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Eldorado Ballroom: A Concise History By Dr. Roger Wood

The Eldorado Ballroom in 2006
The Eldorado Ballroom in 2006

Rocks Off was pleased as punch to report last week that, thanks to the efforts of the Texas Blues Project's R. Eric Davis and Project Row Houses, which has owned the historic Third Ward venue since 1999, the Eldorado Ballroom will receive its own Texas Historical Marker plaque later this year.

Davis, the man who headed up the campaign for the Lightnin' Hopkins marker that now rests a few blocks from the Eldorado, paid for the application fee to the Texas Historical Commission - more soon on his brand-new soon-to-be nonprofit, which intends to raise money to purchase or restore blues musicians' gravestones as well as for a walk of fame-style Blues Trail in a high-traffic location TBD - and the Project Row board of directors raised all the funds to pay for the marker itself.

Rocks Off spoke with Project Row director Linda Shearer, who told us that beyond being very excited about the news, she didn't have that much to tell us yet. Figuring out how and when the Eldorado's marker will be dedicated - and even what it's going to say - is still in the "beginning stages," she said, although they are hoping to have something as soon as late April or early May.

As you're about to read, the Eldorado - alive, well, and still hosting concerts and other events - is such a historic venue it takes a real historian to tell the tale. Rocks Off reached out to our designated local music scholar, Dr. Roger Wood, for his assistance. His history of the Eldorado is after the jump. Thanks, Doc.

The Eldorado Ballroom shortly after it was built in 1939
The Eldorado Ballroom shortly after it was built in 1939

"The Eldorado Building opened in 1939 with various small businesses as tenants on the ground level and the famous Eldorado Ballroom occupying the entire (and spacious) second floor.

"The nightclub operated there from 1939 till the early 1970s. In its prime, it reigned as one of the finest showcases in the South for performance of, and dancing to, black secular music - mostly blues, jazz, and R&B, but also pop and even some zydeco (e.g., Clifton Chenier is known to have performed there in the 1950s).

"This large building occupies a high-profile corner in Third Ward: the intersection of Elgin and Dowling, right across the street from Emancipation Park, the first city park in Houston that was open to - and in fact created by - African-Americans, dating back to the days of Rev. Jack Yates.

"The owners of the Eldorado Building were a remarkably successful African-American couple, Clarence Dupree and his wife Anna Dupree (1891-1977). They had married in 1914, but even before then, Mrs. Dupree had established herself as an sharp entrepreneur via her ownership of of beauty parlor.

"As a team, the Duprees prospered, even during the Great Depression, and they created the Eldorado Building primarily as an investment. But they also specifically established the upscale Eldorado Ballroom to serve as what Ms. Dupree reportedly defined as a "class" venue for Houston blacks, during an era when segregation severely limited the options of well-to-do African-Americans seeking to enjoy a night out for entertainment purposes.

"Like the more famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, the Eldorado billed itself as "The Home of Happy Feet" in homage to the dancing that occurred there.

"From 1939 into the early 1960s, the Eldorado Ballroom maintained a large house band - actually more of an orchestra, typically comprising 17 to 18 instruments. Directed by legendary Houston big-band leaders such as Ed Golden, Milton Larkin, I. H. "Ike" Smalley, Arnett Cobb, Pluma Davis, and Conrad Johnson, the house band backed nationally touring stars as well as self-produced floor shows featuring local entertainers (singers, dancers and comedians).

"Among the big name acts that are reported to have performed at the Eldorado Ballroom are T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Reed, Ray Charles, Bill Doggett ("Honky Tonk"), and the original Guitar Slim, Eddie Jones.

 

"The Eldorado Ballroom was a crucial finishing school of sorts for local musicians. Playing in the house band there was a high status achievement, a gig that sometimes led to big breaks and individual fame as a musician. Among the scores of noteworthy alumni of the Eldorado house band are Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Don Wilkerson and Calvin Owens, for instance.

"Also, Third Ward-based radio station KCOH often used the venue to stage Saturday afternoon talent shows (broadcast live over the radio) featuring local youth, giving unknown kids the opportunity to perform on the most prestigious stage in the community.

"The great vocalist Jewel Brown, for instance, who went on the sing with the Louis Armstrong band for almost five years in the early 1960s, launched her career by winning the talent show there around age 12 or so. The same goes for Johnny "Guitar" Watson, who actually won the contest performing as a pianist, and his good friend Joe "Guitar" Hughes, among others.

"In the early 1970s, the Eldorado Ballroom began to decline as a nightclub of choice for Houston blacks due to various factors including desegregation of public venues in the city and the younger generation's preference for more contemporary styles of music than those that the Eldorado, still a bastion of classic big-band blues and jazz, had come to personify. Eventually it closed, though the building survived as home to various businesses.

"In the early 21st century, the Eldorado Building was donated to the local nonprofit arts and social-services organization Project Row Houses. It was a gift from Hub Finkelstein, a Jewish man who had grown up in the southern part of Third Ward, home to much of Houston's Jewish community before World War II.

"Mr. Finkelstein had amassed a significant personal fortune through the oil business, and he reportedly bought the property as an investment but also for sentimental and historical reasons. You see, as a young man, he had first heard live jazz projecting from the open windows of the famous nightclub and fell in love with that sound.

"Decades later he purchased the building and then elected to donate it to Project Row Houses in order to preserve the physical structure that served for him personally, as well as for much of the local black community, as a prominent symbol of the culture that birthed and nurtured that music."

For more information on the Eldorado, see this 2006 article for the Houston Review of Culture & History written by Leigh Tucker.


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