“IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK” — EL CASINO BALLROOM.
“If them walls could talk,” El Casino Ballroom in Tucson, AZ, would be loquacious. Since its founding in 1947, El Casino has hosted thousands of weddings, quinceañeras, anniversaries, reunions and graduations; concerts by big-name stars as well as budding artists; political gatherings and fundraisers, and sponsored Christmas parties for low-income kids.
(Back in the day, a “casino” was a building that housed a social club and served as a public hall for music and dancing. Thus, naming a ballroom operated by the Latin American Club –today’s Latin American Social Club–“El Casino” was perfect.)
When I was growing up in the 1950s-1960s, there were other ballrooms catering to the Mexican American community: The Blue Moon by Barrio Pascua. The Riverside in downtown. The Am-Vets, which became Bob’s Ballroom, in Barrio Hollywood. La Victoria, which became the Del Rio, by Barrio Anita. El Latino by Barrio El Hoyo. The Porfirio Diaz, a few blocks west of El Casino in South Tucson.
But El Casino—the only one of these that still exists—was the gold standard. For one thing, it was bigger than the others. In its heyday El Casino could accommodate 1,000 people and was said to have the largest dance floor in town.
And El Casino was eclectic. The big bands of Lalo Robles and Louie Leon seamlessly transitioned from boleros like “Sabor a mí” to the swing sound of “In the mood” to polka-tempo “El corrido de Juan Charrasqueado” and had people jitterbugging to an instrumental version of “Rock around the clock.” Mexican stars of the 1950s such as Trío Los Panchos and Amalia Mendoza packed El Casino as did the budding Rock `n Roll stars Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Tina Turner.
In more modern times, the sounds of New Orleans-based jazz and Cajun zydeco bands and Tex-Mex acts such as Little Joe y La Familia rocked El Casino as did Los Lobos. “The Father of Chicano music,” Tucson’s own Lalo Guerrero, also graced the El Casino stage. Local musicologist Daniel Buckley, who produced a documentary of El Casino ( https://vimeo.com/47207526 ), noted that, “El Casino was hopping…up until the very day the roof blew off.” (More on that below.)
The phenomenon of ballrooms like El Casino in cities with a sizeable Mexican American community reflected the times. Segregation—in housing, education, public facilities—was the norm in the 1930s, `40s, and `50s. For example, El Casino’s Phoenix counterpart was the Calderón Ballroom. The “Chapito” Chavarría Orchestra was the mainstay band at the Calderón. A recent Arizona Republic article says that, “Chavarria knew his audience because he was….an American of Mexican descent living in metro Phoenix, which in the mid-20th century was highly segregated and had the nickname ‘the Alabama of the Southwest’.”
Mexican American ballrooms—most operated by social clubs which were outgrowths of the sociedades mutualistas (mutual-aid societies)—were part of our community’s antidote to the racial-ethnic segregation of those days.
But El Casino is not an historical artifact to be admired from afar. El Casino continues to make history and create memories. Within Tucson’s Mexican American community, El Casino is still the favored venue for weddings, quinceañeras, and such.
And El Casino is not just about music and dancing. Via its Board and members and the Latin American Social Club that operates it, El Casino is a major contributor to our community. Non-profit organizations often get El Casino for free or a discounted rate for their fundraisers, as do families raising money for medical or funeral expenses.
The El Casino Board and members sponsor annual Christmas parties for kids from low-income households. The 2013 Christmas Party fed and gave presents and treats to over 600 youngsters. For 10 years, El Casino hosted the “Bike in a Box” event, which gives out 500 bikes to kids every Christmas.
When Arizona and the Tucson Unified School District deemed that teaching Mexican American history and literature in Tucson schools was “illegal” and “un-American,” El Casino stood firmly on the right side of history. El Casino was made available to the community for events that supported our students, parents, and teachers.
In 1991, El Casino fell upon some hard times—a storm literally blew the roof off the south end of the building. Exposed to the elements, parts of the building fell into disrepair, and El Casino was eventually condemned by the City inspectors.
But El Casino has heart. Over nine (9) years, the Latin American Social Club and El Casino board members—with the help of community volunteers—repaired the building. But the damage to the east side of the building was so extreme that only the west side of the hall could be reopened in 2000. It has been fully booked since then.
El Casino still needs some work and has launched a major restoration and renovation drive and is appealing for help: “We, the El Casino Ballroom board members, continue to hold our heads up and continue to strive at giving back to the community through our Ballroom. Help us during our time of need in getting upgrades and renovations so that we may continue to help you, the community, during your times of need.”
Do your part—for history and for the future—by sending a check, made out to Latin American Social Club, to:
El Casino Ballroom
437 East 26th St.
Tucson, AZ 85713
Supporting our history and those who support us is always right to do. c/s
Copyright 2014 by Salomon Baldenegro. Photo #1 courtesy of Arizona Historical Society and used with permission. Photo#2 showing band leader Lalo Guerrero at El Casino courtesy of Dan Guerrero and used with permission. Photo #3 of Little Joe Hernández performing at El Casino courtesy of the Tucson Citizen and used with permission. Photo #4 courtesy of El Casino Ballroom and used with permission. Photo #5 showing a typical night at El Casino courtesy of EL Casino Ballroom and used with permission. Photo #6 showing reconstruction of El Casino after roof was blown off courtesy of Arizona Daily Star and used with permission.
To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org