Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

El Casino Ballroom to be restored to 1940s glory

$600,000 renovation in works for S. Side venue

El Casino Ballroom in its heyday in 1980

El Casino Ballroom in its heyday in 1980

In October 1991 a Tucson landmark almost bit the dust.

Or rather the dust almost bit it.

A giant windstorm tore the roof off the southeast side of El Casino Ballroom and sent it sailing into the parking lot.

Fortunately, the storm happened when none of the usual functions at the venue was taking place.

Unfortunately, it would take nine years to get El Casino back in business, and even then at only half its original size.

But as the ballroom marks its 60th anniversary with a big concert and party Friday and Saturday (see story in Calendar), it also marks a new beginning for the beloved South Tucson hall. With the debt nearly retired from fixing the west wing of the building, the building’s owner – Tucson’s Latin American Social Club, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year – is about to go back in debt to restore the hall to its original 1,000-person capacity, or even larger.

The estimated cost: $600,000 plus.

Social Club president Edward Lopez is undaunted. “The best is yet to come,” he promised.

After opening its doors in 1947, El Casino Ballroom became the favorite haunt of music lovers from both the Hispanic and Anglo communities. From its stage, all the major recording stars of Mexico, from Lola Beltran to José Alfredo Jiménez and Pedro Infante, performed for packed crowds of dancers.

Similarly, it was the home to all the major big bands and rock ‘n’ and roll road shows, including Fats Domino and Little Richard. In the 1980s, the dance hall became home to community radio station KXCI-FM’s House Rocking Series, and a whole new crowd discovered the El Casino magic.

It was also Tucson’s headquarters for Hispanic cultural celebrations, from weddings and quinceañeras to parties, political rallies and Mexican holidays.

Then the roof blew off.

“People don’t know how close it came to closure,” says current El Casino manager Fred Martinez, whose father, Raul “Butch” Martinez, managed the club until the mid-1970s.

The Fire Department condemned the building after the storm. Martinez, a bartender at El Casino at the time, and then-manager Al Martinez (no relation) scurried to help folks who had booked the hall find an alternative for their events.

As the weeks and months passed, there didn’t seem to be much going on with the LASC board to get El Casino back up and running.

In 1992, Fred Martinez recruited Lopez, a former postal auditor, to the LASC board and together they oversaw the election of a new board.

Meanwhile, Lopez conducted an audit of the club’s finances and discovered they were in deep trouble.

While the club had made money, it had pretty much lived hand to mouth, according to Lopez. Beer vendors, collection agencies and others demanded payment after the roof came off, and there was no money available to repay them. Federal and state taxes also were due.

Lopez and the board didn’t want to declare bankruptcy but no bank would help.

LASC put together a plan to borrow roughly $200,000 from friends and family to pay back all of El Casino’s creditors and begin repairing the structure.

Meanwhile Fred Martinez worked for months with a number of volunteers, among them Johnny Hernandez, Frank Amparano, Vince Amparano, Jesus Gastelum and the Cruz brothers (Lou, Natcho and George) to cover the gaping hole and put things in order to begin phase one of the reconstruction.

In 2000, El Casino was finally ready to open. But gun-shy beer vendors and others were reluctant to extend credit. Lopez recalls that they had to pay cash for everything.

Not long after the doors opened, the venue was booked solid for the next 18 months. It was only half as big as it once had been, but folks agreed that the vibe was still there.

The Latin American Social Club filed for and was granted 501(c)(3) not-for-profit status for El Casino. Over the past seven years, El Casino has worked hard to put its house in order.

The scars from that fateful storm still are apparent, even in the wake of partial reconstruction.

The restored west side of the building has a modern metal roof and air-conditioning units. The east side looks like a patchwork quilt, with hunks of corrugated metal alternating with sections of wood.

Lopez says they will have to demolish the east side and start construction from scratch.

Work could begin within the next year, Lopez said.

Lopez hopes that the anniversary celebration and the hard work that’s been put into retiring the debt will help LASC raise the cash to do the job.

“We want to bring back the other half so the El Casino can be the same size it was or even larger,” Lopez says. “We’ve worked hard to restore the public’s confidence.

“We’re creating new history here.”

Fred Martinez agrees.

“So many people all have a story, a memory, of the El Casino,” he says. “There’s so much rich culture and tradition here.

“We just couldn’t let it die.”

Chris Ponce and Stephanie Gonzales in the renovated half of the ballroom recently. Work could start within a year to repair the other half. Fundraising begins almost immediately.

Chris Ponce and Stephanie Gonzales in the renovated half of the ballroom recently. Work could start within a year to repair the other half. Fundraising begins almost immediately.


What: Celebrate 60 years of El Casino Ballroom with Los DesperadoZ,

Jonny Martinez, and Grupo iMas

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: El Casino Ballroom, 437 E. 26th St.

Tickets: $20 at the door



Share your El Casino memories

Latin American Social Club grants, bikes efforts growing

The real community center

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

In 2010, a power surge fried a server that contained all of videos linked to dozens of stories in this archive. Also, a server that contained all of the databases for dozens of stories was accidentally erased, so all of those links are broken as well. However, all of the text and photos that accompanied some stories have been preserved.

For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

Search site | Terms of service