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The Friends of Dreamland Ballroom, Matthew McCoy (Executive Director) Ryk St. Vincent, and Jeff Roper, sit down for a conversation with Kerry about the construction progress of the elevator extension on the Dreamland Ballroom, when they're planning a Grand Re-Opening, and how they are managing fundraising during the pandemic, after the cancellation of the annual Dancing into Dreamland fundraising event.
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[00:00:09] G: Welcome to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy, a production of flagandbanner.com. Through storytelling and conversational interviews, this weekly radio show and podcast offers listeners an insider’s view into the commonalities of successful people and the ups and downs of risk-taking. Connect with Kerry through her candid, funny, informative and always encouraging weekly blog.
Now, it's time for Kerry McCoy to get all up in your business.
[00:00:34] KM: Thank you, son Gray. Today Today on Up In Your Business with Kerry McCoy, we have not one, but three guests from the non-profit Friends of Dreamland Ballroom. Director Matthew McCoy and Board Member, Ryk St. Vincent, and Jeff Roper. If you haven't heard, or are wondering what the Friends of Dreamland Non-profit is, it's a group of everyday people who in 2009 united in the mission, or maybe I should say, vision of saving the Dreamland Ballroom.
Now you're thinking, what's the Dreamland Ballroom? It's the third floor of the Taborian Hall in Downtown Little Rock, Arkansas that was built in 1917 by the international order of Twelve Knights and Daughters of Tabor. Again, you're asking, who are the knights and daughters of Tabor? They are an African-American fraternal organization founded in 1846, an anti-slavery society, though credited for many good works, they may be best known as the sponsors of the Taborian Hospital, a black person's hospital.
I think of the services provided by the Knights and Daughters of Tabor as a government within a government, our country's first welfare system, negro Americans taking care of the sick, widowed and orphaned within their own community. It wasn't until 1935, 90 years later, that FDR established our current welfare system for all Americans, probably modeling it somewhat after what the knights and daughters had done.
In addition to the knights and daughters’ interesting and important history, there is the music legacy. It is believed that Dreamland was the smallest theater on the famous Chitlin’ Circuit, having hosted such greats as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Red Fox and Nat King Cole, just to name a few. 1990, the Taborian Hall was saved from the wrecking ball by me, Kerry McCoy. Currently, on the first and second floors is the home of flagandbanner.com.
Today, we're going to have a brave conversation to talk about everything. It is my great pleasure to welcome to the table, fellow visionaries, lovers of old buildings, music enthusiasts and endearing friends, Jeff Roper and Ryk St. Vincent and my son, Matthew McCoy. Welcome, guys.
[00:03:06] MM: Welcome. Oh, thank you.
[00:03:08] RSV: Hello.
[00:03:08] KM: You're going to have to behave. Hey mom, I love that. You all are going to have to behave. These are my cronies. We were just laughing before the show about behaving. All right, let's start at the beginning. Jeff, you're –
[00:03:21] RSV: Or not behaving.
[00:03:22] KM: Or not behaving. Jeff, you're in the hot seat first. You were one of my first recruits, a founding board member of the Friends of Dreamland Ballroom. Tell everyone what your current career is and about our first meeting.
[00:03:42] JR: Well, currently I’m the Family Services Director for Habitat for Humanity, which is a fantastic organization. I’m very happy to have in the pandemic, gained a new job. You may remember, I was working for you at the time at Flag and Banner, so it did cost you an employee.
[00:03:58] KM: I know, but it was worth it. Everybody, give an applaud for Habitat for Humanity. When he came in and said, “Kerry, I got some good news and bad news. I’m quitting, but I’m going to work for the Habitat for Humanity.” I said, “Oh, my God. Jeff. That's so good.” All right.
[00:04:12] JR: You and I met, the Root Cafe was having a pre-one year anniversary fundraiser at docks. I got invited to go. I was there. Aside from meeting you, the thing I remember most is there was a dude there that had his hair in dreads and he had a jacket on. Something looked a little off. He had a rat on his shoulder that would walk back and forth across the top of his back.
[00:04:46] KM: What?
[00:04:47] JR: Yeah, it wasn't very long at all to where you saw everybody going like that. The whole room was just pointing, “Look at that dude. He's got a rat on his back.” You and I met and had a great time together.
[00:04:59] KM: Well, finish that story. Why was that rat on there?
[00:05:02] RSV: Come on, man.
[00:05:04] JR: What? Am I going to go ask him, why do you have a rat? No.
[00:05:06] RSV: No. We asked her.
[00:05:07] JR: You did it.
[00:05:08] MM: It’s like, that would be the first thing that I did. I’ll be like, “What its name? How did you get it?”
[00:05:13] KM: Why is it on your back?
[00:05:16] JR: He didn't look like anybody I really wanted to have a conversation with.
[00:05:19] MM: The guy or the rat?
[00:05:20] JR: Neither one of them. Because if the rat started talking, yeah. Well, I wouldn't.
[00:05:24] KM: That would be some good LSD, if it did.
[00:05:27] MM: That sounds cute. It’s like Ratatouille.
