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The Paramount Ballroom
In April 1949, an advertisement in the Los Angeles Times announced the grand opening of a new dance studio at 2706-08 Brooklyn Avenue directed by Eduardo Cansino, “the father and teacher of Rita Hayworth.” Offering classes in, “Spanish, Mexican, flamenco, tap, ballet, and boogie woogie,” the dance studio was one new component of a vibrant Mexican-American cultural center in postwar Boyle Heights, the Paramount Ballroom.2
The building’s new owner, Adolph Franco, divided the building into two spaces for live music and dancing–the upstairs ballroom and a nightclub and café on the ground level. The venue featured mostly Cuban, tropical, or Latin dance music groups with bandleaders that were Cubans, Puerto Ricans, or Mexican Americans, such as Johnny Martínez, Albertico Pérez, and Rudy Macías. The Paramount also hosted special events and dance parties featuring local doo-wop and R&B groups, including those hosted by popular local radio DJ Dick "Huggy Boy" Hugg who broadcast the performances live. These dance parties were often interracial gatherings where black, brown, and Jewish people danced, performed, and listened together, challenging the racially-segregationist housing and development policies that had transformed the neighborhood by asserting their own forms of collectivity and belonging. In turn, the Paramount, along with Lalo’s Nightclub at 4209 Brooklyn Ave. and Club Culiacán at 4161 E. Brooklyn Ave., became an important progenitor of the Eastside Chicano rock sound of the 1950s and 1960s.3
In his essay, “Listening Across Boundaries,” ethnomusicologist David F. García described the import of the building at 2706-2708 Brooklyn Avenue this way:
In the late 1970s and 1980s, a new Eastside sound found a home in the building at 2706-2708 Brooklyn Avenue: punk rock. Aiming to create a venue for local Chicano/a punk bands that would rival the more famous clubs in Hollywood, promoter Joe Vex, artist Willie Herron, and members of Los Illegals began renting halls in East L.A. to host concerts. Sister Karen Boccalero, a Catholic nun who founded an arts center, studio, and gallery space called Self-Help Graphics, offered the upstairs hall in her building where “The Vex” was born. Bringing together visual, mural, and graffiti artists with local bands like Los Illegals, The Brat, The Plugz (later the Cruzados), and the Zeros, The Vex soon moved into other venues, including the former home of the Paramount Ballroom, the building providing a space where a new generation of “punk rock pachucos” could manifest their own form of Chicano/a social consciousness and nurture their East L.A. punk sound.4
Much has been written about the Eastside Sound of the 1960s, in terms of both its eclectic stylistic characteristics…and its political resonance as a voice of the Chicano youth of East Los Angeles. What the Paramount Ballrooms of the 1920s and the 1960s do to this history is open new modes of listening to Boyle Heights’ eclecticisms and resonances, from those encompassing Communist Party activism to classes in Mexican, flamenco, and boogie woogie dance, broadcasts of doo wop, and making and dancing to música tropical, Latin music, and Cuban son. Likewise, listening spatially to the Paramount Ballroom–its distance from the higher-scheduled, upper-class, and “hotter” venues of musicking and dancing in downtown and Hollywood–and its Cuban musical histories lends further insight into how this building and the movement and soundings within it were always already entangled in a wider web of musical, social and political forces.
Unfortunately, after a concert-goer was killed in a drive-by shooting at the Jack In the Box across the street, The Vex moved on to other locations and for years, the building at 2706-2708 Cesar Chavez Avenue remained empty and boarded-up. But since 2010, a historic restoration has been underway, aiming to remake the ballroom as one of L.A.’s premier concert venues once again. The building’s new owner, Frank Acevedo, also wants it to function as a center for the local community to honor its historical legacy, and has opened the ground-floor space, once home to the Cooperative Café and the Vex, to the Boyle Heights Art Conservancy (BHAC). An eclectic cultural and educational center, the BHAC aims to expose neighborhood residents, particularly young people, to Los Angeles’ various creative arts industries.
The BHAC hosts a wide range of activities, from classes in coding, screenwriting, DJ-ing, and film and radio production to musical performances, gallery shows, and weekly Dungeons and Dragons meet-ups. To learn more about the BHAC and its work, visit their website at bharts.org.