Published April 4, 2023
Houston has had juke joints and jazz bars, nightclubs and dance halls.
But it’s never had a place like the ‘Rado.
For three decades during the Jim Crow era, the Eldorado Ballroom served as the premier destination for live music, celebrations and special occasions in Houston’s Third Ward, the city’s Black cultural hub of the time.
Founded in 1939 by prominent Houston couple Anna Johnson Dupree and Clarence A. Dupree, the ‘Rado provided a safe place for Black Houstonians to dress to the nines, let their hair down and enjoy entertainment free from judgment or discrimination. The ballroom’s upstairs stage drew some of the nation’s biggest blues, jazz and R&B musicians – B.B. King, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Ray Charles – and launched the careers of local talent who gained national acclaim.
Its reign as one of Texas’ premier showcases for live music would only last three decades, however, as blues music fell out of fashion and Black Houstonians migrated away from Third Ward. In the years since, the historic building has hosted occasional weddings and group events – but never returned to its heyday.
That will change this spring, when the venue reopens after a dramatic renovation funded by nearly $10 million in donations from the Kinder Foundation, the Houston Endowment, Brown Foundation and about 200 other contributors. Community members, local dignitaries and media outlets, including the Houston Landing, got a sneak peek at the revitalized Eldorado on March 30.
Like the old ‘Rado, the ground floor will contain commercial space, this time featuring a local market and café developed by James Beard Award finalist and Lucille’s restaurant owner Chris Williams, as well as community meeting spaces and an art gallery. And once again, the second floor will host live music performances and dancing.
Ahead of its official reopening tentatively set for May, the Landing spoke to key figures in the ballroom’s past, present and future. They reminisced on the good times, described the process of preserving the building’s historic features and spoke about their hopes for the renovated ‘Rado.
The place to be
Up-and-coming entrepreneur Clarence Dupree and his beautician wife, Anna, developed the Eldorado in the heart of Houston’s Third Ward, where they saw an opportunity to showcase Black entertainment. Situated on the Dowling Street commercial district, across from the modern-day Emancipation Park, the Eldorado boasted prime proximity to downtown and was surrounded by restaurants, ice cream parlors and clothing stores.
The city had other nightclubs, like crosstown competitor Bronze Peacock in Fifth Ward, yet the Eldorado was in its own category. Barber shops, tailors and other businesses operated out of the ground level of the two-story building, while the second floor was the main event.
Jewel Brown, 85, Third Ward native and Eldorado singer: The Eldorado, oh, that took the cake. The Eldorado was the club of Houston. They had all the big bands, and they had Nat King Cole. Everybody was coming. Everybody who was somebody worked for (the) Eldorado. l didn’t even at the time fall into the class of those people. But they loved me.
Trudy Lynn, 75, Fifth Ward native and Eldorado singer: That’s where all the entertainment was. Back in the day, a lot of comedians worked at the Eldorado. They had tap dancers, singers, exotic dancers, snake dancers, oh, they had everything. You’d think you was in New York. … Cost a little bit more to get into the Eldorado than it would just regular clubs in Houston — maybe $2 or $3 to get in.
Carolyn Blanchard, Third Ward native and Eldorado singer: The couples and singles that went, enjoyed themselves. (You) didn’t have to worry about trouble. They looked out for one another, and it was just a beautiful atmosphere where when people went together it was friends and family. I just hate that they lost that along the way. You can’t go anywhere now and be safe and that’s so bad.
Lynn, singer: People came in there, and they put on their best Sunday clothes to go up in the Eldorado. They had on their little minks, their little rabbits, their coon or whatever they wear, hats, women wore gloves, had handkerchiefs in their hand. It was uptown. It had a dress code. Wasn’t nobody coming in there with sneakers on and stuff. You had to be dressed to come in. And they had a coat check area where you check your coats and hat when you come into a high-class club.