[00:05:28] RSV: This is the mushroom story maybe.
[00:05:30] KM: All right. Okay. I told you all, it was going to get out of control.
[00:05:36] JR: Then you knew that I worked at the rep. Genius on your part, you reached out to somebody in the arts community and I said, “Well, man. I’d like to help you, Kerry, but I work at a non-profit. I don't have any money to offer.” You said, “Oh, it's okay. I just like your vibe. Come join us.”
[00:05:54] KM: All of that is true.
[00:05:56] MM: Sounds about right.
[00:05:58] KM: None of us have any money that work for the Friends of Dreamland Ballroom, where it's all about the endearing passion that we feel for it. It really is. We're just average people. I said it in our opening, we're just average people that share a vision.
Ryk, you're next. You come on the board the second year. You're not founding, but you're the second. This is also your second time to be on this show when I started it in 2016. You were one of my first people to come on, because you are an entertainer by profession.
[00:06:29] RSV: Well, I was also a radio person.
[00:06:32] KM: Yeah, listen to that voice. Yeah.
[00:06:35] RSV: Yeah.
[00:06:36] KM: Tell us about your multi-talents, which you're about to – Then, tell the story of how we reconnected after years.
[00:06:43] RSV: Okay. My multi-talents. Just hold the reins tight, man, so that you can see blood coming from my lips.
[00:06:52] KM: There's Otis. What about your multi-personalities? There's Otis.
[00:06:55] RSV: All of that stemmed from radio. I used to get radio jobs all across the United States. I was at 17, or more radio stations in eight different states, six different cities. I did radio and people hired me, because I could come on and give them four or five different characters. Old man Otis was one. Then there was a country bumpkin. “Hey, how you doing? I was down there last night. I don’t even think you went over there.” That’s him.
I did a lot of commercials with the gold pirate, who I used to use him in when I was in Jackson, Mississippi. WJMI in Jackson, Mississippi. We did, oh, maybe three to five commercials for Chocolate Soldier. I don't know if anybody's familiar with Chocolate Soldier. It was a little drink that you would get at the convenience stores. You could buy Chocolate Soldier and I was the go-to guy for the company of Chocolate Soldier who would come to Jackson, Mississippi and had me to write and produce these commercials.
If you go back to say, ’83, you may have heard this guy go, “All right. Listen up. You private, what's the first thing you like about being a chocolate soldier?” “Well, sir. The first thing I like, sir, is it's just rich and creamy.” “You're to grow up to be a real good private one day, soldier.” “Oh, thank you very much, sir. Thank you very much.” I would do those kinds of things. I can't go back now, because that's been a while. I did a lot of production in radio for a long time.
[00:08:36] KM: It's obvious. Really, your talent is what you just did, but it's also your woodworking. That's how I first met you.
[00:08:45] RSV: That's how I got into the woodworking, it was because I was in radio. I was here and some guys were crapping on me, not quite like the rabbit, the rat going across the garage, but the same feeling. You got something unwanting on your shoulders and I said, “Look, forget it. Got out of that and got into woodworking.” I’ve been making wood product for 40 years. I’ve been forced into retirement right now.
[00:09:12] KM: By COVID.
[00:09:14] RSV: Well, somewhat by COVID. Yeah, somewhat by COVID for sure. Things got rough.
[00:09:20] KM: Yeah, they do.
[00:09:21] RSV: They do they sold the building that I was in, because of COVID. The guy had apartments and houses and he had one commercial building. The apartments and houses weren't paying, so he sold the building to get money and I was part of that collateral damage.
[00:09:36] KM: Then how did we reconnect after all these years?
[00:09:39] RSV: We reconnected, because I used to go by your shop with my dog, India. I had a Boxer, a Brindle Boxer. A pretty dog for 11 years. I would take this dog past your place, Flag and Banner and say hello to you and others, I think Kathleen. I can't remember who, but it used to be about three or four women standing outside, smoking cigarettes and I would pass them.
[00:09:59] KM: It was not me. I was not doing that. I wanted to be, but –
[00:10:02] RSV: Yeah. I’d pass them and go walk my dog and come back. That's how I knew you. My shop was down the street and I had two shops right next to you.
[00:10:09] KM: Then you disappeared.
[00:10:10] RSV: Then I disappeared. Yeah.
[00:10:11] KM: For, I guess, I didn't see you for a decade. We were like, where's that good-looking dog and his good-looking boxer? Then all of a sudden, you call me up out of the moment. What, that's right.
[00:10:21] MM: That wasn't even a joke. I don't think she did that on purpose.
[00:10:24] KM: What's wrong with that?
[00:10:25] RSV: Well, the thing is that we did reconnect and I joined the Friends of Dreamland. I’m the guy at the Friends of Dreamland, I’m the guy that's the guard rails. I would always say, “Well, look. There's a bunch of people here in this city that have different points of view about you having this building. I would go out and fight for that and say, “Look, that building –”
[00:10:48] KM: Just go ahead and say it. I said it's going to be a brave conversation. I’m white. I own a black person's building.
[00:10:53] RSV: Right. White. The thing is that the community had let the building decay over what, 20 years or more. It’s been a long time. Been a long time.
