Trumpeter Calvin Owens was 20 years old when he climbed the steep stairs and edged through the crowd to take the stage at the Eldorado Ballroom at the start of the '50s.
"I was really stoned in heaven at the time," says Owens, recalling the dreamy launch of his career at Houston's first black nightclub. Playing with the house band, the Pluma Davis Orchestra, would eventually land him a job with blues legend B.B. King. "All the young musicians dreamed of playing at the Eldorado."
Chicago had its Regal. Washington, D.C., boasted the Howard Theater, and the grand dame of them all was Harlem's Apollo. In Houston, the Third Ward's Eldorado reigned.
Born in the '40s and marked by the era of segregation, the ballroom was the pulse of Houston's black community. The self-proclaimed "Home of the Happy Feet" hosted two floor shows nightly with professional musicians, singers and dancers. At evening's end, patrons dressed in their Sunday best would boogie to the house band or jukebox.
In its heyday, the heavyweights of black music found their way to the brick two-story building at the corner of Elgin and Dowling. Taking those same steps to the second-floor ballroom were famous jazz, blues and standard entertainers: Arnett Cobb, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Illinois Jacquet, Johnny Copeland and T-Bone Walker. Even a promising young boxer named Cassius Clay stepped onto the dance floor, long before his fame as Muhammad Ali.
But that music has been silenced for more than two decades. The club ebbed into emptiness inside a nondescript square white structure. Its only reminder is a torn brown-cloth awning at the entryway proclaiming it as the Eldorado Building.
Now the Eldorado is preparing for an encore. The owner of the property has donated it to Project Row Houses, which has restored houses along Holman. Project founder Rick Lowe says the Eldorado will be renovated as a community meeting hall, education center and -- of course -- venue for music and the arts.
Credit for the Eldorado goes to early black businesswoman Anna Dupree, who started her career as a 23-year-old beauty shop operator on Main Street. With her eventual savings and business holdings, she was able to fund the first permanent building on the Texas Southern University campus. She also began one of the first black orphanages in Texas. But Dupree, who died in 1977, was best known for taking Houston into the big-city ranks for black music with her nightclub.
Blues singer Jewel Brown recalls the '40s era as the "rough and tough times in the Gulf." But there was a tender side to them as well. She didn't mind the sugar rations or saving stamps to buy shoes.
"Those were the good ol' days when you could sleep on your porch and not have to worry about anything," she reports of the Third Ward of old. "Today you have to put yourself in jail with bars on your windows."
Brown began sing-ing at the Eldorado to the piano music of her brother Theodore Brown. Her mother served as a chaperon as they walked down Elgin to the club. She sang with Conrad Johnson, Sammy Harris and Pluma Davis before touring the Nevada circuit with Louis Armstrong.
During the sweltering summer afternoons before the real "shows" cranked up, radio personality Skipper Lee would spin tunes for record hops and hold brief talent shows open to youths. It was at one of the talent shows that Joe "Guitar" Hughes met another young performer, Johnny Copeland, who went on to become known as Houston's International Ambassador to the Blues.
Guitarist Texas Johnny Brown recalls playing with the Aladdin Chickenshackers at age 17. He had to get the guys in the band to assure the cops at the door that he should be allowed in.
"When I first started working up there, I got thrown out," he says. "We also had a couple of raids in that place, and there was only one way in and one way out."
As the Midnighters played one night, the crowd got rowdy and the paddy wagon appeared; cops escorted patrons down the stairs into the jail on wheels. "Luckily they let the musicians get away," Brown says.
Photographer and talent scout Lloyd Wells rented a studio on the first floor from Dupree and her husband, known simply as Mr. Dupree. All the sororities and fraternities had their dances at the club, Wells says.
Wells remembers it as the first place he took his new prizefighting friend who would become known as Muhammad Ali. Picking him up from Hobby Airport in his red Continental convertible, Wells and the Eldorado turned Ali's one-day visit into a week as the host "put so many girls on him."
Wells, a Fifth Ward resident, photographed Eldorado stars such as Little Richard, Billie Holiday and the Four Tops at the club. Before the Coliseum opened (B.C.), the Eldorado was the select place for blacks to socialize.
Lee, the DJ and emcee for talent shows, says the search for female companionship at the club often centered on a key question: transit routes. Most patrons used the bus to get to and from the Eldorado, recalls Lee. Young women from Acres Homes were out of the question, he says, because the bus line to that then-remote community took too long for follow-up visits with them.
"You tell them that when Skipper Lee hit on women, he would find out where they lived before pursuing a relationship," says Lee, owner of a radio station and funeral home.
As the decades flowed by, desegregation gradually began doing its job. Some Third Ward residents moved into then-suburbs. And Houston's growth spawned other clubs, with the popularity of the automobile giving new mobility to those in search of music. Owens blames the eventual end of the Eldorado on a present-day woe: lack of parking. He explains that the city turned that section of Elgin and Dowling into a no-parking zone.
Rick Lowe, an upbeat, young black artist with dreadlocks, arrives at the square white building in his red pickup truck. Along the sidewalk are the ground-floor shops and eateries: Caldwell Tailors, Lunch Box Diner, Eldorado Barber and Beauty Salon and Dorthea's Devine Designs. Under the tattered awning, he opens a series of bolts on the solid wood door, unlocking this bit of Houston heritage in the process.
For the past several years Lowe has been eyeing the site, located blocks away from his nonprofit art community of 23 small, restored houses. He wanted it both to protect a historically significant place and to provide what the smaller structures of the community could not: adequate space for community gatherings.
As Lowe heads up the stairs, it's easy to envision the ghosts of patrons tromping upward in their zoot suits, arm-in-arm with companions in baby-doll high heels, ready for an evening of revelry.
Reality is much harsher. Over the decades, modifications to the music hall have left it with layers of disguises. A fire, which old-timers vaguely remember, left charred red brick that's hiding behind a mask of old Sheetrock. Squares of plywood crudely joined together with exposed nails may cover a rumored parquet floor that previously accommodated tap dancers and jitterbuggers.
Lowe had been hoping for the property ever since he noticed it was up for lease several years ago. Those hopes were nearly dashed when the building and surrounding land were involved in a real estate deal, reportedly for more than $450,000. But that transaction never went through.
Only weeks ago the owner donated the site to Project Row Houses. While Lowe declined to identify the benefactor, county property records show it is Hub Finkelstein of Medallion Oil, who declined comment. The gift package includes not only the Eldorado, but the 17-lot block bordered by Elgin, Dowling, Bastrop and Stuart, which includes undeveloped green space behind the building.
Lowe plans to use the first month's rent from the building's small businesses to repair plumbing and put a fresh coat of paint throughout the interior, which is worn but structurally sound.
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A community meeting will collect wish lists from area leaders, organizers, musicians and artists as the metamorphosis begins. Lowe hopes to capture the definitive history of the Eldorado from those who knew it best. "There is a fondness about it that people remember," he explains.
The Eldorado will serve as a venue for jazz, blues and hip-hop performers. But Lowe also wants to stress Project Row Houses' educational philosophy, so the club will be used for discussions of various music genres. Undeveloped land around the club will be the setting for a sculpture park, he says. Films may be shown, and the building will once again be hosting the Third Ward community.
When it reopens, count on jazz singer Jewel Brown to take a trip that she thought she would never make again -- up the stairs and into Houston's "Home of the Happy Feet."
"He's got a wonderful idea. That's Houston's music history right there," Brown says. "It deserves to be saved. I hope it turns into a success again."