The Eldorado attracted the biggest acts of the era, but it also inspired the careers of up-and-coming local talent, like jazz bandleader Milton Larkin and saxophonists Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet. The city’s youth also flocked to the Eldorado, particularly on Saturday afternoons, when the KCOH radio station broadcasted live talent shows.
Roger Wood, Houston historian and author of “Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues”: If you performed and impressed people on the talent show, the next thing you knew, you were out gigging. You know, it’s kind of how you went from being a nobody to somebody. … Really, to me, (that) changes the whole notion of the Eldorado. The Bronze Peacock was adults-only. They had gambling in the back.
Lynn, singer: I used to go there when I was young, and I didn’t have no business in there, but I was there. I went and listened to Otis Turner. He used to be the house band in the Eldorado, and they would have a Sunday matinée. This is where everyone would go on Sundays, to listen to Otis Turner because he had a big band.
Brown, who started singing at the Eldorado at the age of 12 after winning a weekly talent show nine straight times, would go on to travel the world with Louis Armstrong.
Brown, singer: From there, it was really on. I never would forget a girl named Caledonia. She was an elderly lady and a comedian. And when I come on stage, she said, “They told me that an amateur was going to open the show. You ain’t no amateur. You a professional.”
Blanchard, singer: We’d throw our ideas back and forth and bounce off each other. Now it’s a cutthroat thing, but then, it was a joy.
Singing the blues
Historians chalk up the fall of the Eldorado Ballroom’s heyday to a myriad of factors: Black residents of the area moving out of Third Ward amid desegregation; teenagers straying from blues and jazz music; and a lack of parking for commuters. The Eldorado briefly shuttered in 1968, reopened the following year, then permanently closed in the early 1970s.
Blanchard, singer: It was an era that was no more. I guess I had to understand that it was time to move on. It hurt because it was a sad ending to an era. It hurt so much to those of us because it meant so much to the community.
The ballroom largely became a commercial space in the following years. It might have succumbed to demolition if not for an unlikely patron: Hubert “Hub” Finkelstein, a prominent Jewish oilman and philanthropist, who bought the property in 1984. Just before his death, Finkelstein donated the Eldorado in 1999 to Project Row Houses, a Third Ward nonprofit dedicated to arts and neighborhood preservation.
Wood, historian: (Finkelstein) used to walk up what was Dowling Street, now Emancipation Avenue, and just sit there. He was not Black, but he told me that’s how he fell in love with jazz, just hearing it come out those windows.
Eureka Gilkey, executive director of Project Row Houses: He acquired it because he loved the space. He, as a white Jewish man, would go there during segregation and sit in the parking lot or across the street. And that at that time, it was the original structure, so the windows could open, and he could hear the music outside. And (as) he started diversifying his property portfolio, he knew that he didn’t want to do anything with the space. But we knew, and he knew, that if he just sold it, (it) would be torn down. Because you know, Houston has a deep history of just tearing things out and then putting up a marker.
The building remained functional with minor fixes, continuing to host birthday parties and events for Texas Southern University fraternities and sororities. But as the years passed, it fell into disrepair. In particular, the notoriously steep and slanted stairs to the second floor were falling apart, and the building lacked an elevator.
Gilkey, Project Row Houses director: It was just, like, patchwork jobs. One of the challenges had always been – and this was even before I got here – it wasn’t (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessible because it was built in 1939, so there’s no codes around that.
Brown, singer: I used to wonder what they were gonna do with Eldorado because it’s been dormant for many years. … The only reason why I think that it never did really boom again (is) because everybody who appreciated it had gotten too old to climb them stairs.
In 2012, Project Row Houses tapped architect David Bucek to devise a plan for modernizing the space and installing an elevator. They quickly realized, however, that the project would be more costly and difficult than expected, in part because its status as a state historical property prevented some modernizations.
Project Row Houses, an organization with annual revenues that typically fell under $3 million, struggled to find funding for the project.