[00:11:02] KM: It was months from the wrecking ball.
[00:11:04] RSV: It was one of the last buildings on 9th Street, other than Mosaic Templars, which burned. Then they reconstructed it pretty much the same way as it was. I’m thinking, this woman came in and spent her money, her time and her energy and put this thing back on the map. Why are you upset? If I see you fall out of a plane and I’m superman and I catch you, why are you mad because I wrinkled your pants on the way down?
[00:11:36] KM: Whoa! Now that is an abstract thought. All right, on that note, I’m moving to you. I love it though. I’m moving to you, Matthew, son Matthew. As you often say in your tours of Dreamland, which are often, this is your destiny. Tell us why.
[00:11:58] MM: You actually bought Taborian Hall the year I was born in 1990. I’ve literally grown up in the building. It wasn't until, I think, I moved back, I mean, really in my mid-20s when I moved back to Little Rock and I started really getting familiar with the history of the building that I realized how actually awesome it is and how awesome the history it is.
It was beautiful. It's great. I love it. I grew up in there. I have this deep connection with it, because of that. Then I got to really know the history. I was honestly flabbergasted with myself, because I didn't – It was shocking to me that I didn't know that history already. Even the fact that I grew up in the building, the fact that I lived in Little Rock my whole life. I mean, why didn't I know that history already. That led me into a deeper dive of this whole conversation. What happened to 9th Street? What happened to all this stuff? What Ryk?
[00:12:58] RSV: I want to ask you a question on that point. You didn't know the history and you lived in Little Rock. That tells me that somebody in Little Rock, or some entity of Little Rock determined that this is not something they're going to teach.
[00:13:12] MM: Yeah. Somebody sometimes said, this isn’t important. I said, that's ridiculous. I mean, it's not only important, it's cool. It's a very awesome building with an amazing legacy, like that musical legacy is insane.
[00:13:25] RSV: That’s half rated.
[00:13:27] MM: I got this energy for it and was like, I felt my deal with this space is to share this history now. Accessibility to this history is what I can do now.
[00:13:43] KM: Speak to the feeling you get upon ascending the stairs to Dreamland.
[00:13:48] MM: It’s very, well, been up there so many times, it's almost hard to remember that first time, especially when I came back and looked at it and it was so much – the floors were so nice. Because I remember growing up and walking up there and it was all – you had all the scrap flags as the floor and there was this color-coded path that you walked, to not fall through the floor.
Walking through and walking in there and it just has this gravity about it. It's the sadness of COVID that's really been the thing. I haven't been able to my tours. Getting people in that space, you immediately see them become passionate about it. They can see a thousand pictures of it and be like, “What a cool, beautiful place.” Read that legacy and go, “Wow. These people performed here in our town? That's crazy.” Then when you're in there, you feel that. You feel that legacy. You feel that gravity of that legacy and it's something else.
[00:14:48] KM: Now, we want to talk about the music legacy. Who wants to talk about the music legacy?
[00:14:54] RSV: Kerry, I brought somebody with me. He worked at Dreamland. When I knew I was coming over here, I asked this gentleman, would he come with me. Just a couple of stories about what he did, is Mr. Otis. Mr. Otis? Come here for me. You worked you worked outside of Dreamland as a valet?
[00:15:22] O: Yeah.
[00:15:25] RSV: Who did you see as a valet? Who did you see that would perform there at Dreamland?
[00:15:32] O: I remember Nat King Cole. He was there. I helped him get out the car one day. Ella Fitzgerald.
[00:15:43] MM: Otis. All flake. Thanks, Otis.
[00:15:47] KM: He’s a performer. You can’t stop him. I love it. That’s a great That's a great way to talk about the people that are there. Yes, Jeff.
[00:15:55] JR: Somebody who doesn't get mentioned very often, that I think because of dancing in the Dreamland maybe should get a little more run. Sammy Davis, Jr. played there.
[00:16:04] KM: I don't really think I remember that.
[00:16:04] MM: You really can't name any performer from the early 20th century. Black performer and they probably –
[00:16:10] RSV: The Robinson brothers played there.
[00:16:13] KM: Rosetta Tharp.
[00:16:14] RSV: Yeah, but she's not much of a hoofer.
[00:16:16] KM: Well, and she's from Arkansas, so it makes a little more sense.
[00:16:19] KM: What does that even mean?
[00:16:20] RSV: A hoofer. She –
[00:16:22] KM: Don’t dance?
[00:16:22] RSV: Yeah. Oh, you don't dance? Ababa, ababa. Being a hoofer was being a dancer back in the 40s.
[00:16:28] KM: I don't think that I know Sammy Davis, Jr. played there. Is that right, son?
[00:16:33] MM: As far as I know. I mean, it really is if you can think of a famous performer from the years 1920 to 1950-60, they probably performed there.
[00:16:44] KM: Elvis Presley. I cannot find where Elvis Presley –
[00:16:47] MM: No. There's no way he performed there.
[00:16:48] RSV: He would not have done that. They would not have done that.
