The real community centerby Daniel Buckley on Nov. 15, 2007, under Calendar
El Casino Ballroom has been gathering place for six decades
When Christopher Ponce and Stephanie Gonzales decided to get married, they knew one thing absolutely: The wedding would be at El Casino Ballroom.
It’s where the couple met, where they had their first kiss, where he proposed to her and where they had their baby shower. The couple joined a long chain of Tucsonans who had their weddings, quinceañeras, reunions, cultural celebrations, parties, charitable events, club meetings, political rallies, concerts and more, surrounded by friends and family at the 60-year-old landmark.
Tucson’s Deputy City Manager Liz Rodriguez Miller has vivid memories of childhood at El Casino and the dance floor that seemed to “go on for miles.”
“In-between dances, we little kids would run and slide on that floor,” she says. “I can still recall that feeling.”
Kids were still doing the same thing when Ponce and Gonzales married there Nov. 2, while the adults lined up to do the Electric Slide at the famous dance hall, which marks its 60th anniversary this year with celebrations Friday and Saturday.
More than any other place in Tucson, the El Casino Ballroom has been the true community center for the town since it opened its doors in 1947 at the corner of East 26th Street and South Second Avenue. Back then, in the wake of World War II, El Casino filled a recently created void. When it opened, the old Riverside Ballroom on West Congress had recently closed to build Interstate 10 in Tucson and a fire had destroyed the Blue Moon – located where the Tucson House is on Oracle Road now.
Once El Casino opened its doors, several other now-defunct ballrooms popped up, among them The Victoria (later Del Rio) at I-10 and Speedway Boulevard and the AMVET Ballroom (later Bob’s Place) on West St. Mary’s Road. But because El Casino could accommodate 1,000 people, it seemed to become the favored hub for Tucson’s Hispanic community.
“The El Casino was THE place,” notes Latin American Social Club president Edward Lopez. “It had the largest dance-floor in the whole city – even (bigger than) the hotels.”
El Casino was and is living history. On its stage, such luminaries as Pedro Infante, Lola Beltrán, Javier Solis, Jose Alfredo Jimenez, Little Joe, Sunny and the Sunliners, Perez Prado, Los Tigres del Norte, Los Lobos, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, Tito Puente, Juan Mendoza, Lalo Guerrero, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Harry James, the Glenn Miller Orchestra and countless others performed to packed houses.
El Casino Ballroom was the brainchild of three friends – Ramon Siqueiros, Benjamin Jacobs and Adolfo Loustaunau. Its first manager was Loustaunau. Among its first official functions, and later an annual event, was “Las Fiestas Patrias Mexicanas” – the celebration of Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16. The various clubs that met there would nominate girls to be queen of Las Fiestas Patrias, and the Mexican consul would crown the winner.
The walls would be lined with photos of heroes from the Mexican Revolution, and Mexican and American flags would be carried by members of the armed forces and young men in charro outfits. Guests would include the governor of Arizona and local governmental officials, according to a memoir Loustaunau wrote, translated by local historian Ralph Gonzalez. Shouts of “Viva Mexico! Viva America!” would fill the room.
In the 1950s, El Casino became Tucson’s cradle of rock ‘n’ roll, welcoming road shows from the likes of Fats Domino, Little Richard, The Imperials, Ike and Tina Turner, and Chuck Berry as they made their way from California to Texas and back.
In 1968, the Latin American Social Club, whose former building was being displaced by the construction of the Tucson Community Center, bought the El Casino from Loustaunau.
With Raul “Butch” Martinez running the hall, it continued the legacy of entertainment and service to the community that its founders established.
In the 1980s, a new crowd started infiltrating the El Casino. Community radio station KXCI-FM (91.3) needed a big place for fundraising concerts. And El Casino fit the bill.
“(KXCI pioneer) Paul Bear is the one who found the place,” recalls Carol Anderson of KXCI’s “Ruby’s Roadhouse.” “It had such a great vibe.”
In the mid-1980s Anderson ran the crews that manned station-backed concerts by such artists as Queen Ida, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Beausoleil and more, booked to the club by Bear and Jeb Schoonover, who would go on to reopen the Rialto Theatre.
“Many a marriage began and ended at the El Casino during those House Rocking Concerts,” Anderson says with a laugh. “It was a blast.”
In October 1991, the roof blew off the southeast side of the building during a storm and landed in the parking lot. Luckily, it occurred during the week when no one was inside. But the physical and financial mess left in the storm’s wake darkened El Casino’s doors until 2000.
Even then, the damage to the east side of the building, left uncovered and open to the elements for lack of cash, was so extreme that only the west side of the hall could be reopened.
But when the doors reopened, it was clear the vibe had survived. The old wooden picnic tables on the sides of the dance floors that splinted many a butt were still there. Air-conditioning brought the sweat factor down considerably, and the place booked up with shows and family and community functions from Day One.
People returning to Tucson from living in other cities or being stationed elsewhere in the armed services still converge on the Casino to reunite with family and friends.
“It’s where you know you’ll run into everybody,” current manager Fred Martinez says with a smile.
When Tejano singer Adalberto (Gallegos) and the Latin Breed played Tucson a few years back, it had to be at the Casino. The same for Chuck Wagon and the Wheels’ 20th anniversary reunion.
With the debt of rebuilding the west half now largely retired, the building stands poised for a second face-lift that will restore it to its original size and more.
“There’s no place like the El Casino,” Martinez says with pride. “The feel, the ambience. This is home base.”
Adjoining Latin American Social Club marks 75th anniversary, 1A, 5A
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IF YOU GO
What: Celebrate 60 years of the El Casino Ballroom with Los DesperadoZ, Jonny Martinez and Groupo iMas
When: 7 p.m.
Where: El Casino Ballroom, 437 E. 26th St.
Tickets: $20 at the door
What: The celebration continues for the El Casino Ballroom’s 60th birthday bash with food, prizes, more famous artists and local performers Viva Arizona Dancers, Folklorico Flor San Juan, mariachi groups from Pueblo, Sunnyside and Tucson High schools and music from Los Naughty Dogs, Se Salen,Latido, and Relente.
When: 1 p.m.
Where: El Casino Ballroom, 437 E. 26th St.