At one time — before Interstate 630 sliced through downtown — Taborian Hall and its upstairs Dreamland Ballroom on the corner of W. Ninth and State streets was a grand place, full of life and culture. Black-owned businesses occupied the bottom two floors, and upstairs, famous performers like Etta James, Cab Calloway, B.B. King and Ella Fitzgerald serenaded swarms of music lovers.
According to Berna J. Love’s book, “Temple of Dreams,” the building was conceived in 1916 as a Grand Temple and Tabernacle for the International Order of Twelve Knights and Daughters of the Tabor in Arkansas. The African American fraternal organization and benevolence society was primarily concerned with aiding their members in sickness and distress and protecting and defending their widows and orphans, she writes.
After two years of construction, the building was finished in 1918 and was a gem in downtown’s crown. In an Arkansas Democrat article dated August 31, 1918, the three-storied building was identified as one of two “skyscrapers” on W. Ninth Street. Coming in at $65,000 to complete, the author said the building featured a first floor with four or five large storerooms, a second floor with lodge rooms and five large, well-lighted and ventilated offices, and a third floor devoted to restrooms, an auditorium, etc., that was “cozy and comfortable and strictly modern in its appointments.”
For much of Taborian Hall’s almost 100 years, it stood regally “at the center of life on the ‘Line,’ the city’s long-gone African-American Main Street that ran from Broadway down W. Ninth to the trolley stop at High Street, now named Martin Luther King Drive,” Love wrote in her book. “‘Ninth Street was the black folk’s hang-out,’ as Leon Majors, a retired businessman and nightclub owner, aptly put it, and Taborian Hall was in the middle of all the action.”
But as the W. Ninth Street community fell into decline in the 1970s, Taborian Hall and its Dreamland Ballroom went with it. According to Love, by 1980 Taborian Hall was vacant. It was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, but by 1990 it still stood forgotten.
It was around this time that North Little Rock native Kerry McCoy was driving past it every day as she made the short trip from her home in Hillcrest to North Little Rock, where she owned Arkansas Flag & Banner. “I would see it just off Interstate 630, and I thought about how wonderful it would be to have my business there. It had great visibility,” McCoy remembers.
Due to Operation Desert Storm, American flag sales had recently gone through the roof, and McCoy seized the opportunity to move to the larger location she’d been eyeing.
The bottom floors of the building were about what she expected, but she had no idea what surprises the third floor held. After carefully climbing the staircase to the top, McCoy found herself in an expansive ballroom in a serious state of disrepair. The ceiling had fallen in, beams were burned and broken and walls were barely standing. But McCoy could see beyond the decaying structure to what the ballroom once was and what it could again be. She spied ornate balconies, a grand stage and unique circular windows that looked out over the city. To this day she describes her first time seeing the ballroom as “spiritual.”
“I didn’t know the ballroom was up there when I bought it,” she says, “but I immediately fell in love with it and wanted to save and preserve it. It was a piece of history I didn’t want us to lose. I’ve had developers, restaurants and clubs approach me to move into the space, but I’ve said no. I never wanted to tear it up.”
So McCoy set up a nonprofit — Friends of Dreamland — to raise funds to carefully rehabilitate the Dreamland Ballroom. A group of like-minded, but diverse community leaders sit on the board, including board chair Cindy Steele, who is an aesthetician at Advanced Aesthetics and also the chairperson of the ballroom’s signature annual fundraiser, Dancing Into Dreamland.
Among other things, Steele shares McCoy’s sentiments about the magic that permeates Dreamland. She recalls the first time she saw the ballroom, “There was no floor to speak of at the time, but I saw her vision of restoring the space and was soon addicted to her enthusiasm. I could envision the entertainers Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway on that stage, saw the liveliness of the space that once was.”
Steele, along with other board members, like Kathleen King — whose grandmother Frankie Childress-Nowell used to book acts at Dreamland — put on the first two Dreamland fundraisers at the Governor’s Mansion. “We had Mercedes Ellington, Duke’s granddaughter from New York,” Steele recalls. “She herself was a great entertainer. From these fundraisers we’ve been able to floor the ballroom, add two new bathrooms and complete the balconies.”
Upon completion of the aforementioned projects, Dancing into Dreamland was moved into Dreamland Ballroom, where the enchantment of the space’s long-ago performances is palpable. “I love the feeling of being in the space where so many legendary performers entertained. When it’s lit up at night, the feeling and the energy of the past patrons, entertainers and dancers is electric,” Steele beams.
This year marks Steele’s second to chair Dancing into Dreamland, a Nov. 15 dance competition that will feature seven to 10 dancers performing everything from tap and swing to Latin and ballroom dances. Guests will have the opportunity to vote on their favorites, too. The $65 ticket price includes dinner, beer, wine and a signature cocktail, the “Pink Lady.” The jazz dance group Arkansas Weather will provide additional entertainment, and a silent auction will offer guests a chance to bid on exclusive getaways, dance lessons, art, jewelry and more. Proceeds will benefit Friends of Dreamland’s initiatives to bring the history and musical legacy of Taborian Hall and Dreamland Ballroom to Arkansans.
Adding to the excitement of the evening, Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN) will film the competition as part of a Dreamland documentary the network is working on.
“[The film crew] has been following the board around at different venues, including Loblolly Creamery, where they named an ice cream after us, ‘Dreamland a Berry,’ and profits went to our building fund,” Steele says. “They most recently filmed our ‘Pave the Way to Dreamland’ fundraiser, where we sold bricks to try and pay for a new entry to the ballroom.”
Heating and air are also on the agenda for improving the space, Steele says, but the highest priority is obtaining enough money for an elevator ($500,000) so the space can be accessible to a wider audience.
“We’ll just do this one large fundraiser a year until something big happens,” says McCoy, who is a self-described optimist. “Maybe someone will fall in love with Dreamland and help us put an elevator in it and save it for the city of Little Rock. It is truly a treasure that needs to be saved.”
Dancing into Dreamland
Where: Dreamland Ballroom, 800 W. Ninth
When: 7-10 p.m., Friday, Nov. 15
Tickets: $65 per person
Info: 255-5700, DreamlandBallroom.org