First Pennylane, now the Pitch…
It’s been a rough year for aging, local pop culture icons. First the closing of Streetside Records (successor to Pennylane) and then the continuing long, slow demise and sale of KC’s first true alternative paper. For those inclined to take notice of such things, my ties to both the Pitch and the music store extend well beyond my 16 year run as a columnist at the Star .
The affiliation with the two began in the mid 1980s when, after trying in vain to buy an ad in the Pitch for a concert I was promoting, I pitched the owner to let me take over its advertising and promotion. And to a lesser extent contribute to its editorial content. There wasn’t a whole lot to the Pitch in those days, LeRoi‘s music reviews, Joe Bob’s Drive-In movies, record store staff writers and every once in a while someone like Jack Cashill would step in and take a swing.
The Pitch was little more than a device Pennylane’s owner used to pocket co-op ad dollars from small music labels. The dollar amounts were too tiny to make a radio buy, and if they weren’t spent they went away. So by having an in-house music pub in the Pitch, the dollars could be spent and retained at the same time.
That roughly was the Pitch of 1985…
After looking into things a bit closer – and looking at weeklies like St. Louis’ Riverfront Times – I decided to make a go of transforming the record rag into a full blown alternative newsweekly. I remember lugging the lone Apple computer and furniture from the basement of Pennylane across Broadway with editor Scott O’Kelley, up then stairs to the very first Pitch office above Arizona Trading Company on Westport Road.
I remember hiring Pitch editor C.J. Janovy on the strength (or lack thereof) of her having gotten a short piece published in the Wall Street Journal about Roseanne Barr grabbing her crotch after singing the national anthem. And I remember talking Streetside owner Jack Brozman into advertising in the Pitch.
Brozman and Pennylane/Pitch owner Hal Brody had been college chums in St. Louis and started Streetside. A bitter falling out sent Brody to KC where he founded Pennylane. To say there was bad blood between the two would be an extreme understatement. But I did the unthinkable at the time and talked Brozman into writing Brody a check each month.
The Pitch was distributed in large part at the three Pennylane retail stores; Westport, Overland Park and Lawrence. If Brozman could go into his hated rival’s stores and post a giant ad sending Pennylane customers to Streetside would he do it? Of course he would. And he did, in the pages of the Pitch.
The move even stunned Brozman’s corporate manager at Streetside. Just as it had stunned Brody. And it led to a thawing between Brody and Brozman that culminated when Brody – wisely – saw the handwriting on the wall for independent music retailers, and sold Pennylane to Streetside.
Now here’s a little ditty not many people know…
Despite my successful efforts at diversifying the news, arts and entertainment content of the Pitch, bringing in new advertisers and expanding its distribution from midtown and Pennylane stores to Greater Kansas City, Brody had had enough. And when he sold Pennylane to Streetside, he tried to throw in the Pitch in with the sale.
But Brozman didn’t want it, wouldn’t take it.
I won’t go into the long story that followed of my falling out with Brody and subsequent hiring by the Star. Other than to say I’ve kept a watchful eye on the Pitch these many years. For example, the reason CJ returned to KC from Colorado and took over as Pitch editor was the result of my urging.
Janovy had moved to Denver in the late ’90s and become managing editor of New Times weekly WestWord. She was in love with a friend of mine, a former Star reporter named Shirl Kasper. The two had just bought a home there and the last thing C.J. wanted was move back to dreary Kansas City.
Brody had sold the Pitch to CJ’s boss, The New Times, and it was looking for an editor to replace Bruce Rodgers.
But as the weeks rolled by and New Times was unable to find one, it got ugly. Movie critics and other local writers were being laid off – kicking and screaming as loudly as they could as they left. Lame duck editor Rodgers was unhappy. It was an uncertain mess. All the while I’d been speaking with CJ about it.
"Why don’t you ride in triumphantly and clean this mess up?" I asked her. "New Times needs you."
But CJ did not like KC and did not want to move back and get stuck living here. Besides, she’d already been offered and turned down the editor position by New Times, she said.
As time dragged on I continued to persuade her. She wouldn’t be stuck here, New Times was buying up alternative weeklies around the country at a pretty fair clip. They needed someone here to get the Pitch up to their standards. Someone they could trust, someone who knew the town. CJ was the perfect candidate.
But they’d think she was flakey for turning it down and then coming back later and asking for the job, CJ worried.
Nonsense, they’d be so relieved to get the Pitch out of the shitter and on the right track, CJ would be a hero.
And rather than getting stuck here, her "rescue" of the Pitch would place her in good standing to move to a sexier market when New Times bought out another alternative weekly.
So CJ went back, took the Pitch job, returned to KC and made two bold strokes.
She helped hired Charles Ferruzza to write about food and she hired Greg Hall to cover sports. I had nothing to do with Ferruzza’s hire. In fact, I (wrongly) thought it was a bad decision. I had everything to do with Hall’s hire – which was a great one, I thought. But in the end, Greg’s fire and CJ’s intolerance proved to volatile a mix.
I was right and wrong about New Times buying more weeklies and CJ getting a chance to escape KC.
The company did buy at least two more alternative pubs, but instead of CJ getting the chance to blow town, a highly-talented writer/editor named Tony Ortega soaked up the honors. First to South Florida and finally to New York to the helm of the Village Voice.
And as she’d feared, CJ got stuck here in KC.
Let’s leave for now on this note…
Anyone who didn’t see CJ bailing for KU Med last year as a sign of how bad off the Pitch is, wasn’t paying attention.
I’ll have more on the current state of the Pitch shortly.