[00:16:49] MM: Yeah. Sorry, black performer, for sure.
[00:16:51] RSV: Yeah. He would have probably been at Robinson.
[00:16:54] KM: Still would be a surprise.
[00:16:55] MM: There was a big overlap in ownership between Robinson and the Dreamland. The guy who did a lot of the booking, the booking company that ran Dreamland also booked bands at Robinson. Their company could have booked Elvis Presley to play at the Robinson. They certainly would not have booked him to play at Dreamland.
[00:17:15] RSV: Let me give you something that I would imagine that Bill “Bojangles” Robinson came to Dreamland. I haven't seen any photographs or anything like that. When I did radio in St. Louis, I was talking about Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. I was up at KATZ and I was doing overnights, a lady called up and said, “I knew your uncle.” I said, “What are you saying, ma'am?” She says, “I knew your uncle. I knew Bill.”
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson is an uncle of mine, married my grandmother's aunt. Her name is Flossie and she actually lived, or actually hung out at a little place called Leo’s, or something like that. It was down the street from my grandmother's house. When I got off work, I went over there and met her. She used to travel on the train with Bill Bojangles Robinson and about seven or ten other dancers.
[00:18:08] KM: Who’s Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, you all?
[00:18:10] RSV: He’s the guy that taught Shirley Temple. Mr. Bojangles. That song, that song is about my uncle. Yeah, Bill Bojangles –
[00:18:18] KM: Tell our listeners why and how the Dreamland got so many great performers? Because it was a small theater.
[00:18:27] RSV: Well, he mentions it in his tours, that it's part of that Chitlin’ Circuit of the south.
[00:18:33] MM: The Chitlin’ Circuit, a lot of people are familiar with The Green Book now. There's been a movie and a documentary; this this travel guide for black Americans. The Chitlin’ Circuit was something in that same field of understanding. The chain of –
[00:18:46] RSV: The Chitlin’ Circuit was where blacks could play, without being harassed by folks here in the south. That's what the Chitlin’ Circuit was.
[00:18:54] KM: We ended up getting a lot of great performers in Dreamland that might not would have come there, because they were playing at Robinson.
[00:19:03] JR: Do you work for Robinson?
[00:19:07] RSV: She’s applying for a job tomorrow.
[00:19:09] MM: Yes and no. The Chitlin’ Circuit existed the entire time, that Dreamland was popular.
[00:19:16] JR: The Chitlin’ Circuit existed before Robinson Auditorium.
[00:19:19] KM: Well, I understand that.
[00:19:21] JR: All right. When you go back to Vaudeville and you go back to those times, there was a Chitlin’ Circuit for black entertainers where they can safely go.
[00:19:30] KM: Here's an example of what I believed happened. Cab Calloway came to play at Robinson. Afterwards, he came and played at Dreamland, because he was in town playing at Robinson’s.
[00:19:43] MM: There's actually a record of Cab Calloway playing at Dreamland when he was 17-years-old before he was ever even famous. That is a part exclusively of his time on the Chitlin’ Circuit, because the Chitlin’ Circuit was more of something that was understood by performers than laymen traveling. Because it was a place that you, a performer, a comedian, a musician, a whatever, could travel from place to place and know where you could go to do your – and make your living. Because the guys who lived in town already knew where they could go. If you wanted to travel, you had the green book to tell you where to go, if you were just a tourist at a sense.
[00:20:20] KM: All right, let's move on to talk about the prosperous people of 9th Street. I did not know this, until I bought that building and I hired Berna Love for five years to do research. She wrote the book that we sell at Arkansas Flag and Banner.
[00:20:35] MM: She wrote two books.
[00:20:36] KM: Oh, she wrote two books. Matthew, or whoever wants to take this about the prosperous people of 9th Street. I don't think people realize that African-Americans at the turn of the 20th century were so prosperous and were actually called the prosperous people.
[00:20:52] RSV: If you were an African-American here, Oklahoma, parts of Florida, St. Louis and other places, Mississippi and all, you were part of a community where people had businesses. They had funeral homes. They had hair salons. They had barber shops. They had car repairs. They had pool holes. They had restaurants. They had whatever you could find in the –
[00:21:17] KM: Motels, theaters.
[00:21:19] RSV: All of that. Whatever you found in these major cities that belong to the white community, blacks also had.
[00:21:27] KM: Yeah. A city within a city.
[00:21:29] RSV: Right. It's not that they wanted to have it, but they were excluded from mingling. I mean, it's not that far ago. It’s not that far ago when people said, you can't drink out of that fountain.
[00:21:41] KM: Yes, segregation.
[00:21:42] RSV: If you can't drink out of that fountain, what do you go to drink? You build your own fountain someplace. They did that in an effort to have what is afforded to everybody else, and then those communities became staples for that community and next thing you know, you got four, five, six blocks, or whatever of business, of commerce, of commerce.
[00:22:06] MM: Then this plays well into what I was talking about was my initial inspiration for coming back into Dreamland is this – I mean, there's a term for this. It's the Harlem renaissance is what they call this. I didn't learn that term in school. I learned that term on my own research. This prosperous era of black history, this is not really taught in schools.
