Sweet’s Ballroom Swings into New Entertainment Era in Oakland

By Angela Woodall

Walking into Historic Sweet’s Ballroom — all crimson and gold and grand — evokes the vision of couples whirling across the dance floor and an exuberant time when diversion was easy to find on a warm summer night in Oakland.

Who knows how many romances were sparked at the art deco dance palace. Young men in suits and their corsage-wearing sweethearts jitterbugged, Lindy-hopped, jived, waltzed and otherwise moved their bodies across the floor worn smooth and pale from the generations of Oaklanders — including, local legend has it, a young Ron Dellums.

All the big band greats swung through Oakland. But dancing made the Uptown District, turning it into a locale for night life. Then it went dark, as though someone pulled a black veil over the area that stretches from the Frank Ogawa Plaza to where Broadway melds with Telegraph Avenue and a little past West Grand Avenue.

But on some nights, the vision of a revival of the area is vivid, and the air pulses with energy generated by the constellation of venues large and small that have sprung up in what is becoming an entertainment district: The Uptown, Flora, Franklin Square Wine Bar, the Stork Club, Cafe Van Kleef, the Paramount and Fox theaters, Geoffrey’s Inner Circle and Historic Sweet’s Ballroom.

Whether the effort succeeds depends on people’s willingness to have a good time.

Oaklanders should be able to rise to the occasion.

In the district’s heyday, the willingness to slap down a dollar for a few hours of diversion kept Sweet’s and a dozen other dance floors such as the Ali Baba, Rose Room, Melody Lane and Danceland busy for decades.

As for the generation that came before, then-Oakland Mayor Frank Mott furiously denounced the inventor of the “turkey trot” dance, whom the mayor said should be hamstrung.

“All our troubles over dances are due to these fancy dances. They ought to be all abolished,” the mayor fumed at an Aug. 1, 1913, City Council meeting.

But Oaklanders were determined to dance. Sweet’s stepped in to teach them.

The founder, William Sweet, quit his job as an agriculture professor to open the dance school at 480 20th St. in the 1920s with his brother Eugene.

The ballroom moved several times, and the brothers simultaneously operated the Ali Baba ballroom at 111 Grand Ave., which was demolished in 1981. And all that is left today of an early 14th Street ballroom location is a dusty AAMCO parking lot.

One by one, the ballrooms and dance halls started disappearing after 1965, including the Savoy, where lonely men paid “taxi dance” girls a dime a dance. By 1971, not long before the 387 12th St. hall closed, three dances for a dollar was the bargain rate.

Historic Sweet’s Ballroom, now wedged between Sears and H. Johns Gentleman’s Clothing shop at Broadway and 19th Street, is the only one of the Sweet’s ballroom locations that still exists.

The ballroom building at 1933 Broadway was empty from 1980 to 1998, when an Episcopalian priest, Matthew Fox, borrowed $50,000 on his house to save the building from being torn down to make way for a high-rise BART office building. Fox also is president of Friends of Creation Spirituality. He sold Sweet’s in 2002 to Uptown Broadway Partners, which leased the ballroom back for 35 years. Nearly three years ago, Steve Snider, 39, and Andrew Jones, 23, of Oakland Box Theater fame, stepped in to run things.

They tore out the mangy carpeting, painted over the blue paint and started booking special events — everything from Ethiopian New Year’s Eve celebrations to Mexican “bandas” to ecstatic dance and private parties.

Now they are revving up to turn Sweet’s into something like the House of Blues in Chicago or San Francisco’s Fillmore.

Live music and dancing, Jones said, is something Oakland has missed for a long time.

While the Fox and Paramount are sit-down, cabaret-style venues, patrons at Sweet’s can “have a drink, mingle and get their groove on,” instead of being stuck in their seats, said Jones, an Oakland native.

Snider, who is from Chapel Hill, N.C., said he pictures an entertainment district like that in New Orleans, where shows are happening every night of the week.

That scenario might be easier if the city would change the street- cleaning schedule in what they want to be the entertainment district to a time other than midnight to 3 a.m. — prime entertainment time. Slapping revelers with $48 tickets might not be good for business.

Can someone look into this?

Even so, the trade-off would be a rockin’ night of dancing and music that, Jones said, brings people from all walks of life together and makes them feel good.

That’s all for now, ladies and gentlemen. But if you have a cool shindig, e-mail me at [email protected] or visit the Night Owl blog www.ibabuzz.com/nightowl for more events and oddities.

Originally published by Angela Woodall, Oakland Tribune.

(c) 2008 Oakland Tribune. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.