On the corner of State and Ninth St. visible from I-630 stands a historic Taborian Hall in full grandeur. Historic Ninth St. was home to the segregation line in Little Rock back when discrimination was law. In 1916, The Knights and Daughters of Tabor, which is a benevolent religious group, added onto the original building built in the 1800s. This group operated somewhat like the Freemasons, and made burial insurance available to the black community members, which (at that time) was against the law. The building’s location opened up many possibilities for the black business community.
The building housed a USO meeting hall at one point as well as Gem’s Pharmacy that was a big name on Ninth St. and in operation until 1971. The second floor housed black lawyers and doctors, who were not allowed to practice on Main St.
The 8,000-square foot space on the third floor was its own world – housing the Dreamland Ballroom, which during its heyday in the 60s, was the place to be for music. The stage is visible from box seating both flanking the left and right leaving plenty of space for dancing beneath the house lights.
The Ballroom is a piece of history in itself hosting famous artists such as Dizzie Gillespie, Ray Charles, B.B. King, and Arkansas’ own Louis Jordan. There was a sort of culture that spanned the very floor of the ballroom. Old photographs prove the space was reserved for everything: basketball games, bands, dances, and receptions.
Nearly twenty years ago, Kerry McCoy, the building’s current owner, knew even though the roof was collapsed, that the building was special. McCoy was looking to move her business, Arkansas Flag and Banner into a larger space. In case you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her, it’s important to note that McCoy is one dynamic individual. She has always been a go-getter, apparent from her hard work of starting a business when she was 20-years old with a mere $400. When the lively entrepreneur fell in love with the crumbling building, she knew that a project would ensue. She didn’t know about the inside of the building until later, when she nearly excavated her way to the top through the fallen debris. Upon seeing the ballroom for the first time she said, “It was like birds were flying around and the sky was open and you could look across the chasm to this unbelievable stage over there and box seats. We just stood there. There was no stopping me after that!”
McCoy thought back to1992, she said she had planned to restore the third floor ballroom and make it open to the public by the year 2000. Unfortunately, the price range for renovation was always a “hair out of her reach.” Her business employees helped her out by laying flooring and carpet down on the first and second floors. In fact, McCoy and her crew have slowly been putting the building back together ever since her business moved
there. McCoy has dedicated herself fully and completely to this historic building. “I love this project but it’s overwhelming. I can’t stand lost opportunities. Some people buy a dress and they’re bummed out because they bought the dress and it was too expensive. If I don’t buy the dress, I spend two weeks wishing I had bought the dress.”
However, McCoy decided about a year ago to make the Dreamland Ballroom a nonprofit organization, Friends of Dreamland, in hopes to raise enough money to finish the project that she has long planned for. McCoy said that the nonprofit group had recently hired Executive Director, Amber Jones, as well as Robyn Madden, as chairman to the board. These women also share McCoy’s drive and mission: to bring the architecture, music, and history of the building to the community.
Jones was available to comment on her work on the project so far, saying, “It really is a full-time job, just learning the history of it and talking to the person that’s writing the book, talking to the person that wants to do a documentary and then developing our own programs.
And then for us, being a nonprofit, figuring out what we need to do to raise money. It is just so much, it’s like a 24 hour a day job.” Jones’ philosophy on the huge project is reassuring, “The key is not to get overwhelmed and take it in little bites. We hope to expose this to the public.”
This past summer was the beginning of many fundraising events that will continue to come from the Dreamland Ballroom group. Drive-in movies were scheduled twice a month all summer long benefitting the renovation project. The movies may become a series in the fall as well, during the cooler months because the event was so well liked by the community.
McCoy learned a lot from her first bout of fundraising. “What I have learned is you don’t raise money through ticket sales you raise money through sponsors. So this year our goal is to focus on an annual plan of events and trying to get sponsors whose names will be on those events and who believe in our mission.”
When the ballroom is renovated, the Dreamland group hopes to open it up for public use. The driving mission is to get the public involved in the history of the building, perhaps by visiting a museum that the group hopes to incorporate into the ballroom itself. McCoy and Jones have been saving artifacts that have significance to the building including many photographs. The photos show the building was versatile in its events and today;
the space would still be well suited for a prom, wedding reception, or music series. Jones said, “It’d be great to get it to be essentially what it was. That’s what we want to do … share every aspect of it.”
The Friends of Dreamland Ballroom (FOD), a group that focuses on sharing the musical, cultural and architectural history of the Taborian Hall on W. Ninth St, has hired a new Executive Director, Amber Jones.
Ms. Jones is an Arkansas native with several years of experience in nonprofit administration, historic preservation and music education. Ms. Jones holds a B.A. degree in Education with an emphasis in Music from Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. Ms. Jones most recently assisted with operations and management of the Little Rock Visitors Center at Historic Curran Hall.
“Amber brings the ideal combination of nonprofit experience, education and preservation background that our organization needs to move forward,” says board chairman, Robyn Madden.
Ms. Jones aims to implement programming that capitalizes on the significant musical and cultural history that the Dreamland Ballroom embodies. FOD Programming will include a jazz music series, music education for K-12, historical and cultural lectures, and implementation of The Taborian Hall Museum.
“The Friends objective is to engage the community in the rich history that exists within the Dreamland Ballroom and Taborian Hall. By reusing the historic resource in much the same way it was used nearly a century ago, as a community event and social center, we are able to share the cultural and aesthetic value of the space and implement a new phase in its history. I am excited to help the Friends of Dreamland share this important Little Rock treasure,” says Ms. Jones.
More about the FOD: The Friends of Dreamland Ballroom focuses on supporting and sharing the musical, cultural and architectural resources of the Dreamland Ballroom, located on the top floor of the Taborian Hall, headquarters of Arkansas Flag and Banner. Taborian Hall is the last historic building on West Ninth Street. It remains as a testimony to the street’s former vibrancy and glory days as Little Rock’s “Little Harlem.” The building was constructed in 1918 by Black fraternal organization, The Knights and Daughters of Tabor, in what was, at that time, a thriving Black business district, made so by segregation. The structure was also the home of Gem Pharmacy, doctors’ offices, a USO club, Doc’s Pool Hall, and many other businesses and social organizations. The popular dance hall on the third floor was the venue for big bands, jazz, and blues, and the scene for dances, socials, and basketball games. Many of the era’s leading Black musical artists performed in the building including Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and Ella Fitzgerald, Arkansans Louis Jordan and Al Hibbler, and comedians Redd Foxx and Sammie Davis.
The FOD are currently engaged in a donor drive, program development and community outreach.