When I think about African-American history as a white kid, I think about slavery and I think about reconstruction and I think about the civil. Then I think about the civil rights. That's 80 years in between those two things I just said. There's this huge gap in what we're taught about. All of Taborian Hall and Dreamland Ballroom's history is in that 80, a 100 years right there, that between reconstruction and the civil rights era. It's literally right in between –
[00:22:59] KM: Let’s talk about who built the Taborian Hall, the international order of Twelve Knights and Daughters of Tabor. As I said in the opening, is an African-American fraternal organization, best known as sponsoring the Taborian Hospital. They were founded in 1846 as an anti-slavery society. Talk about how much they spent to build it here. Wasn't it the most expensive building built in Little Rock at the time?
[00:23:26] MM: That year. Yeah, 1916 or 17. Yeah.
[00:23:29] KM: It was the most expensive building built in Downtown Little Rock in 1916.
[00:23:35] MM: Yeah, ands it was completely funded. The Knights and Daughters are a mutual aid organization. You paid dues into, so they got memberships and you paid dues into it and you got some series of benefits; a lot of what we would consider, or it would be comparable to modern day welfare, or insurance, or funeral –
[00:23:55] KM: Arrangement.
[00:23:56] MM: - arrangements, a stipend from widow, a funeral plot. That stuff. There are a lot of different types. The Mosaic Templars, which now houses the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center was another mutual aid organization. There was the Knights of Pythias that were also on 9th Street. I think at the turn of the century, in the late 1800s and the early 1900s, there were four or five in Little Rock, the Knights of Pythias, the Taborians and the Mosaic is being, I think, the largest. Mosaic was actually, probably the largest in Little Rock at the time.
[00:24:27] KM: Who is our sister building on 9th Street, for everybody that doesn't know. We're going to talk about them in a minute. A PBS documentary called Dreamland Little Rock, West 9th Street, talks about the prosperous people, the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, the music that we just talked about.
[00:24:45] JR: Yeah, they do a good job of covering the four big facets of the history of 9th Street really, really well.
[00:24:51] KM: Yeah, PBS.
[00:24:53] JR: Sorry, AETN did it.
[00:24:54] KM: AETN. I’m sorry.
[00:24:55] MM: Our local one.
[00:24:57] KM: I think that's uh available on YouTube. I definitely know we sell CDs, or DVDs of it at Flag and Banner. Then in addition, this is something I never thought about. When soldiers, or servicemen, because soldiers are just army, but when servicemen would come to Arkansas, they would stay at Pike. They would be stationed at Pike. Yet, they couldn't stay there, because they were black. Ryk’s laughing. He’s just like, “You can't even imagine.” The Taborian Hall became the US Officers Club.
[00:25:35] MM: Yeah. The basement was –
[00:25:37] KM: When World War I ended.
[00:25:38] MM: - World War I was just the basement. Then in World War II, they were training so many young black men over at Camp Robinson at that time, I think. I don't remember if Camp Pike was around for, or Camp Robinson was around, or maybe had a different name for World War I. In World War II, they were training 20,000 to 30,000 18-year-old black men to go to war at any given time. They bought all of that Taborian Hall building and turned it into the USO.
The ballroom dances on the top floor, they had offices for the officers on the second floor and they had rest and relaxation rooms. They had the pharmacy that was in there for years. The bottom floor was locker rooms. There was a pool hall in the back. It was a big R&R space for them, because by – By World War II, the big issue for these men is that a lot of them weren't from the area. If they wanted to leave the camp, which they wanted to do because they're about to go to war, they want to get their dollies and do the thing. Do whatever. The only places they had to go were either Washington Avenue and North Little Rock, which was the black district over there, or 9th Street, which had much more of an entertainment district reputation.
They were coming over to 9th Street, which when you look at it, you're down there and you look between Mosaic and our building, which is the main stretch of 9th Street, it's only four blocks, three or four blocks.
[00:27:01] RSV: That like was a downtown.
[00:27:02] MM: It's not a lot of room for 20,000 18-year-old dudes to come and party and when there's already a whole community living there. Yeah. They were like, okay, the community was stressed. It was causing a big issue, and so they bought them this building and they put all their R&R space there.
[00:27:26] KM: The rest is history. All right, it's a great place to take a break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with the Friends Of Dreamland’s Executive Director Matthew McCoy and board members, Ryk St. Vincent and Jeff Roper. Still to come, what Dreamland's plans are for the future, how to get invited and when is the grand opening of Dreamland. Last, get connected, do good and feel good about yourself by adding your name, or someone you love to the sidewalk of this historic place, would make a great Christmas gift. We'll be back after the break.
[00:27:53] ANNOUNCER: Looking at some of the upcoming guests on Up In Your Business with Kerry McCoy, we will re-feature one of the most compelling interviews Kerry's ever done on Up In Your Business, with Madonna Badger.
[00:28:04] KM: Founder of Badger and Winters Advertising Agency in New York City. Madonna was raised in Kentucky. Was an excellent student and an overachiever. Evident by her successful business in one of the toughest cities in America, New York City, she was living the American dream when a profound tragedy struck that propelled her into overnight fame for an incident so devastating, that even though it was in 2011, many of you will remember it.
