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Community News: South

SOUTH-CENTRAL : Bluesroom Opening Hits a High Note

November 06, 1994|ENRIQUE LAVIN

Edwin N. Thomas chuckled when he recalled what the 5-4 Ballroom was like in its heyday some 45 years ago.

"I saw James Brown here before he knew how to dance," said Thomas, 76, a retired postal worker who earned the moniker "Mr. 5-4 Ballroom" for his dancing prowess.

The historic 5-4 opened the doors recently to its Bluesroom, a concert hall beneath the ballroom, where jazz and blues legends Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie performed to huge crowds.

The reopening Oct. 28 of the Bluesroom, which included a blues concert and presentation of 13 framed enlargements of jazz and blues commemorative stamps donated by the U.S. Postal Service, was a precursor to the ballroom's slated opening in March, 1995.

Margie Evans, the club's promoter and an accomplished blues singer, has lead the campaign to reopen the ballroom, working closely with club owner Oliver Wilson, a Cal State Dominguez Hills political science professor with a keen interest in the blues.

"The 5-4 Ballroom is to South-Central Los Angeles what the Apollo Theater is to Harlem," said Evans, who has performed extensively here and abroad and has five CDs out on European labels.

The two-story brick building was built in 1922 on what was then the corner of 54th and Moneta. In its early days, the upstairs dance hall featured primarily jazz and big band music played by whites for a mostly white crowd.

As the racial makeup of the area shifted from white to black, more black artists performed at the club before black audiences.

Within 10 blocks on Broadway--the new name for Moneta--numerous blues venues sprouted, including the defunct Dixie Club at 59th Street and Cotton Club at 50th.

In his 20s and early 30s, Thomas danced to live blues, jazz and R&B on a 4,000-square-foot floor cluttered with hundreds of people from all over Los Angeles. Performers included Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and B.B. King--for a $1.25 cover charge.

"All the greats and anybody who was anybody was here," said Thomas, a Watts resident. "Ike and Tina (Turner) used to dance among us while they performed. On nights like those, you couldn't even move."

From the late 1940s to 1968, the ballroom hosted such legendary artists as Nat King Cole, Muddy Waters, Dina Washington and Otis Redding. They are portrayed in the enlarged stamps, which will hang atop the 5-4 building.

"You'd have to come before 10 or else you wouldn't be able to get in until midnight," Thomas said.

The crowds even kept out the club's future owner.

"I always attempted to go upstairs, but I never could because there were too many people. It was almost impossible to drive through here because of the traffic," said Wilson, who had moved to the area in the mid-1950s from New Orleans, where he was exposed to the blues as a child.

Until the club closed in the late '60s because of an economic decline in the area, Wilson danced at the ballroom only a handful of times. In 1980, he visited his brother's new garment-cutting business on Broadway. "As I walked around the building, my brother asked, 'Do you know where you are?' " Wilson recalled. "I didn't believe him when he said it was the 5-4 until he took me upstairs and showed me."

Wilson saw the original red-vinyl booths where regulars crowded to watch the greats perform. The bandstand and a haunting aura of a bygone era were all that was left of the 5-4 Wilson knew.

"The sweeping view was unbelievable," Wilson said. "At that moment, I told my brother I wanted to buy the building." Less than a month later, the 5-4 was Wilson's for $400,000, which he paid out of his own pocket.

It took close to 15 years and an additional $850,000 in loans to bring the building up to health and safety codes and renovate the interior.

The ballroom will include a New Orleans-style restaurant, two bars, Venice chandeliers and a rooftop terrace. A high-tech sound system is being installed, and the original bandstand is being refurbished. The ballroom and supper club will accommodate 1,000 patrons.

"If you listen closely you might be able to hear a friendly ghost," said Evans, pointing to the stage. "This is the real House of Blues," she said, referring to the popular new blues venue on Sunset Boulevard.

In May and July, Evans organized benefit concerts to raise funds for matinee music performances for children and for the 5-4 Optimist Club, an organization she founded to promote cultural awareness and lift the self-esteem of area youths.

Before the March reopening, Evans plans to have a few more fund-raisers, including a concert Dec. 16-18 featuring blues legend Charles Brown, who recently completed a tour with Bonnie Raitt. "Now there's going to be a place the youth can go," Thomas said. "This is what we did every weekend."

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