Best Of Tucson®

Southside Delight

El Casino Ballroom continues its tradition of offering the community a fun place to celebrate.

The year was 1947. World War II was a recent memory. Veterans gathered at local bars and told war stories. Beer was 25 cents a bottle.

Tony Preciado remembers it well.

Preciado, a 78-year-old Naval veteran, served 30 months oversees and fought in four engagements in the South Pacific. In 1947, he was a 22-year-old newlywed living on East 23rd Street.

"One night, we were sitting on the porch and heard music. We went for a walk to see where it was and found it." He had just discovered the newly built El Casino Ballroom.

"After that, we were here every Saturday night. We came to a lot of big-time dances, weddings and anniversaries here. We paid 50 cents an hour for a babysitter. My wife bought a new dress and shoes each weekend," recalls Preciado. "There's nothing like the old days."

Memories are part of the fabric of El Casino Ballroom.

"It's a place people remember special times, their first dance, when they met," says Ed Lopez. Lopez is the president of the Board of Directors of the Latin American Social Club--the nonprofit that owns El Casino Ballroom. He even has a few memories of his own.

The year was 1963. "My wife and I had our first dance here. I was in the Air Force and had come home on leave. I danced with her not knowing later in life we'd meet again," says Lopez. They were married five years later.

The ballroom's history has its own tapestry.

"In the '40s, this was basically the community center for the Hispanic culture," says Fred Martinez, manager of El Casino Ballroom. "In the '50s, this is where the road shows used to come through--Benny Goodman, Fats Domino, you name it. It was the only place that could hold (more than) 1,000 people."

In 1970, the Latin American Social Club purchased the ballroom. Two years later, the building was expanded. In the mid-'80s, El Casino hosted KXCI and KLPX dances and concerts.

"I saw everything from hard rock to reggae to blues. Los Lobos played here on a Tuesday and Wednesday night to sold-out crowds. There was a packed crowd of 1,200 to 1,300," says Martinez.

But that all ended on a stormy night.

The year was 1991. Rain and wind raged on an October evening. The storm racked havoc on the ballroom. Part of the roof blew off. El Casino closed. The music died.

The following year, Ed Lopez arrived with a vision.

"We came in to see what we could do to help the current management. My goal was to bring back El Casino Ballroom for the Tucson community. It was the place to have your event. All the promoters used to come here. The goal was to be able to continue as one of the places in town people can rent, have a concert, have a good time and celebrate any kind of event people need to do," says Lopez.

But there were obstacles in the way of his goal.

"We started attending meetings and found out we were at least $200,000 in the hole. The responsibility was the Latin American Social Club. So our plans to bring back El Casino Ballroom had to be put on hold to get the club out of a financial disaster. ... We managed to unseat the whole board, and new board members came in," says Lopez. He became president of the board in 1992.

"It took us seven years to pay the back taxes," says Lopez. "Since 1992, we've been able to implement positive changes, financial accountability changes, changes to amendments and bylaws to where there was accountability."

The tide was changing.

The year was 2001. After whispered rumors about its fate, the ballroom rose up from the ashes. Its doors opened for business in February. By April, it was hosting Buckwheat Zydeco.

El Casino was back.

"I always used to say if we open the doors, they will come back. And they did. That's one of the beauties of this place. The traditions and culture of the place lives on. It hasn't died. It's gotten stronger," says Martinez.

He should know. He's been working at El Casino for more than 20 years.

"My dad used to manage the place in the late '60s, early '70s. I started here in the seventh grade. I used to clean up afterwards. There was never a weekend off," he says.

"The one thing that was consistent and never failed is that you always ran into people you hadn't seen in years. They all ended up here for some reason. ... In the Hispanic community, they say if you're from Tucson, there's two places you always go--El Casino Ballroom and Carrillo Mortuary," says Martinez.

But before the mortuary, El Casino awaits.

The famous dance floor measures 45 feet wide by 60 feet long. It hosts a variety of events including norteño and other musical concerts, traditional weddings, dances, quinceñieras, company parties and fund-raisers.

While the ballroom is back, Lopez and his board have more goals.

"Now we're in the process of restructuring the bylaws (of the club), the way it's operated, to where it's going to be run by committees. There will be seven committees, each chaired by a board member with specific functions that they must accomplish during the year. That will take the load off the president and manager," says Lopez.

Besides restructuring the Latin American Social Club, Lopez has plans to remodel the ballroom.

"We saved and restored two-thirds of the dance floor. There's still another third. We plan to put on a new floor and match the existing floor. Our goal is to have two sides of the building. One-half will be the historical half. The other will be the new half. There will be an accordion door in the middle, making it possible to have one huge function or two simultaneous functions," says Lopez.

Martinez is happy about plans for expansion. He says quinceñieras are often booked two years in advance, with some people being turned away. Having a larger facility will keep more parties going.

The year is 2003. El Casino continues its traditions with a distinctive atmosphere. Memories are sweet. Ed and Olivia Lopez celebrated her parents' 50th and 60th anniversaries. Tony Preciado's daughter enjoyed her college graduation party. Fred Martinez's daughter celebrated her wedding. Other families are on their third generation of weddings.

"This place has an aura to it. It has its own ambiance. It just feels right to continue," says Martinez.

Lopez also sees the tradition enduring long after he is gone.

"I'm not one to try to take credit for something this big. It's bigger than us. It's something that's going to continue for generations."