It was Christmas morning when she awoke to a fire in her Upstate New York home that claimed the lives of her three daughters; Lily, Grace and Sarah and the lives of her parents, Lomar and Pauline Johnson.
[00:28:40] MB: I woke up to smoke in my room and the house was just completely quiet. Really dense, black smoke. I couldn't breathe. It was a Victorian, so I was able to crawl out of the window. There was still scaffolding on the outside of the house. I ran up the scaffolding on the outside of the house to the third floor. I was able to open the window, but I couldn't get in.
[00:29:07] ANNOUNCER: Don't miss this show before the end of the calendar year as we wrap up the year 2020 on Up In Your Business with Kerry McCoy.
[00:29:15] KM: We are visiting with Little Rock, Arkansas’ Friends of Dreamland Ballroom, Executive Director Matthew McCoy and board members, Jeff Roper and Ryk St. Vincent.
All right, before the break, we talked about the Twelve Knights and Daughters of Tabor. We talked about the PBS documentary, Dreamland Little Rock’s West 9th Street, USO Club, the prosperous people of 9th Street, the music legacy. If you missed any of that, you should go back and listen to it. I’m pretty impressed with Matthew’s knowledge. We were all going, “Good job, young son.”
Now, I want to talk about the grant and what we're going to do next. Jeff, you're quiet down there, but I’m coming to you. Don't think you're not –
[00:29:59] RSV: You're not getting a bicycle.
[00:30:00] JR: No, no. I’m fine not talking about things I don't know about.
[00:30:05] MM: Fair enough.
[00:30:07] KM: Friends of Dreamland has received a grant from the National Park Service to make the ballroom handicapped accessible. The National Park Service has a civil rights grant. They realized that all these buildings from the civil rights area, in that 80-year era that Matthew was talking about are falling into disrepair. Let's talk about that grant. The reason for the grant is because we need an elevator to get people up to the third floor.
The Dreamland Ballroom is on the third floor. It is not handicap accessible. It does not have a handicap bathroom. We applied for this grant. We were luckily given it. We applied for it again to finish it up. Luckily, we were given it again and you are –
[00:30:51] MM: You might be applying for it again next week.
[00:30:53] KM: We might be applying for another one next week. Where are we on that grant, Matthew?
[00:30:59] MM: We are between phase one and phase two. Phase one was the actual – turned out to be just the construction of the addition itself. If you're driving down 630, you can see that we've added a big portion onto a big brick portion onto the building. That will house the structure for the elevator. That was because the ballroom comprises the entire square footage of the building. To put an elevator in the building, we would have had to have it come up into the ballroom floor, which is not ideal. We really had to do this big exterior addition. That ended up being almost the entirety, I think, of phase one. All the electrical and all that stuff.
[00:31:37] KM: Always costs more than you think.
[00:31:39] RSV: Well, let me jump in here for a second, because my memory says that the first money we spent was to get tens of thousands of bats safely out of the ballroom.
[00:31:49] MM: That’s very true. That's actually completely true. We spent 20 grand on getting rid of bats.
[00:31:54] KM: Oh, yeah. I forgot about that.
[00:31:54] MM: Fully leaning up after that. That was an ordeal. Yeah. It was done very humanely.
[00:32:01] KM: Yeah, humanely.
[00:32:02] MM: No bats were harmed in the –
[00:32:03] KM: Humanely moving the bats. The relevancy of what we are doing – You two guys, Matthew’s only been here a couple of years, but you two gentlemen have been with me for the last 10 years. The relevancy of what we are doing seems more important today than in 2009 when we started Friends of Dreamland. It seems like this history and Black Lives Matters and all that's going on today seems like in 2009 was important, but today it seems like the conversation is even –
[00:32:38] MM: Coming to a head.
[00:32:39] KM: Is even needed more.
[00:32:40] MM: What I would say is this. I’m going to be philosophical for a second, because I’ve been tweeting since I’ve been free to be at home. I got a response from a guy one day and I and I tweeted him back and I said this. I said, “Where else in the universe can we live as humans? That we know we got powerful telescopes, we're going in outer space, you got SpaceX, you got all that, but there's only one place in the universe that we can live and that is on this planet.” I went on to say, “A moth in the woods cannot request that a butterfly leave the area. A minnow in a lake can't tell a larger fish, or another fish to get out of the water.” Okay. We all live here. Every animal lives here. We all live here and it just blows my mind that we have communication and radio and TV and we're always using it, or sometimes it feels like we mostly use it to distance ourselves, to make ourselves hate the other people. When you go to Dreamland Ballroom and you go there and you are there for a ball, which is typically in the first, second week of November for the last 11 years is that?
[00:34:01] KM: Dancing in the Dreamland. Yes.
[00:34:03] RSV: When you go to Dancing in the Dreamland, you have an opportunity to get all fussied up and put your shoes on and your nice outfits and grab somebody that hopefully, you are in love with and you want to spend the evening with. You go up there and you see people, you see people, you hear music.
