It takes courage to build a business from the ground up, but moving it to a derelict, century-old building verges on foolishness. Foolish or not, that is just what Kerry McCoy did when she moved Arkansas Flag and Banner to its dream home – the Taborian Hall at 800 West Ninth Street in Little Rock, Arkansas. Inspired by her love for the building, the risky decision allowed her company to expand and revitalized interest in the nearly forgotten history of West Ninth Street.
“My mother likes to say, metaphorically, ‘Kerry jumps off buildings and builds her wings on the way down.’ I don’t know if that makes me brave or crazy, but it is a good analogy of the way I have lived my life,” McCoy said.
It was with this sink-or-soar attitude that McCoy founded Arkansas Flag and Banner in 1975. After graduating from a fashion design school in Dallas, she began selling flags with Betsy Ross Flag Girl. She moved back to Little Rock a year later and, unable to find work during the recession, used her savings to start her own flag business.
She worked alone in those early years, selling flags door to door. Rising gas prices forced her to switch to a telemarketing tactic, and then to a mail-order operation after she had her first child. The Persian Gulf War caused patriotism to soar in 1990, and the increased demand for flags made it a banner year for the small company.
“Once the dust settled, I counted our money and made a plan for an Arkansas Flag and Banner expansion,” McCoy said.
She had married her husband in 1987, but McCoy had another infatuation. She had driven by the Taborian Hall on Interstate 630 for some years and said she husband, Grady, dreamed of the grand old building housing her flag shop. The three-story Classical structure was indeed splendid, but was marred by a huge hole in the roof – the result of decades of abandonment. Nonetheless, McCoy said the building called to her.
“One day, I had to go in,” she said. “The first time, I didn’t make it past the first floor before I heard voices, became spooked and ran out.” Homeless people were sheltering there at the time, and McCoy was pregnant with her third child and unaccompanied. Eventually, she made it past the debris and up to the third floor.
“Coming out into the open, I found what had been calling me – the Dreamland Ballroom. It was a spiritual experience for me,” McCoy said. Despite the wreckage, she felt the haunting, mysterious quality visitors still say they feel when they enter the ballroom. Perhaps it is the ghosts of the past demanding recognition.
The Sons and Daughters of the Knights of Tabor, a black investment group, built the Taborian Hall in 1916. In those days, West Ninth Street was a thriving business district and the cornerstone of the black community in Little Rock, which was then subjected to the harsh segregation of the Jim Crow South. The hall housed a pharmacy, a photographer’s studio, offices and various clubs, but the Dreamland Ballroom, also known as Club Morocco, was the most renowned. From the 1920s to the 1960s, it hosted legendary performers including Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Etta James and B.B. King.
Black businesses and clubs had spread throughout Little Rock by the 1970s, and the street became empty and crime-ridden.
The Taborian Hall watched as its neighbors fell into disrepair and were demolished. Despite its placement on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, many feared it would suffer the same fate.
McCoy was not about to let that happen. She bought the building in 1990 and began work on the roof and first floor. Despite legal, financial and environmental hurdles, Flag and Banner moved into its new home that year.
“There will always be obstacles to overcome, and you take each one as they appear, ” McCoy said. “Saving the Taborian Hall had many obstacles. I have a rule that, when trying something new, you push hard until you hit a brick wall. Then you know it is time to re-evaluate.”
The company continued to grow and restoration efforts expanded to the second floor, where McCoy installed offices and a sewing room. The Taborian Hall accommodated Flag and Banner when it launched its website, FlagandBanner.com. It also allowed the company to open its first-floor showroom, where walk-in guests can browse patriotic gifts and apparel, as well as flags.
“Naively, I thought the Dreamland Ballroom would be the next easy step,” McCoy said, but the third floor remained in ruins well into the new millennium. The cost of restoring the majestic ballroom was too great for the small business.
“There’s a reason ballrooms are no longer in America; the business model doesn’t work in the 21st century. Most old ballrooms have either been converted to restaurants and apartments or torn down completely,” McCoy said.
She founded Friends of Dreamland, a non-profit group, to help meet the renovation expenses. In 2011, the million-dollar restoration began. The floor, stage and balconies were the first projects. Although the ballroom is functional now, the next step will be to make it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act by adding an elevator.
Friends of Dreamland rely on donations and have launched several fundraising campaigns. The ongoing Buy-a-Brick campaign allows donors to purchase an engraved brick to be fixed outside the building. To Buy-a-Brick visit www.dreamlandballroom.org and click on the Donate button. During Dancing into Dreamland, another popular fundraiser, dancers compete in front of an audience and a panel of local judges. First held at the Governor’s Mansion, it now takes place in the ballroom each November. For weeks before the big night, McCoy rushes around the building, making last-minute fixes and even cooking the event’s menu. Visit dreamlandballroom.org for ways you can donate to the non-profit’s various fundraising projects.
Buy a Brick…and be invited to the Brick Dedication Ceremony. Visit www.dreamlandballroom.org and click on Donate to order.
The Dreamland Ballroom has hosted weddings, parties and concerts. It is a popular spot for photographers and has served as a studio for local painters. It has even acted as a rehearsal space for an aerial silk dancer due to the high ceilings. Showroom visitors often request a tour of the ballroom, and, upon seeing it, their eyes light up with the same wonder McCoy experienced more than 20 years ago.
Not only has the restoration added prestige to Flag and Banner, it has rejuvenated local interest in the history of West Ninth Street. McCoy said she feels vindicated when she shares the building’s story with young people who have no idea of its importance to the black community, providing an economical culture and entertainment during the oppressive segregation years.
Flag and Banner now carries two books about the street’s history: “End of the Line: A History of Little Rock’s West Ninth Street” and “Temple of Dreams: The Taborian Hall and its Dreamland Ballroom,” both by local author Berna J. Love. In addition, AETN is working on a documentary that will showcase restoration efforts as well as the ballroom’s historical significance.
McCoy has already enriched her community by restoring the hall, but said she intends to expand her business further, and thereby improve the local economy and culture. Recognizing that the current pattern of large corporations holding a global monopoly on a single product is unsustainable, she said she plans to diversify her business on a local level.
“I envision the revitalization of my Ninth Street corridor, with Arkansas Flag and Banner being the anchor tenant and a destination specialty store,” she said. “With baby steps, I would like the Taborian Hall building and home of Arkansas Flag and Banner to grow into a mini-mall, with a coffee shop, lunch clientele, meeting rooms and, of course, tours of the famous Dreamland Ballroom.” She added that Flag and Banner would continue manufacturing custom flags and shipping products across the world, and that she would also like to design and sell American-made patriotic clothing.
West Ninth Street is a little quieter than it was in its heyday, but the restoration of the Taborian Hall has given the area new purpose. At the heart of the efforts is one brave woman who fell in love with the building. “In some inexplicable way,” she said, “I know I am the person who was called to save the Taborian Hall and its’ Dreamland Ballroom.”
If you would like to help Kerry McCoy and the Friends of Dreamland Ballroom you can visit www.dreamlandballroom.org and click on the Donate button or call 501.255.5700.