Kansas City, Missouri
The Museum Host
Ronnie Matloch loves talking history almost as much as he loves people
I met Ronnie Matloch in the lobby of the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. It’s a pretty big lobby, but if you go, you’ll meet him too. Ron makes a point of getting around to just about everyone. He has an infectious personality that makes him immediately likable — and a natural as a museum host.
I told Ron what I was doing—traveling around the country, talking to people about their jobs. Without hesitation, he put his arm in mine and told me that he had the greatest job in the world. Ron then rattled off about 15 names of people he’s had the pleasure to meet, including sports figures, musicians, and dignitaries. But after talking to Ron for 30 minutes, I have no doubt that the pleasure was all theirs.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Josh Rose: Tell me about yourself and what you do for a living.
Ronnie Matloch: My name is Ronnie Matloch. Between me and the gate, I’m 69 right now. If he let me live till February, I’ll be 70 years old.
I have one of the greatest jobs in the world. I’m a host for the American Jazz Museum and the Negro League Baseball Museum.
I have the opportunity to meet some of the greatest people in the world. From all over the world — Japan, England, Brazil. I’ve been working here since 2002, and it’s been an amazing journey. I’ve met people like Willie Mays. I’ve met Michelle Obama. I had the opportunity meet some fabulous, famous Hollywood stars—so many stars.
Not only that alone, but I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the greatest jazz players. Men like Dave Brubeck, the Temptations, Oleta Adams, the young man from American Idol—what is his name? Harry Connick Jr.!
Aside from meeting people, what do you love about your job?
The historical nature. When you look down this way [gestures toward Kansas City], all of this is historical. This here was the mecca for African Americans. You can see during the ’20s, they all migrated from the Deep South, and they came here. Jazz was a big part of it. People like jazz.
Right around the corner, you had the Mutual Musicians Foundation, which is about a hundred years old. That’s where all your great artists would come and play. Matter of fact, it’s still open today. On the weekends, people in the blue room go to jam and party all night.
People like Duke Ellington, Sara Vaughan, the Mcfadden Brothers, some of the best in the world. I had the opportunity to sit with some of them.
Where were you born?
I was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas. In 1996, I left Wichita, and I came here to Kansas City for approximately seven or eight years. When I left, I went to California. Stayed around there, a young man full of bubblegum just having fun. Came back in 1983 and been here ever since.
What took you out to California?
Well, it was this young lady who wanted to venture out to California. I was young and in love, so, “Let’s go to California!” I said.
We stayed up in the northern part of California, around Menlo Park, Palo Alto. Then, from there, we went to San Jose. This fellow worked there at the Shell Oil Company. Back in the day, when you worked with a company like Shell or Texaco, the service was so good.
People come, you pump their gas and squeegee their windows, check their tires, their oil… but those days are over with. They don’t do that no more.
Tell me about your other jobs, before you came here.
The first job I had, I’ll never forget it. I worked at a restaurant called the Connoisseur Restaurant, in Wichita. I was a dishwasher. Then, as I began to get older, I had the opportunity to work for Boeing Aircraft. It was a janitorial position. We’d go clean inside the buildings and stuff. Boeing was a good job until I got laid off.
Then I came here to Kansas City and worked in some clubs. I was an emcee at Roy’s Lounge. The emcee announces the entertainment. That’s when they had good singers and musicians, and my job was to be the master of ceremony. That’s what it was.
Oh, it was great. That was during the ’70s, about ’73 or ’74. A friend of mine had a band. I told the owner. It was right around then that one of the emcees had left, so he said, “Man, we got one!”
Come to find out the guy who owned the club knew my mother, too. They were raised in the same town, called Plumerville, Arkansas. He knew most of my family. He said, “Hey, man, can you emcee?” I said, “Yeah!”
Back then, I was imitating James Brown. I knew all I had to do was just get up there, get on the mic, and, “Ladies and gentlemen, the fabulous Jackson!” And then they come running out, whatever performer was there that night. I did that for about five years and left because I had to go follow this girl.
How did you start working here?
When I first started, I worked for a place called Lightweight Janitorial Service, and I asked to be the janitor here. I made sure everything was clean, trash was empty. I came here and started that in 2000.
I was a janitor here for 16 or 17 years. One of the workers, she’s no longer here, she said, “Ronnie, you make a damn good house manager.” House manager at that time was just here to make sure that when someone went in and out, they new where to go and got what they needed. If they needed 20 chairs, I’d make sure that when they got here they had 20 chairs.
People like Joe Palmer, Will Smith, Otis Taylor, Willie Nelson, I helped all of them.
I’m lucky I had this gift that God gave me of being outspoken and good around people, because I’m still learning. You never know it all!
The greatest thing in the world is people. You know, humans. They have ups and downs and sideways.
A multiplicity of people, all different colors. It’s just like a big giant bouquet. I’ve met people from all places, all colors.
My biggest joy is when I see the kids come in. I see them go into the baseball museum; some come out smiling, a lot come out crying. That was a very difficult time, during Jim Crow. Racism was open, and they didn’t hide it, they didn’t put it under nothing. And to see some of them come out of there, and sometimes with tears in their eyes, and we would sit down and talk about it.
How do you help people understand and deal with racism?
Well, number one, to help anybody understand it, they have to experience it. A lot of folks don’t like to talk about it because it’s a thing of the past. But what we have to do is talk about it.
Those people, that generation, prayed a lot to God, and a lot of people now don’t do that and don’t know what racism was back then. But we should always remember it. It’s alive and well. You can suppress it for a long time, but if it’s there, it’s gonna come up. We have to look at the human being. We are blind to truth.
You can take a bear and put it in a cage; as long as that bear is confined in that cage, it’s alright. But when it comes out of that cage, you’re in trouble. The truth is the same way. We try to suppress truth.
When I cut you, my brother, you bleed red. Your blood ain’t green, and mine ain’t yellow—it’s red, baby. One day I’m gonna get six feet of dirt, and you gonna get six feet of dirt too. That’s the equalizer.
I don’t deal with it too much anymore. Now and then you may have someone come in and you can feel it, but it’s how you personally react to it that counts. Nine times out of 10, you’ll win by being honest.
The only one that’s gonna change it is God. Trust me, he’s going to change it, and you can take that to the bank.