[00:34:23] KM: That was really well said.
[00:34:28] RSV: It’s like, okay. In these four walls, people can get along.
[00:34:31] KM: It’s a love fest. It’s a love fest.
[00:34:33] RSV: These four walls, people are getting along. They're dancing with each other. They're having fun. They're making jokes. They're eating out of the same damn tray. They're sharing drinks.
[00:34:42] KM: Not anymore.
[00:34:43] RSV: Well, not anymore. Okay.
[00:34:45] KM: Okay. Jeff, it’s your turn.
[00:34:46] RSV: It’s crazy to me.
[00:34:49] KM: It is an absolute love fest.
[00:34:51] RSV: It’s a slingshot in your head.
[00:34:52] MM: It's way past time for people to just get along.
[00:34:55] KM: Oh, yes. Jeff, I said we were going to talk to you. Speak to what attracted you to preserving Dreamland and what you see for its future now.
[00:35:06] JR: Well, I didn't have much history in preservation, but I know a good thing when I see it. To see your passion in it and to be a part of the growth process was something that I had never done before. You talked about when you take somebody up just upstairs, like we did it the first time or two. To be able to talk to people about Dreamland and list off all the names and talk to them, I know they're seeing me lighten up and be passionate and start, like Matthew banging on the table and my voice gets higher. It's just the electricity of being involved in that place.
Then when you start to take people for tours, or when you're up there, and I ran Dancing into Dreamland for a number of years and you see all these performers who've done the research. They know what's going on and then they walk in there and they see this cathedral to performing, it's just magical. I mean, there's no tiring of people's reaction whenever they breach the stairwell and open up into this giant cathedral. It's just magical. It really is.
[00:36:20] MM: It's that way like, empty. When you have people, or you're the person performing, or you're the person seeing a performance in there, I always say the ghosts come out of the wall. An energy is palpable, that something comes out of those old walls.
[00:36:39] RSV: To see and I refer to it as like, to see the old girl all dolled up for Dancing into Dreamland, when you've got the lights and the set –
[00:36:50] KM: I thought it was for me and it did.
[00:36:52] RSV: I’m not talking about her. [Inaudible 00:36:55].
[00:36:57] KM: Okay. Come on, back.
[00:36:59] RSV: The tables with the tablecloths and the decorations and everybody walking around with wine glasses and they're in their Sunday best and people are dancing and stuff, it takes you back to oh, my gosh. There's that great scene in the documentary where they actually have people dancing and a jazz band playing, it's just remarkable to see it come to life. You're right, it is amazing when you walk in and you've got all that, you said, gravity earlier. It's also great to see her all dolled up and actually being used for, like we talked about bringing the party back. Actually see a party in there, oh yeah. That's good stuff.
[00:37:38] KM: It’s just a safe place for everybody. That's what I like about it. I like a place where you can be, you can take risks, those dancers are taking risks, us girls putting on our outfits or taking risks, the guys are taking risks. Everybody's coming in there and it's a safe place to take risks of all kind; social, artistic. What do you want next for Dancing into Dreamland? We're about to get the theater up. We're about to get the elevator up. What do we see that we're going to do with it? Matthew, talk to me about what historical re-enactments, partnering with Mosaic Templars.
[00:38:17] MM: I mean, nothing's set in stone, but the dream on that front is to like I said earlier, make that history as accessible as possible, as available as possible, because it's not always taught to people in their conventional education environment. My obligation, the thing that I feel most obligated to is making that history available. Part of doing that is one, this public access project that we're doing. Getting people in there to physically see the history of that crazy space and feel that gravity and all that is a big part of that.
Being a part of my tour, just listening to the history, me recite facts is one way to do it. Really, the most engaging way is to have it creatively told to you in some way. You go to the historic Arkansas Museum and see a girl turn butter and then you turn butter with her. I mean, you just get this action that makes you remember the history that you're learning, that you're being told. I see that as a huge part of what we do up there when we're telling this story of the history of this.
[00:39:30] KM: Mosaic Templars is our sister building at the other end.
[00:39:33] MM: Yeah, they're the people in town in charge of interpreting this history. As a middle-class white boy, I don't have that ability. I can tell you facts. I can do stuff like that, but I don't have the perspective, the appropriate perspective to really interpret this history. Whereas, an organization, like Mosaic Templars is so essential and so awesome that we have that here, because they can take that history and they can interpret it.
I mean, if you look at all their programming, it's so creative and so interesting. It's all about sharing, interpreting history. That's what's in their mission. They're going to be an absolutely integral part of what we do moving forward.
[00:40:10] KM: Dancing into Dreamland. We didn't get to have, like Jeff said, he has worked Dancing into Dreamland backstage. He has handled the dancers for the last 11 years. The first one was at the governor's mansion and then we did it twice at the governor's mansion and then we got the Dreamland’s floor and we've done the rest of them at Dreamland. This year we didn't do it. Matthew, we had dancers come up and do a video, creative –
[00:40:31] MM: New Creations Dance Company. Yeah, they did a really fun thing. They were actually a winner a couple years ago.
