El Casino Ballroom was born dancing, 75 years ago

The 75th anniversary celebration of Tucson’s El Casino Ballroom is coming up this Saturday and Sunday with a free event featuring the type of music and dance events that made it Tucson’s original community center.

It is no exaggeration to say that El Casino Ballroom has been an agent of positive change throughout its history. A place where family, friends and complete strangers have for 75 years come together in a civil manner to celebrate culture and one another. People on all sides of every issue, of every shade of color and every religion have strutted their cumbia moves together around that dance floor, in days when such mingling was not greeted with warmth everywhere in Tucson, and today when doing those brave dances long ago has made it easier for all of us to be the people we are. 

A place literally torn apart by winds and put back together by a self-reliant group of ordinary people who came to love what this humble space does for us all.

El Casino Ballroom was born dancing.

Back in the 1940s, Tucson was hopping with clubs. People loved to dance and a variety of ballrooms around town catered to that community need. Tucson’s Mexican American population in particular developed its own ways of gathering and dancing and favorite haunts, in spite of prevailing segregation and discrimination of the day.

Popular with local Mexican American and Native American young people were such ballrooms as La Silva, Bob’s Place, the original Blue Moon, the Victoria (later the Del Rio) and more scattered around town. The Blue Moon was the big hot spot in its day, located roughly where the Tucson Inn now stands near Oracle and Drachman.
Mexican American dance lovers of the generation remember The Blue Moon particularly fondly, saying “Sunday was our day.” Which was their way of politely saying that they were not necessarily welcome at the club any other day of the week, but on Sundays, they danced at the Blue Moon. These were times when the Fox Theatre had the so-called “brown bag” rule — if your skin was darker than a brown paper bag you had to sit upstairs. And while discrimination in Tucson was less overt than the Deep South, it was undeniably there.

The Blue Moon burned to the ground in the mid-1940s and a vacuum was created. Up stepped Ramon Siqueiros, Adolfo Loustaunau and Benjamin Jacobs who hatched the idea of a giant gathering place that would become El Casino Ballroom. Siqueiros was a builder and he designed the ballroom, which boasted the largest dance floor in the state of Arizona. Jacobs handled the financial side of the business while Loustaunau became the public host to myriad activities from concerts to parties, quinceañeras, wedding receptions, anniversary celebrations, political rallies, cultural celebrations, clubs for youth and much more.

Aware of the sting of segregation and seeing that it’s just bad business to discriminate, the owners deliberately made El Casino Ballroom open to all. Consequently when the white clubs would not allow such acts, El Casino Ballroom’s giant dance floor moved to the beat of James Brown, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ike and Tina Turner, the traveling blues reviews, Motown artists, Fats Domino and many more African American artists, along with the top tier stars of Mexican and Latin music from hometown favorite Lalo Guerrero to such legends as Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Lola Beltran, Lucha Reyes, Trio Los Panchos, Tito Puente, Perez Prado, Little Joe y La Familia and Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan to name but a representative few. 

Republican and Democratic candidates likewise saw the spacious ballroom as an ideal gathering ground to meet the voters, with the likes of Mo Udall and Barry Goldwater, Raul Grijalva and many others kicking off campaigns at El Casino Ballroom.
There is a famous story of the Goldwater campaign team stopping by to check out ECB. The guys in suits probed around the hall and its facilities, snagging then-manager Butch Martinez to report that the hall was beautiful but they had concerns about the bathroom because Mrs. Goldwater might need it to freshen up. 

Martinez replied, “Mrs. Martinez uses the ladies room all the time and it works just fine.”

And that was that.

In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s the hall was home to a variety of clubs for young women, most notably the popular Club Mavis, which prepared young women for their entrance into society circles. For boys there was the Club Mariachi. Loustaunau took young members of the Club Mariachi to Nogales to see live groups, brought professional groups in to perform at ECB and even hosted a field trip to Guadalajara where a young club member named Tony Garcia would have a chance meeting with Silvestre Vargas of Mariachi Vargas and strike up a penpal friendship with the venerable mariachi legend. 

