The sprawling dance floor alone cost $100,000, and when the El Patio Ballroom opened in 1925 it was billed as “the largest and most famous dance hall on the West Coast.”
The 54,000-square-foot building at 3rd Street and Vermont Avenue featured a mezzanine, a balcony and an additional 7,500-square-foot patio. It could easily accommodate 4,000 couples. Admission was 30 cents for ladies; gentlemen, 40 cents. Cocktails cost 25 cents.
Its star-studded opening in 1925 was pure Hollywood, with Universal’s silent screen stars Laura La Plante, Pat O’Malley and Mary Philbin taking bows that evening. The celebration also featured winners of several bathing beauty contests.
Thousands poured into the ballroom on Jan. 30, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birthday. Guy Lombardo’s orchestra and the Hudson-Metzger dancers were part of the special entertainment for the evening. Balls honoring FDR, a polio victim, were being celebrated across the nation, with all the proceeds going to the Infantile Paralysis Foundation.
After operating for several years as the El Patio, the dance hall was sold to real estate developer Raymond Lewis, who changed its name to the Rainbow Gardens and added an indoor miniature golf course. In 1935, Lewis changed the name again, this time to the Palomar Ballroom, and it became the place to hear Big Band swing music in Los Angeles.
Dance-crazy Big Band fans jammed the Palomar on Aug. 21, 1935, to hear Benny Goodman, who ascended into stardom at the ballroom.
Two months before Goodman and his band arrived in Los Angeles, Al Jarvis, a popular disc jockey, went all-out to introduce Goodman’s music to his listeners on KFWB’s “Make-Believe Ballroom” radio show. He played Goodman records and gave away opening night tickets to the Palomar. Jarvis even organized a group of young fans to meet Goodman’s train at Union Station.
On opening night, the ballroom was packed. The band started out with arrangements that left the crowd unresponsive. Then Goodman suddenly told his sidemen, “Swing it!” Most of the crowd stopped dancing and surged around the bandstand to listen. The whole place came alive as the band played such numbers as “King Porter Stomp,” “Roll ‘em,” “When Buddha Smiles” and “Sing, Sing, Sing.”
The Palomar extended the band’s one-month booking to two, and Goodman, with his new swing style, set attendance records.
Throughout the 1930s, the ballroom pulsed to the sounds of Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Dick Jurgens, Kay Kyser, Guy Lombardo, Glenn Miller, Ozzie Nelson, Buddy Rogers and Artie Shaw. And in 1938, Floyd Ray and his band broke the color barrier, becoming the first black band to play at the Palomar.
Disaster struck the Palomar on Oct. 2, 1939, when 2,000 patrons fled the ballroom in terror as flames broke out on stage shortly after Charlie Barnett’s orchestra had taken a break. The fire, accidentally started when the bass player dropped a resin-covered rag on a hot floodlight, reduced the building to ashes in what officials called “the most sensational fire of the decade.” No one was killed.
In 1945, Lewis, the Palomar’s owner, and the American Federation of Labor’s Central Labor Council began developing plans to build a $4-million auditorium, sports center and entertainment palace where the ballroom once stood. But the project never got off the ground. Eventually, a Ralphs supermarket arose from the Palomar’s ashes.