Gilkey, Project Row Houses director: So what started off as, well, I would say a $5 to $6 million renovation, ends up being an almost $10 million renovation because we started like the planning right before COVID hit, (plus) inflation.
A new lease on life
The project kicked into high gear when it netted about $4 million in funding from arts and culture philanthropists Rich and Nancy Kinder, longtime supporters of Third Ward.
With funding secured, renovation plans started taking shape. The 5,000-square-foot bottom floor would be split into three parts: a community art gallery led by artist and Third Ward native Robert Hodge; a community meeting space named after the Duprees; and a restaurant and micro-grocery operated by Williams’ Lucille’s Hospitality Group.
The upstairs ballroom, which spans just over 4,000 square feet, will remain a space for community events and family celebrations, but it will also serve once again as a live music venue. A new two-story annex will tout kitchen space, dressing rooms for performers and wedding parties, and a sprawling upstairs patio with a retractable roof. A spacious courtyard also will seat up to 60 people outdoors.
Williams, program operator: Everyone says that nothing is going to be the way it was, and the fact is it won’t. Of course it won’t be the exact same thing, but I hope we can showcase the exact same intent, because this isn’t meant to be a moneymaker. It’s meant to be a cultural celebration center that can support itself.
To comply with historical preservation standards, construction contractors had to keep 95 percent of the original structure. They went through an intense research process that involved assessing the damage done from fires in the 1940s and 1950s, reviewing previous renovations, gathering fire insurance maps and consulting with a local paint conservator.
Bucek, architect: It’s kind of a history detective effort that goes into this. There have been researchers researching the ballroom, folks gathering photographs. And it’s kind of a process of putting all that together. … Our main goal was to protect every original element of the ballroom that dated to its original construction as much as possible. This was a challenge because the building has had many modifications, and most of the modifications, or at least many of them, were the result of two horrific fires that occurred in the building.
Workers are now putting the final touches on the building ahead of reopening later this spring. The ballroom now features a larger, modular stage that can be removed for private events, acoustic panels, and a Prohibition-style wraparound bar.
Williams, program operator: The ballroom itself has potential to really get Houston’s music scene back to where it once was. Because think of all the Grammy Award-winning talent that comes out of Houston. To really get going, to be heard by people in Houston, in these communities they come from, they got to go to Austin. They got to go to Memphis and do all this stuff and go to the House of Blues. But that’s not us. So this one here has potential to really reshape and redefine the culture of music in this city.
Project Row Houses hosted a private grand opening reveal last month, with performances from Brown and Horace Grigsby, who started singing at the Eldorado’s talent shows in their preteen years. The Eldorado’s reopening will prompt questions about whether the new era can live up to the ballroom’s reputation.
Blanchard, singer: It might not be what it was because there have been too many changes in society, the community. (I) look forward to much better things for the Eldorado, because those running it did the best they could with what they had, and maybe now it’s time for us to do a bigger and better thing. It should be a landmark, because it’s definitely our history.
Wood, historian: In a sense, this building reopening here, it’s true to the Tre. It’s alive. It’s vital. I don’t have the illusion that blues and jazz will be competing with Beyoncé on popular radio, but I do believe that whether you’re listening to hip hop, R&B or stone-cold country music, blues is a part of that.
Lynn, singer: It will never be like what it was. It can’t be, because it’s just different. And I don’t know how it’s going to be run or what’s going to be in there, but it’s historical. And the ones that are left here, that know about it and that’s able to come, it’s going to be a wonder to them.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Horace Grigsby’s name.
The Kinder Foundation and Houston Endowment are financial supporters of Houston Landing, and representatives of both organizations hold seats on the Landing’s board of directors. The organizations had no influence on decisions related to the reporting and publishing of this article. The Landing’s ethics policy and list of financial supporters are available online.
This article includes photos provided courtesy of the Houston Public Library via the African American Library at The Gregory School. The photo identifiers are 2011-0035-0002, 2011-0035-0013 and MSS0145-PH045.