[00:40:37] KM: Of the event. For people that don't know what Dancing into Dreamland is, it's eight dance teams come out and dance with the – and the audience votes with text voting and there's a panel of judges that vote. The winner gets $500.
[00:40:51] KM: The judge's winner gets a cash prize and then the people's choice also –
[00:40:56] RSV: Don't let anyone leave the radio station without knowing that this is not the dance that is happening in their head. When you say eight different people, you're talking about eight different dances in some cases. Eight different types of dances.
[00:41:10] MM: It’s completely different styles of dance. Yeah.
[00:41:11] RSV: It's not just what you're thinking in your head. Okay, they're going to all compete tango, they're going to all compete –
[00:41:17] KM: It's not all ballroom.
[00:41:17] RSV: No, no. It’s not all ballroom or any of that. It’s not all any one.
[00:41:21] KM: The belly dancers won one year.
[00:41:22] RSV: Yeah.
[00:41:22] MM: Oh, yeah.
[00:41:23] KM: The guys liked that one.
[00:41:27] RSV: They have a variety of different dances that they do. It's not about the dance that they do, it's about how well they do the dance that they do.
[00:41:40] KM: It's the community too. It's taking risks. I love dance. It's something I really love. If you were to ask me what I love about Dreamland and what I want to see happen to Dreamland, I want to continue to celebrate dancers that don't get enough credit. It's so hard to get ready for a dance. It takes months to practice and get ready and then you get the outfit and the music and you come out and you perform it for everybody.
I want to turn that into not just an Arkansas performance, but I would like to have regional dancers come to Dancing into Dreamland. It's our only fundraiser that we have a year. We are going to edit the video that we got of that one dancer. For all those people that want a Dancing into Dreamland fix, be sure that you have gone to dreamlandballroom.org and you have signed up for the e-mail, so that we can email you the YouTube video of those people dancing. We're going to edit it.
[00:42:30] MM: It’s pretty fun.
[00:42:31] KM: It's very fun.
[00:42:31] MM: Splice it in, I think, some past dances. Little tribute video, kind of.
[00:42:36] KM: If you want to see what Dancing into Dreamland is like, you can even go to Dreamland Ballroom's YouTube channel and there is a 5-minute –
[00:42:45] MM: Highlight reel from last year. Yeah.
[00:42:47] KM: There sure is. It's just fabulous. It's really fun. Right now, if you want to get involved, or you’re looking for a Christmas present, we are selling – Matthew is selling bricks at thedreamlandballroom.org. You can buy someone a brick for Christmas, not coals, not switches, but a brick.
[00:43:09] RSV: It will surprise them.
[00:43:10] KM: It'll surprise them.
[00:43:11] MM: Yeah. The money that goes to that all goes to the restoration and everything that we're trying to do.
[00:43:17] RSV: It’s not just define the brick. It's not a brick. You're not just buying a brick.
[00:43:21] KM: It's engraved.
[00:43:22] RSV: You're buying an engraved brick.
[00:43:23] KM: At the entrance.
[00:43:25] RSV: That'll be in the ground, in an area around Dreamland Ballroom, around Taborian Hall. It's got information in there that will directly connect the viewer to whoever you are.
[00:43:39] KM: That's about $250, I think. If you want elevated donating, you can get your name on a bronze plaque in the hallway to the new elevator edition for $5,000, Matthew? I don't know, but it's on –
[00:43:52] MM: It's all on there.
[00:43:53] KM: It's all online. Call Matthew, how about that? Just call Matthew.
[00:43:56] MM: Yeah, just give me a call.
[00:43:58] KM: Guys, I sure enjoyed being with you all. I’ve got you all gifts. I’ve got you both a T-shirt from the Dreamland Ballroom.
[00:44:02] RSV: Yay. What about that bottled water that you gave out earlier? There we go. Thank you so much.
[00:44:08] JR: Thank you.
[00:44:09] KM: You're welcome. Thanks for coming on me, get you guys. I missed you during COVID.
[00:44:13] RSV: You know that I love you and there's not a doggone thing you can do about it.
[00:44:17] KM: I love you too.
[00:44:18] RSV: I know you’re upset.
[00:44:18] KM: I know we love each other. We all love each other.
[00:44:22] RSV: I love this color. That's on the walls of Dreamland.
[00:44:25] JR: Now, let's say it's the pink and green and the ballroom.
[00:44:26] RSV: Yeah, that's the green. All right.
[00:44:28] JR: Looks like you’re getting a T-shirt.
[00:44:30] KM: Thanks, everybody. I really enjoyed being with you all.
In closing, I want to say to our listeners, thank you for spending time with us. We hope you've heard or learned something that's been inspiring or enlightening and that it, whatever it is, will help you up your business, your independence or your life. I’m Kerry McCoy and I’ll see you next time on Up In Your Business. Until then, be brave and keep it up.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:44:51] G: You've been listening to Up In Your Business with Kerry McCoy. For links to resources you heard discussed on today's show, go to flagandbanner.com, select radio and choose today's guest. If you'd like to sponsor this show, or any show, contact me, Gray. That's email@example.com.
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