PaperCity Magazine

PaperCity Houston December 2023

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Page 69 of 91

F irst a little history. The 84-year-old Eldorado Ballroom, a City of Houston Protected Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, stands as a survivor from Third Ward's thriving mid-century commercial district. In its first heyday, circa the 1940s and '50s, the ballroom represented the aspirations and sophistication of Houston's Black middle and upper classes. Commissioned by Black philanthropists and business owners Anna Johnson Dupree and Clarence Dupree, the Eldorado unveiled in grand style December 5, 1939. A work of Streamline Moderne architecture, it was designed by Rice-trained architect Lenard Gabert Sr., who is best known for his synagogues. Flash forward to the 1960s, and migration out of the inner city, competition due to changing musical tastes, the demise of Black social clubs (such as its namesake), and activism coupled with police brutality in Third Ward all contributed to the ballroom's closure in the 1970s. After the death of the Duprees, oilman Hubert "Hub" Finkelstein acquired the building in 1984, gifting it to neighboring Project Row Houses in 1999. While Row Houses reopened the Rado to fanfare on May 17, 2003, the building called for further updating. In 2012, a conversation began, prompted by the need for an elevator; architect David Bucek of Stern and Bucek was brought on. The elevator idea expanded to a much larger plan. An ambitious campaign was hatched, co-chaired by Anita Smith and Hasty Johnson and sparked by the Kinder Foundation's $4 million gift. Now the Rado is back in business but few alive know the details of its illustrious musical DNA. O nce you climbed the stairs of the Eldorado Ballroom at the corner of Elgin and Dowling Street, you were not only witness to a great time but also had the opportunity to see future stars of Houston and the world's jazz and blues scene. To put it in perspective: The Savoy Ballroom in iconic Harlem in New York City is arguably one of the most well-known dance halls in the country — famous for the Lindy Hop A s P r o j e c t R o w Houses celebrates its 30th anniversary and the grand $9.7 million restoration and renovation of the nonprofit's historic Eldorado Ballroom, we look back at the fabled history of the reborn Rado, as the ballroom is known, and the legendary Black musicians that traveled the Chitlin' Circuit. PaperCity tapped artist Tierney L. Malone — Jazz Church Houston's founder, who was in Row Houses' first exhibition in 1994 — to consider Eldorado's place in American music history and its role in the cultural life of the storied Third Ward. Houston's Historic Eldorado Ballroom — the Black Musicians' Chitlin' and the discovery of the first lady of swing, Ella Fitzgerald. The Savoy Ballroom was also the original "Home of Happy Feet"; the Eldorado Ballroom, founded in 1939 by Anna and Clarence Dupree, was the "Home of Happy Feet" in Houston's Third Ward. The Eldorado Ballroom was known for being a first-class establishment for Blacks showcasing the finest talent traveling the Chitlin' Circuit — from Memphis to Houston to New Orleans and back again. National touring acts such as the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Count Basie, and T-Bone Walker played to enthusiastic audiences upstairs at the Rado, as the ballroom was often referred to. The Chitlin' Circuit was a group of clubs, theaters, and dance halls across the Eastern, Midwest, and Southern states where Black performers could be assured of work during the era of racial segregation known as Jim Crow. Like the Savoy, the Eldorado Ballroom was known for dancing, but its unique distinction lies in the many performers whose careers were launched from its stage, like Willie Mae Thornton, who was singing at the Eldorado when she was heard by the owner of Houston's Peacock Records, Don Robey. Big Mama Thornton was signed to the label and recorded her first hit in 1953, "Hound Dog," which was later recorded by Elvis Presley in 1956. Thornton went on to write and record many more hits including "Ball and Chain," famously covered by Janis Joplin in the Monterey Pop Festival, 1967. Ernestine Anderson — our own Sarah Vaughan — performed in a show at the Eldorado at the age of 12, fronting the Russell Jacquet Orchestra. After blowing the roof off the ballroom, the next day she was on tour, singing with the Johnny Otis Orchestra. In 1958, Anderson's debut album, Hot Cargo, propelled her to stardom and a recording career that spanned 50 years. Jazz and blues diva Jewel Brown had been singing on the Houston scene since the age of nine. One night at the Eldorado Ballroom, the teen opened a show of variety acts and dancers. After leaving the stage, a female comedian named Caldonia told Brown something that set her firmly on her course to stardom: "I heard there was an amateur opening the show tonight. You ain't no amateur; you are a professional." Brown continued to wow crowds in clubs in the city and around the state. She recalls singing the Pluma Davis Orchestra wows the crowd, circa 1940s. 60

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