Kansas’ historic women brought to life by First City’s Performers and StoryTellers

In costume and in character, First City Performers and StoryTellers Keyta Kelly, Laura Elkins and Kathy Peak pose inside the Myers Hotel. The three women will portray Leavenworth County historical figures Hilda Clark, Carrie Hall and Mollie Myers on Tuesday in Tonganoxie.

Past and present

To learn more about First City’s Performers and StoryTellers, visit firstcitypast.com. Group members Keyta Kelly, Laura Elkins and Kathy Peak will portray their characters at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Tonganoxie Community Historical Site, 201 W. Washington St.

When Laura Elkins takes on the personality of Madam Carrie Hall, she is reluctant to talk about the Leavenworth woman’s death.

It’s not that Elkins doesn’t know the details — she’s thoroughly researched Hall — or that the death was in any way gruesome. Elkins, of rural Leavenworth, just wants to stay in character as the seamstress, fashion designer and businesswoman, and a question about Hall’s death in 1955 at the age of 89 is not something she would know in the 1916 viewpoint she adopts.

Elkins’ effort to stay in character extends to language and avoiding words or slang terms Hall would not have known.

“I would never use the word ‘car,’ because in her time they called them ‘automobiles,'” she said.

All those who present Leavenworth County historical characters as members of the First City’s Performers and StoryTellers pay particular attention to such details, said Keyta Kelly, of Tonganoxie.

“Our goal as a group is to be accurate about the details,” she said. “We don’t know what they sounded like or their personalities. We make a best guess.”

Kelly steps back to the flapper era to portray Hilda Clark, who was born in 1872 into the family of a prominent Leavenworth banker. She found fame after moving East and becoming a headliner in light operas, touring the country with an acting company and being selected as the first personality model for Coca-Cola from 1895 to 1903, when she retired from the stage and modeling with her marriage to New York banker and railroad executive Fredrick Flower.

Kelly said Clark then became a socialite and her name frequently appeared in society pages of New York newspapers until her death in 1932.

Kathy Peak will bring to life Mollie Myers, who owned the Myers Hotel in Tonganoxie from 1889 until her death in 1931.

The daughter of a mercantile family, Myers opened the hotel just north of the Union Pacific Railroad tracks and what was for many years U.S. Highway 24-40.

“The hotel had the reputation for the cleanest rooms and finest food west of the Mississippi River,” Peak said. “And even though she had a little bit of help, she always saw to every detail. She was in charge.”

Myers also knew hardship, carrying on despite the early death of her husband, a son and an infant daughter, Peak said.

One of the appeals of adopting a character was learning more about them and their times, Peak said.

“For me, the research is fun, too,” Peak said. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.”

Newspapers provide a wealth of information, the three women said.

Kelly also has mined information from material Coca-Cola has on its one-time model. Peak said she was fortunate to have conversations with some people who knew Myers.

Elkins has a resource in the written material Hall left behind. Hall, who originally was from Smith Center, made her living in Leavenworth making dresses for military officers’ wives, who unlike most of their Midwestern counterparts of the time did not have the skill to make their own.

In her later life, Hall wrote two books, “Romance of the Patchwork Quilt in America” and “From Hoopskirts to Nudity.” The latter book traced women’s fashion trends from 1866 to 1936 while the former revealed Hall’s interest in quilting.

In the 1920s, Hall set a goal of sewing a quilt block of every known style, Elkins said. She completed more than 800 blocks, which she donated to what is now Kansas University’s Spencer Museum of Art.

Reaching the audience is what the portrayals are all about, Kelly said.

“We do feel we are doing community service by educating and entertaining people about these characters,” she said. “They are not that well-known.”