Hello, my name is Fred Martinez, and I am the manager of the historic El Casino Ballroom. In 2000, thanks the efforts of dedicated members in the community, all of whom celebrated many of their own events at the El Casino Ballroom, we re-opened after being closed for nine years. Below is the story of the El Casino Ballroom, and how it has come to be on the of most iconic ballrooms left standing today.
Let me first explain how the Latin American Social Club (LASC) and the El Casino Ballroom (ballroom) became associated with one another. In the mid 1960s, the ballroom and the LASC were separate entities, but that was soon about to change. The City of Tucson began buying up properties in preparation of building the Tucson Convention Center; one of those properties belonged to the LASC at 425 S. Main. With the monies they received from the City, the LASC purchased the ballroom as a business venture, and built their new club on the west side of the ballroom in 1972. Ever since, the two have been joined at the hip.
My family and I have been involved with the ballroom since the late 1960s, when my dad, Raul “Butch” Martinez, was appointed manager. Butch was a member of the LASC, dating back to when he returned to Tucson in 1945, having served in World War II. Prior to that, my grandfather, Ramon Martinez (WWI – Calvary), was a member of the LASC in the 1930s, and was the owner of one of the first Hispanic-owned bars in Tucson–La Cabania Cantina on Meyer Ave., which opened after Prohibition was repealed in 1933. My dad gained experience working the bar at La Cabnia Cantina, which made him an ideal candidate to the run the ballroom. In 1968, my brother Sam and I were hired on the cleaning crew. In addition to me and Sam, my mother Annie, and my sister Pat would help out in various ways as well. Later on the youngest sibling, my brother Andy, would join the crew; he is still with us today.
As far back as I can remember, there was hardly a weekend off: Friday, Saturday, and most Sundays were spent working weddings, quinceañeras, dances, fund raisers, and other events at the ballroom. In 1974 I started bartending. When my dad, “Butch,” could no longer manage the club due to health reasons, I stayed on board, working for various managers. It was during that time that I really saw it all; not just the tons of shows, but I saw what the ballroom really meant to the community as a traditional landmark that still continues today. From behind the bar I saw the countless familial celebrations continuing from generation to generation. Everyone, sooner or later, ended up at the ballroom. One of the best sayings goes, “If you grew up in Tucson or Southern Arizona, there were a few places you always ended up: Mi Nidito, Pat’s Chili Dogs, the El Casino Ballroom, and Carrillo Mortuary.” Working there was like a reunion of sorts. I would see old classmates, friends, and relatives, many of whom had moved away or left to serve our country in the Armed Forces. Whenever they were in town, the would always stop by the ballroom because they could count on running into someone they knew. Even with a family and a full time job, this is why I stayed on at the club; this is what made it all worthwhile. I didn’t see the ballroom as a second job, but more of a hobby of sorts. It’s in the blood I guess. Fortunately, my wife Cathy, and two daughters–Barb and Jennifer–understood, and gave me their blessings and support.
Things nearly ended for the ballroom in October 1991: The Storm. A windstorm picked up the entire south-end of the roof, ripping it off entirely. For five months, the club was left exposed to the elements, causing severe damage. It was during this time that South Tucson Fire Department condemned the building. The ballroom was no longer open for business. A forty-five year tradition of our culture and community ceased to exist. Everywhere I went, people were always asking me when, if ever, were we going to rebuild.
I had been a member of the LASC since 1974, yet I had never been involved in the leadership aspects of it. After The Storm, I witnessed how the active Board of Directors was not doing much to restore and re-open the ballroom. I decided, along with my dad “Butch,” that something had to be done. “Butch” was in ill health, but I knew he was well-respected by the club members, so I knew his support would be extremely important. We decided the first thing that needed to be done was to elect a new Board of Directors. This was one of the most crucial moments in the survival of the Latin American Social Club and the El Casino Ballroom. We started attending board meetings, and actively began recruiting new members. We officially elected a new board: Frank Amparano, Vince Amparano, Jesus Gastelum, Johnny Hernandez, Henry Martinez, Fred Martinez, Danny Rodriguez, and Ed Lopez, with “Butch” Martinez as the manager. The new board faced an uphill battle: the LASC had accumulated over $250,000 in debt, and everything from taxes, licenses, and bills were delinquent. And to top it all off, our main source of income, the ballroom (capacity 1,200 at the time), was still condemned. The only thing we had was the LASC, which had a capacity of 120. Not quite the inheritance you hope to receive.
“Butch” and I took over operations of the LASC. With “Butch’s” health failing, I took responsibility for running the bar operations. My brothers helped with cleanup, maintenance, and whatever else was needed. Others, such as Jerry White, Pete “Cuniado” Muniz, Lee Smith volunteered their time to the cause. In addition to the many volunteers, if it weren’t for the financial assistance to keep us barely above water, we would have been forced to close. Much of that financial support was from my parents, “Butch” and Annie. In addition, many others lent us money and were paid back. My parents never took repayment, for them the reward was simply in seeing the ballroom come back to life. Unfortunately, neither got to see the dream fully realized; both of them passed away before the ballroom re-opened. My dad always told me, “We have the right people in place now. With the current board, and many others, you will rebuild it. I won’t see it, but I know you all will rebuild someday.” It took NINE years, and many, many obstacles to overcome, but we did it!
Below are just a few of the individuals that were instrumental in reviving the ballroom:
- Demolition: The “Cochi Crew:” Luis, Natcho, and George Cruz; Bill “Guillermo” Ortiz; Paul Rivera, Chuey Garcia, Javier Escalante, Angel (mero cochi); and Albert Kim
- Rebuilding: Frank Amparano, Johnny Hernandez, Robert “Tweety Bird” Leon, Andy “Mighty Fine” Carol, Richard adn Deiter Vidal, Basil Morales, Albert Carlon, Ray Arvizu, Eddie Encinas, Lee Smith, Jack Smith, Tony and Louie Gonzalez, Jimmy Moreno, Steve Barrera, Jerry Moreno, Miguel Diaz, Charlie Diaz, Danny Rodriguez, Martin Rodriguez, Tony “Net” Camacho, Elsi Garcia, Bob Hernandez, “Chango” Herrera, Victor Aguirre, George Patino, Gordan Phegley, Gene Pain, Eddie Varella Jr., and countless others
- Food and other services: Chowa family, Encinas family, “Mama” Cruz’s, Vidal family, Amparano family, Martinez family, Lopez family, and Tony Preciado
- Politicians and Consultants: Representative Raul Grijalva, Mayor Bob Walkup, Councilman Steve Leal, and many others
- City of South Tucson: Thank you
- Media: Rupert Pacheco, Melissa Santa Cruz, all the crew from 1600 AM KXEW, Bob Feinman, Patty Ruiz, KXCI community radio station, Paul “Bear” and Jeb Schoonover, Raul Aguirre, La Pantera, Telemundo, KOLD, KGUN, KVOA, FOX, Arizona Daily Star and Daniel Bucklye of the Tucson Citizen.
Thanks to all of you, and those I forgot, for doing a great service, not only to the El Casino Ballroom, but to part of our culture, history, and tradition.
Fred Martinez, Manager – El Casino Ballroom
We are asking the community to send their pictures and stories from events they had at the El Casino Ballroom. Email pictures and stories to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for making the El Casino Ballroom a historic icon in the Tucson community.
Special thanks to Dan Buckley on his documentary on the El Casino Ballroom – “Tucson’s Heart and Soul: El Casino Ballroom”