Throughout the middle part of the twentieth century, Houston's Eldorado Ballroom reigned as one of the finest showcases in Texas for the live performance of Black secular music—mostly blues, jazz, and R&B, but occasionally also pop and zydeco. This venue, owned and operated by African Americans, occupied the entire second floor of the Eldorado Building, located across from historic Emancipation Park on the southwest quadrant of the intersection of Elgin and Dowling Streets in the Third Ward, home to the city's largest Black population.
From 1939, when it was built, until the early 1970s, the Eldorado was the venue of choice for upscale blues and jazz performances featuring touring stars and local talent, as well as afternoon talent shows and sock-hops. The ballroom was the centerpiece of several profitable enterprises owned by African-American businesswoman and philanthropist Anna Dupree (1891–1977), who had already achieved significant success as a beauty-shop operator before marrying Clarence Dupree in 1914. Together they established the Eldorado Ballroom in order to provide a "class" venue for Black social clubs and general entertainment. Almost from the beginning, "the 'rado" (as people sometimes called it) and the large building that housed it became symbols of community pride—the Third Ward's most prestigious focal point, especially for musicians.
Like the more famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, the Eldorado Ballroom billed itself as the "Home of Happy Feet"—signifying not only its reputation for lively musical performance but also its large, and reportedly often crowded, dance floor. Among the house orchestras that worked there, providing instrumental backing for locally-produced floor shows as well as for featured touring artists, were big bands directed by distinguished Texas bandleaders and instrumentalists such as Ed Golden, Milton Larkin, I. H. "Ike" Smalley, Arnett Cobb, Pluma Davis, and Conrad Johnson. At its heyday as a venue for major touring acts from the postwar years through the early 1960s, the Eldorado regularly headlined nationally-known performers such as Ray Charles, Bill Doggett, Guitar Slim (Eddie Jones), Etta James, Jimmy Reed, Big Joe Turner, and T-Bone Walker.
Numerous Houston musicians received valuable early professional experience by playing in the Eldorado Ballroom house bands. Many of them subsequently became famous bandleaders and recording artists in their own right. Noteworthy examples include saxophonist and vocalist Eddie Vinson, saxophonist Don Wilkerson, and trumpeter Calvin Owens. Likewise, for many musically-inclined Black Houstonians coming of age in the mid-twentieth century, the weekly talent shows at the Eldorado Ballroom provided an initial opportunity to perform in public before large audiences. Among those who reportedly launched their careers there were Peppermint Harris (Harrison Nelson), Johnny "Guitar" Watson, and Joe "Guitar" Hughes.
By 1970, however, the fortunes of the Eldorado, like those of the Third Ward in general, were in decline. Key factors contributing to the ballroom's eventual demise were the negative economic impact for Black-owned businesses in the old wards triggered by desegregation, the lack of adequate parking space in an era when more African Americans were starting to own automobiles, and changing musical tastes (as many younger Blacks abandoned the classic jazz and blues of their parents' generation for more progressive sounds).
During the last quarter of the twentieth century the Eldorado Building was home to various small business enterprises and much vacant subdivided space for lease. But in December 1999 the massive structure (along with the entire seventeen-lot block on which it sits) was acquired by Third Ward–based Project Row Houses, a non-profit arts and community service organization formed to restore the facility as a special performance venue, archive, and meeting site that will preserve the legacy of the once grand Eldorado Ballroom.
On May 17, 2003, the venue opened once again to host its first major event in more than thirty years. This fundraising gala, called Howling on Dowling, raised more than $75,000 for ongoing renovations. Since that opening, the Eldorado Ballroom has hosted concert events featuring jazz, blues, zydeco, and other genres, and Project Row Houses has continued to collect oral histories, old photographs, and other research resources in the effort to compile an archive for the facility. In 2011 the Eldorado received a Texas Historical Marker.