By Diane Euston
Once upon a time, there was a downtown store called Kline’s that stood in Kansas City’s fashionable shopping district known as Petticoat Lane. This iconic stretch of real estate near 11th and Main was famous for its year-round fashion. During the holidays, garlands were strung across streets that set the scene for Kansas City’s most coveted retailers.
In the 1930s, downtown Kansas City was where the best dry goods and department stores were located. One of the largest, Kline’s, decided to put a little spin on a visit with Santa Claus when they traded the traditional red-suited, big bellied, bearded man for a young and beautiful fairy princess equipped with a magic wand.
The enchanting story of Kline’s and its future fairy princess began when a St. Louis-based group of brothers, Eugene, Isaac, Sol and Julius opted to expand their operations to growing Kansas City.
A Keen Eye Toward Business
In the late 1850s, Joseph Kline (1832-1904) and his wife, Sophie (1836-1892), both German-born Jewish immigrants, landed for a short time in Ohio and then Fort Leavenworth, Ks. before the couple took off for Denver with their two children. Joseph worked as a merchant and at one time owned a billiard hall.
While living in Denver, the couple welcomed six more children, including Julius (b. 1865), Eugene (b. 1866) and Sol (b. 1870). In order to expand his business opportunities as a merchant, Joseph and Sophie moved their family to Chicago, Ill. where a final son, Isaac was born in 1876.
When Eugene was just 15 years old, he began working in a suit manufacturing business in Chicago.
Around 1890, 24-year-old Eugene B. Kline left Chicago and moved to St. Louis where he took his knowledge learned from the clothing business to his new job as department manager of Sonnenfeld Millinery Co. By 1902, Eugene had bought into the business and his brother, Julius moved to St. Louis to work as a manager at the operation.
Within a short amount of time, three of the brothers were pooling their money to expand their women’s clothing business. What started as a millinery shop transformed into a full women’s clothing store in St. Louis. In 1905, Eugene, Isaac and Julius incorporated Kline Cloak Co. It is said that the Kline’s were pioneers in the development of women’s apparel stores, and they were the first to sell ready-made dresses in St. Louis. Eugene operated as president, Isaac and vice president and Sol was the secretary.
Julius moved to Cincinnati to open a store there while the brothers looked to the west to booming Kansas City for their next expansion in the market.
Kline’s in Kansas City
In 1906, they opened Kline Cloak & Suit Co. at 1125 Main inside a narrow, cramped three story building. Interestingly, none of the brothers chose to move to Kansas City to run the store, so they hired a general manager named William H. Clark. The brothers, especially Eugene and Isaac, would make regular visits to the Kansas City store to check on things.
Eugene moved to New York City in 1907 and operated buying offices there and in Paris. Isaac stayed in St. Louis while Sol ran a branch buying office in Chicago. By 1909, however, their largest and most successful store by far was the one in Kansas City.
The brothers decided to extend their power of the market in Kansas City and leased a building at 1113-15 Main St. with plans to fully remodel the store. Eugene Kline told The Kansas City Star, “I intend to give Kansas City the most up to date store that can be designed.” And it was just that – an up-to-date, beautiful store in the heart of Petticoat Lane’s shopping district.
In the meantime, the brothers opted to open two more stores that Julius ran in Cincinnati and expanded in 1911 when they opened a store in Detroit. In 1915, the St. Louis store at 608 Washington Ave. was due for a makeover. It was expanded to 75,000 square feet of floor space and employed 500 salesmen and women. It had “American walnut store fittings, delft blue velvet carpets, an indirect lighting system, a display and mezzanine floor . . . doubtless to fulfill its promise to St. Louis femininity.”
Even as other department stores joined Kline’s in downtown Kansas City, it was still able to capture a large portion of the market as one of the premier clothing stores.
The Roaring 20s into the 30s
Business was so good in Kansas City that in 1920, Kline’s leased the third floor of the building adjoining their Main St. entrance. Improvements on the floor, completely remodeling the interior and a new entrance on Main St. was said to have cost $400,000. Kline’s was then five stories tall and became “one of the largest selling floors in the country for women’s wearing apparel.”
In 1922, the Kline brothers bought the building frontage on Walnut St. from Thomas Swope’s heirs. He had purchased 144 lots downtown for $7500 in 1857, and this was the first time these lots were ever sold. By this time, the store occupied almost an entire city block on 11th St. between Walnut and Main St.
The store employed hundreds of sales women throughout its floors, and in 1922, one of their employees was a young, beautiful girl named Lucille Fay LeSueur. She would later explode as one of Hollywood’s leading ladies under the name of Joan Crawford.
Kline’s revenue was so high in Kansas City – well above profits in St. Louis, Detroit or Cincinnati – that the company opted to expand again in 1928. W.H. Clark, general manager of the store, told The Kansas City Star, “One of the reasons for our investment here is that the great volume and diversity of business in this trade territory makes Kansas City one of the best retail cities in the United States.” The new store opened in November 1929, and featured three different stores (Main, Walnut and the basement store) all under one roof. To accompany the occasion, they began using the tagline “Kansas City’s Most Dominant Store” and continued this marketing campaign for decades.
