Restoring Dreamland one memory at a time

The Daily Record

Amber Jones (left), executive director of the Friends of Dreamland Ballroom and Kerry McCoy, owner of Arkansas Flag and Banner, stand in what used to be premier balcony seating of the Ballroom. McCoy bought the building around 1991 and has plans to renovate the ballroom and open the space for community events. - Rebecca Brockman
Becca Bona

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.”

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