Business owner, friends giving new life to ballroom in historic 95-year-old building
BY LINDA CAILLOUET – Democrat Gazette
LITTLE ROCK — At Ninth and State streets in downtown Little Rock, the historic brick building wedged against Interstate 630 survived long after all of its neighbors fell to make way for newer buildings, parking space, or simply empty lots.
But 20 years ago, the regal building — marred by a gaping hole in its roof — appeared doomed to the same fate.
Kerry McCoy, owner of Arkansas Flag and Banner, fell in love with the threestory building at 800 W. Ninth and wanted to move her business, then in a house on North Little Rock’s Main Street, there. She bought the building in 1990.
At the time, many wondered if she’d lost her mind.
Everyone who traveled I-630 could see its roof had caved in. And it wasn’t any better inside.
The hole extended from the roof through the third, second and first floors’ ceilings. Those brave enough to venture inside could see from the first floor below all the way up to the sky.
The building, Taborian Hall, begun in 1916 and occupied by a black fraternal insurance organization, the International Order of Twelve Knights and Daughters of Tabor, had served as an anchor to Little Rock’s once-bustling black commercial district along Ninth Street during the first half of the 20th century. So vibrant was the area when segregation reigned the area was dubbed “Little Harlem.”
Through the years, Gem Pharmacy and Doc’s Pool Hall were located on the ground floor of Taborian Hall as well as the Dreamland Grill and a Negro Soldiers Club. Black professionals — physicians, dentists and lawyers — occupied the second floor.
Since buying the building, McCoy has moved her business there and restored its first and second floors.
But the uppermost floor awaits its salvation. Decades-old peeling paint in shades of salmon pink, bluish-green, yellow, orange and royal blue still cling to the walls. A 1930s Art Deco pattern remains along the edges of the balcony and box seats.
The project is a worthy one. An important part of Little Rock’s cultural history lies within this 8,000-square-foot, tattered and battered space — the Dreamland Ballroom. It was once where central Arkansas’ black residents came to socialize, dance, and hear black musicians traveling on the “Chitlin’ Circuit.”
“I want the walls to tell the story of Dreamland and its rich music history,” McCoy says. “And I want this to be open to the public; a space everyone can use because that’s what it once was.”
SWEET SOUNDS OF LONG AGO
Cab Calloway is said to have performed at Dreamland in 1934 and Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and W.C. Handy are known to have played there in 1936.
In the 1940s, the ballroom was renamed Club Aristocrat and Count Basie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and his All-Star Esquire Combo, and Arkansas native Louis Jordan graced the stage.
In the 1950s, the ballroom was renamed Club Morocco and B.B. King, Etta James, and a new “blind singing star” — Ray Charles — played there. The cost to see Charles? A dollar for tickets bought in advance; $1.50 at the door.
From 1960 through 1967, the ballroom was dubbed the Magnolia Room.
Despite the name changes, locals always referred to it as Dreamland.
BUILDING ON HISTORY
The original structure, less than half its current size, first faced State Street. In 1918, it was expanded southward and its front moved to Ninth Street.
“You can see where the ballroom was retrofitted into this space,” says Amber Jones, executive director of the private, nonprofit organization Friends of Dreamland Ballroom, working to revive the space. “You never would have built windows [now half-covered] behind the stage.”
Inside the ballroom, one of the stage’s plaster shield medallions fell and was destroyed when the roof was rebuilt in 1991, “It will be re-created from a mold from a remaining one. The missing portions of the plaster molding which frames the stage will be re-created too,” Jones says.
But the ballroom will not be restored to look brand new.
“In the preservation world, its current state is known as arrested decay,” Jones says, explaining that the room’s structure and decor will be stabilized and maintained to prevent further decay and restored to some degree but the wall’s layers of paint will be left as is.
“People think it is so cool,” Jones says. “The majority of the people don’t want to see it restored and looking brand new but left the way it is now.
“People who’ve come here tell us ‘I saw Count Basie here’ and ‘This is the paint that was here 50 years ago when I was here for my prom,’ with tears in their eyes. And they say, ‘Please don’t paint over it.’”
In the 1940s, the building served as a black USO Club and USO Charm School and once was the backdrop for gatherings by the Colored Beauticians Association and Alpha Phi Alpha sorority’s Sweetheart Ball and it even served as a gym — complete with a court on the wooden floor and basketball goals attached to the balcony — for Dunbar High School, which had no gym of its own.