In 1933, Cornelius “Neil” J. Giblin (1891-1968) entered into town from Detroit with his wife, Margaret and three children. Born in Springfield, Ill., Neil attended Quincy College and then was hired by a clothing buyer in Detroit. His reputation as a creative and personable businessman landed him an interview with Eugene, Isaac and Sol Kline in 1932. When the general manager of the Kansas City store suddenly quit, Neil was packing his bags for what would be a permanent move to Kansas City.
Neil promised the employees that there would be no drastic changes to the way the store was run, and he kept true to that promise. But the Kline’s always had their eye on expansion, so in 1935, they bought an 11-year lease on five floors next to their Walnut St. entrance, expanding the store an additional 12,500 square feet. Their grand opening featured a nine-piece orchestra broadcast throughout the store, little fashion shows with “60 live models,” and a new business model that featured offering affordable clothes next to luxury items. The Kline brothers along with Neil Giblin stood at the Main St. entrance and welcomed the press and guests into the store.
What set this location aside from the others wasn’t just its massive size – it was what was offered. While the other stores offered women’s apparel only, Kline’s in Kansas City had a second floor devoted to children’s clothes, a furniture department, a men’s store and a fur factory. To draw people to their new toy department called “Toyland,” Kline’s needed to think outside the box.
Passing Up Santa for a Fairy Princess
Santa Claus, of course, had been around for a while, but his in-person visits with little children prior to the holiday was relatively new. It is said that the origin of the first Santa to hit a department store for visits didn’t occur until 1890, and it started in Brockton, Mass.
It didn’t take long for Kansas City retailers to catch on. By 1895, the popular Emery, Bird, Thayer & Co. at 10th and Grand had Santa visiting little children for one day only. The following year, the Kansas City Journal reported, “From the opening hour in the morning until the store closed at night, the little folks, with their mammas and papas, kept a continuous line from the 11th St. and Walnut St. entrances to the fifth floor.”
Within a few short years, Santa was visiting other retailers such as Jones Store, Logan Jones Dry Goods Co., Pecks, Harzfeld’s and Montgomery Ward. In 1931, Montgomery Ward upped the ante by adding live reindeer to their Santa attraction.
Kline’s didn’t have a Santa, and more recent writing about their store suggests that this was because the Kline’s were Jewish. The truth behind their tradition has nothing to do with religion; prior to 1935, they didn’t have a children’s toy store or clothing section so they didn’t have the need for jolly ole St. Nick.
But by November 1935, Kline’s had entered the toy business, and Neil Giblin needed a unique draw to get parents into their Toyland. On Nov. 29, 1935, they advertised their new Toyland and a fresh attraction- a fairy princess.
For 25 cents, the “beautiful Fairy Princess”would listen to children explain their wishes for Christmas. The advertisement read, “With a wave of her magic wand she will summon a surprise package from her fairy castle.” Toys on display were selected by their buyers after consulting child psychologists and experts to ensure toys offered had “real character-building qualities.”
The gimmick was a hit; children that visited Santa at neighboring stores still wanted to visit the fairy princess. Advertisements for years that followed called the fairy princess a character “right out of Santa’s own wonderland.” As time went on, the display for the fairy princess grew, and gifts came from a chute behind her. Any leftover 25-cent promotion gift was donated to local charities.
The End of Kline’s Ownership
The Kline’s continued ownership of their multiple stores through the 1940s. The last of the Kline brothers to pass away was Eugene in 1945; at that time, his nephew, Richard took over the business.
In 1957 after 25 years of managing the Kansas City store, Neil Giblin retired to his farm at 140th and Kenneth Rd. in Leawood, Ks. The historic home stands today and is still in the family.
One year later, the Kline’s announced they had sold their stores to City Stores Co. of New York which owned 44 department stores under seven different names. The new owner told the Kansas City Times, “I don’t believe downtown areas are a lost cause: I think they are becoming more stabilized and should share the growth of the economy.”
Unfortunately, he was wrong. In the 1960s, Kline’s opened stores at Ward Parkway and Antioch shopping malls, and all continued the Christmas tradition of the fairy princess. The price of 25 cents for a visit with the fairy princess remained. The financial losses were too much for the company to continue business – the bulk of the problem was the downtown store. The general manager told the Kansas City Star, “It’s practically impossible to get people downtown anymore.”
In September 1970, all three stores closed, abruptly ending the life of the 64-year-old department store and the 35-year-old fairy princess tradition. The Kline’s downtown building was demolished two years later.
The Fairy Princess and Kline’s Legacy Live On
In 1987, the Kansas City Museum wanted to resurrect the fairy princess from Kline’s. In order to ensure that every detail was accurate, the museum sought out stories, photos and as many details as possible on the fairy princess. The tradition continues today at the newly-remodeled museum.
Although the Kline family never resided in Kansas City, their influence as one of the largest retailers on Petticoat Lane was extraordinary. With the help of managers such as Neil Giblin, their creative marketing to draw in more Christmas sales created a whole new tradition for Kansas City children. And we can all appreciate the Kline family even today. Award-winning actor Kevin Kline, born in St. Louis, is the grandson of Julius Kline, one of the founders of the department store.
Thousands of Kansas Citians today can recall visits to Petticoat Lane in its heyday when downtown shopping was the place to go, and many of them can fondly remember the beauty and magic of Kline’s enchanting fairy princess. She, and the store, survive in memories that will forever end with a happily ever after.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.