We Solve The Mystery Behind The 'Starving Artist Lounge' In Kansas City, Kansas

Sep 29, 2016

This story first appeared on KCUR's Question Quest. You can find the episode here or wherever you download podcasts.

Just about every city has "that store." The one that just can't seem to find its footing for very long. One year it's a seedy liquor store, the next, a themed restaurant, the next, a sleepy book store.

In Kansas City, Kansas, there's a place that fits that bill. It's a bright red roadhouse-style building tucked next to I-35 on Roe Lane's valley of overgrowth. Two signs on the outside read, "Starving Artist Lounge," and "Starving Artist Performing Arts Group."

It's the kind of place that has inspired a lot of rumors, gossip and speculation:

  • On the downlow brothel
  • Methamphetamine lab
  • Secret club
  • Tax write-off

Folks working around the Starving Artist Lounge don't have much solid information either. The mail carrier who delivers to the apartments around it says he hasn't delivered one piece of mail there in three years.

Around the corner at a nearby liquor store, one patron says that he knows the place used to be several different bars over the years.

One of those was Pretzel's Bar & Grill, according to Jack Robinson of the House of Rocks stone shop. 

"Forever it was just the local hangout," Robinson says, "They'd have bands on the weekend and stuff, kind of a neat little place. Like a Cheer's Tavern, you know?"

Jack says the owner, named Jim Pretzel, ran the place successfully for years, but eventually sold it. 

"I think people tried replicating it and it didn't work," Robinson says. "People didn't show up or they had the wrong clientele or something. It's been several years since it was an established bar and grill kind of place."

Looking into Kansas City, Kansas, business records matches up with what Robinson says. The Starving Artist Lounge was a bunch of different bars from 2000 to 2010 — Billy Jack's Hillside Bar & Grill, Crazy Feet Cantina & Grill and Kickstand Bar & Grill to name a few.

Former Kansas City, Kansas, resident Kate Haugen remembers going to Kickstand fondly.

"I remember going in there and feeling like everybody had been hanging out there for 100 years," Haugen says. "There were usually motorcycles out front and the patrons inside were usually like Harley Davidson, leather-clad folks."

And in those days, karaoke night was a huge draw.

"There was the most amazing woman that used to host it: she had braces and white tennis shoes," Haugen says. "And she would come up and be like, "Oh, I really want to hear you sing 'Rehab' by Amy Winehouse."

While there are still people like Robinson and Haugen who remember what the Starving Artist Lounge used to be, it was a much harder proposition finding out what it currently is.

Searching the internet brought up little information beyond the address and a phone number that didn't work. But business records did show the name of a company, so I left a message.

In the meantime, artist Tim Admundson, who works on projects centered around nearby Turkey Creek, told me that he had been to the Starving Artist Lounge twice — once when it was another bar and once when it actually was the Lounge.

"[The first time], it felt like a bar you found out in the country, maybe if you're on a road trip or something," Admundson says. "You would not at all be surprised if someone walked in with two six-shooters on either side."

But the second time Tim went, it was completely different.

"It was kind of strange, more of its own sort of scene," Admundson says. "A little bit macabre, a little theater nerdy. Somewhat off, but really exciting too."

But even he admitted that he wasn't entirely sure if the bar actually was called the Starving Artist Lounge on that return trip. And it turns out that it wasn't.

The owners of the property called me back and didn't want to go on tape. They said the Lounge had never opened, and that they were still working on it sporadically. All the questions, rumors and speculation wiped away by the fact that, sometimes, things just don't work out. 

But if the Lounge's history is any indicator, it very well could have a new life again someday. 

Cody Newill is the digital editor for KCUR 89.3 and co-host of Question Quest. Follow him on Twitter @CodyNewill