Kansas City’s artistic community can’t stand the old “Cowtown” label, as if it’s a slight to the area’s cultural accomplishments. Some business leaders also bristle at the nickname’s small-town connotations, which are unflattering to the home of several international corporations. But, as always, we suggest celebrating the idea, as Kansas Citians did more than 100 years ago when creativity and commerce merged at the Priests of Pallas parade. Back then, elaborate costumes and floats lured farmers from neighboring regions to an agricultural fair.
“The original designers attended Mardi Gras and St. Louis’ Veiled Prophet and took notes,” says Lindsey Gaston of the Jackson County Historical Society. “They even bought floats from Mardi Gras. But this was more of a harvest festival, more about selling farm equipment than debauchery.”
The roster of the parade’s 1886 planners reads like a road map, with such boulevard-inspiring luminaries as Mayor William S. Gregory and businessman and philanthropist William Volker playing crucial roles in the event’s creation. More anonymous was a man named Jackson, who sent out the invitations. “Kansas City was small enough that the postcards just said ‘Return to Jackson,'” Gaston says. “No one knows who he was.”
Equally mysterious were the “Queens” of Pallas, who wore disguises throughout the festivities. Research reveals that most of the queens were men; organizers believed that the parade route would be too arduous for women. Despite this precautionary measure, accidents were common. One man fell off a float and broke his arm, and a lobster-themed float burst into flames after crossing a trolley track, igniting the butterfly and peacock floats that trailed it.
At its prime, Priests of Pallas drew 500,000 visitors and lasted for several days. Schools closed so that children could attend. Prestigious visitors were common: President Glover Cleveland attended the first event.
The last Priests of Pallas parade wound through the city’s streets in 1924. Gaston says it’s a shame that what used to be such a huge event has been forgotten.
When the Jackson County Historical Society met last August to discuss reviving it, members drew up a contemporary wish list. Jonathan Kemper, Emanuel Cleaver and James B. Nutter are among the familiar figures who joined the honorary committee.
“It’s still under discussion who will play Athena,” Gaston says, demurring about whether this weekend’s Priests of Pallas will retain its drag-queen element. In all other areas, though, the society promises to preserve historical integrity.
The new Priests of Pallas Ball starts relatively small, with a four-hour program of live music from Alacartoona, Quixotic, the Tim Whitmer Trio and Julia Othmer. Greek-themed food and sparkling apple martinis will be served. In apt archaic English, it’s billed as “A Masqued Event,” with face coverings encouraged to add decorative flair to formal attire. (To clarify, these are hand-held, high-society masks, not drugstore Halloween deals; if they must, partiers can buy their masks at the ball.) Everyone involved with Friday’s festivities is from Kansas City, from the artists who created its opening archway to the caterers to the mask makers.
As a homegrown, civic-pride celebration, the original festival helped establish Kansas City’s identity on a national scale. The new Priests of Pallas, which the society plans to reprise every year, could be just the spur to recapture the city’s long-lost frontier-town swagger.