Garcia would go on to be one of the founding members of Tucson’s first home-grown mariachi, Los Tucsonenses. 

Throughout its history El Casino Ballroom has been home base to the best Mexican American and Latin groups, from the big band era of Louie Leon’s band to early rock, the whole range of youth mariachis from Los Changuitos Feos forward, plus Arizona’s best Tejano and norteño groups, launching Adalberto Gallegos’ career with internationally renowned group The Latin Breed and becoming home to such favorites as Love LTD, the Poor Boys, and later Relente, MyZterio, Los Hermanos Cuatro, the Festival Band and countless others.

In the 1980s, community radio station KXCI was hunting for a place big enough and with the right vibe to host its House Rockin’ Concerts. Early KXCI station engineer Paul Bear had been turned on to ECB while he was an engineer for Spanish language stations in Tucson. In particular, his memory of legendary recording and screen artist Lola Beltrán at ECB and the powerful connection she made with that crowd convinced him that the ballroom had the magic they sought. 

With fellow KXCI promoter Jeb Schoonover and the staff, KXCI began promoting shows for a whole new audience with such favorites as Queen Ida, Buckwheat Zydeco, ,the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and many more.
A discussion at the bar among Bear, Schoonover and then-bartender Fred Martinez (currently manager of ECB) about who they would most like at see at the venue hatched the both the idea for and the actual creation of a supergroup with Flaco Jimenez, Doug Sahm and Freddy Fender. 

The KXCI poster for the event – a drawing depicting a twister whirling across a map of Texas – gave the nameless Southwestern band its very famous handle: The Texas Tornados.

For decades, Sunday afternoons have seen El Casino Ballroom turned over without charge to nonprofit groups to hold fundraising events, often featuring local youth and professional mariachis and myriad performers from the local Tejano music scene. These range from events to raise money for cancer treatments to family assistance with the burial of loved ones, numerous school program fundraisers – really any community need. 

But in 1991, a microburst ripped half of the roof off the 1,000-person occupancy hall. 

Devastated and without funds to do the necessary repairs, the Latin American Social Club, which owns and operates El Casino Ballroom, had to drop back and examine options. The hall sat dormant for eight years, at one point nearly being sold for the creation of self-storage units. But a conversation at the still-intact Latin American Social Club bar, where the current bar stands, among patrons and friends brought the realization that the talent pool to do the repairs was sitting there on those stools. Some knew how to do electrical work and plumbing. Others knew roofing, dry wall, etc. 

And so a team of volunteers came together, working nights after their day jobs and weekends to restore the half of the building that still had a roof. They were paid in beer and the knowledge that they could use the hall themselves for an event sometime. 

It took a couple of years but the lights of El Casino Ballroom came back on in 2000 and events started booking again.

Tucson took a while to get back up to speed, not knowing it was back, and a whole generation was deprived of the ECB experience. But by 2012 it was roaring back, with KXCI returning and many more finding the historic gathering place just right for more weddings, quinceañeras, family gatherings, concerts, fundraisers, awards ceremonies, community celebrations, etc. Kids were back sliding across the floor and learning their first dance moves again. The Tucson Pima Arts Council used it for its Lumies celebration of top Tucson artists and brought in Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta to take the vibe back to its early years, with a contemporary twist.

Technically the 75th anniversary of the hall was 2022, but COVID concerns resulted in the event being postponed. Now all is ready, and a hellacious range of talent representative of the great music and dance the hall has hosted has been booked. Check out the poster attached with the whole schedule, address, etc. It’s going to be a big time.

For so many generations El Casino Ballroom has stepped up over and over so that Tucsón can step forward. It is a place of local lore and history wrapped in warm memories, family stories, timeless musical hooks, myriad dance steps and piles of old photos. Step on in, step out on the dance floor and be a part of it as Tucson’s past, present and future come together again!