-old girl riding on a Shrine Parade float died when a fire broke out on board. This, along with the beginning of the American Royal parade tradition, was the end of Priests of Pallas in Kansas City.
Remembering the Past Today
Besides a few souvenirs from the masked balls, parade booklets and a couple hundred photos of the grand parade, little survives to mark the importance of the Priests of Pallas fall festival. Meanwhile, Mardi Gras continues every year on the streets of New Orleans and St. Louis has kept up its Veiled Prophet celebration for 141 years. Between 2005 to 2007, there was hope of reviving the Priests of Pallas masked ball in Kansas City when the Jackson County and Westport Historical Societies teamed up to host the event at Union Station.
That revitalization was short-lived. Now the stories and grandeur of Kansas City’s first parade exist only in the pages of history.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com