A DREAM REALIZED
McCoy recalls buying the building for $20,000 (which she borrowed from her mother who said resignedly at the time, “Well, I’ll never see that 20,000 again”) in 1990.
“It was November and the rainy season had just begun and every night I’d lie awake in bed wondering if the roof would make it through the next rain,” she says.
On Thanksgiving weekend of that year, two workers removed and replaced the rotting section of the roof.
Early on, McCoy campaigned to sell the building to the black community, to no avail; there were no takers.
She could have gotten her mother’s money back — she was offered $18,000 by an antique brick company to demolish it for the bricks.
Instead, McCoy invested $250,000 to restore the first floor and put her Arkansas Flag and Banner store there in 1991. Years later, she restored the second floor, placing her offices, sewing room, and space for printing banners there.
Since then, McCoy has bought the rest of the property on the block.
Last year, the ballroom’s floor was reconstructed with a plywood subfloor that cost about $60,000.
“These guys were on the floor on their hands and knees; at every joist, they had to level it,” McCoy says.
Other work already completed in the ballroom includes replacing all of the broken and missing windows, rewiring a portion of the space, re-stabilizing the two sections of balcony seats, and adding restrooms.
Friends of Dreamland Ballroom was formed in July 2009, and in August 2010, Jones was hired as its executive director. The nonprofit has a dozen members on its board.
“I signed on to work here without having seen the ballroom,” Jones says. But she had fallen in love with the building years earlier.
“When my husband and I were going to Arkansas Tech in Russellville and planning to get married here in Little Rock, I would drive over here and see the building sitting there with the big hole in the roof and wish someone would save it. Then one day, I drove by and saw it had a new roof and I was so relieved. Little did I know I would end up working here,” Jones says.
“It was hard to give tours up here before we got the floor,” she says. “The floor was so soft it felt like you could fall through at any time.”
Last winter, restrooms were added to the ballroom space.
Initial fundraising began in spring 2009 with concerts in the Doc’s Pool Hall section of the building and in 2010, summer drive-in movies began being shown in the parking lot.
In January this year, the first public event was held in the ballroom — a concert by the Big Cats. Other concerts have been held there since and a Prohibition-themed “A Night at the Speakeasy” was held earlier this month.
WAITING IN THE WINGS
McCoy estimates she has already spent about $1 million on the building and estimates it’ll take another million to complete it.
Her wish list for the ballroom? Central heating and air conditioning (in its current state, events can be held only in the spring and fall), completion of the electrical wiring, a kitchen, an elevator and a museum display to share the ballroom’s history.
McCoy’s vision extends beyond the walls of her own building.
“I’d like to see Mosaic Templars building [three blocks east] and Dreamland to serve as the two bookends for this Ninth Street corridor and see it revitalized with a real family feel to it,” she says.
Several who’ve learned of efforts to revive the ballroom support the efforts.
“The Stella Boyle Smith Trust has been our biggest and best sponsor since day one,” McCoy says.
Others in the community supporting the effort include the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, Philander Smith College and Arkansas Baptist College.
But there are still many in the community unaware of the ballroom or its storied history.
“It’s such a jewel but so many don’t realize it’s here,” Jones says.
SPREADING THE WORD
Efforts continue with a campaign in which supporters can buy a brick for $100 that will be engraved with their name and used on a walkway outside the building.
And a fundraiser — a dancing competition, “Dancing Into Dreamland,” presented by the Stella Boyle Smith Trust, is set for 6 to 9 p.m., Nov. 4 at the Governor’s Mansion. Lawrence Hamilton will host the event, which will include a silent auction, refreshments, an hour-long dance contest, and a 30-minute performance by Hamilton. The winners of the contest, chosen by a panel of judges, receive a trip for four to New Orleans including dinner and hotel in the French Quarter. Tickets are $100 and can be bought at the website below.
Also helping to spread the word is local author Berna J. Love, who has published a history of Ninth Street titled End of the Line and has written another book, Temple of Dreams: Taborian Hall and Its Dreamland Ballroom set to be published by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
“I started on it in 2004,” Love says. “It includes both historical research but also a lot of personal recollections from individuals.”
For tickets or more information on renting the ballroom or taking a private tour of it or Taborian Hall, visit dreamland ballroom.org or call (501) 255-5700.