In 1943, a lawyer named Ben Fenton gave his brother Ed a call. He'd been offered an opportunity to buy a business and wanted to know if Ed would go in with him. It was a taxi-dance hall called the Roseland Roof, and the owner wanted to sell it.
When Edward Fenton was 91 years old, he remembered that moment, talking to Evan Wright of the L.A. Weekly:
"I'd never heard of a place like this.... I didn't have any idea how it was operated. I came here on a Thursday night to check the place out. I see a bunch of women and a bunch of customers, and I say, 'What's this business all about?' So my brother explained it to me, and I said, 'Not a bad idea. What's the supply of girls?' and he said, 'We don't have a problem with that.'"The Fentons decided to buy the club , but in a bizarre twist, the owner, William Lederer, was murdered in a stick-up while depositing the payment in the night deposit box at his bank.
Even so, they made a go of it. They had a six-piece live band, and enforced a dress code. Men had to wear neckties - you could buy one at the door if you didn't have one. They were so successful they bought a second club, Dreamland, on Main Street up near the Burbank burlesque theatre.
In another newspaper interview, Ben talks about the patrons and the dancers:
"It was a fairly nice group of people...A lot of business people. There were some lonesome people. Some of them wanted to be away from their wives....the girls had to be good conversationalists. People didn't care that much about dancing. They mostly wanted someone to talk to."The Fentons modernized the system - now instead of having customers buy tickets at ten cents a dance, the girls punched in at a time clock when they went with a customer.
This photo of a car wreck at 9th and Spring from 1952 shows the Roseland Roof's neon sign lit in the background - USC Digital Archives
Amazingly, the Fentons ran the Roseland Roof for more than 30 years, until they retired in 1980 and sold it to another manager. Business dipped in the '50s and early '60s - at once point the only clubs in downtown L.A. were the Fentons' clubs, Roseland Roof and Dreamland.
In 1963, the Fenton brothers stopped hiring live bands, and started using a juke box to provide music for the dancing. Ben Fenton, interviewed in 1969 by the Los Angeles Times, says he was worried the change would hurt business. "I always felt there was a certain benefit to live music, a warmth." But business actually improved. "Unbelievable," said Fenton. "But it's positively true. Business picked up when the band left. I think the men in the band were viewed with suspicion by patrons, as possible competition."
1967 Photo by William Reagh showing the club with a sign painting on the building - LA Public Library
It was true. By 1969, there were twice as many clubs downtown - four, with other permit applications pending. There may have been other reasons than juke boxes - probably the increase in the immigrant population - as in the '30's - brought more lonely men seeking female companionship.
By 1981, according to the Los Angeles Times, there were nine clubs. Some were high end, catering to Asian businessmen and travelers at the convention center.
The Fentons retired in 1980 and sold the Roseland Roof. It continued to operate under new management. It changed hands several more times, and by 1999 it was called Dreamland, and the name Roseland Roof was given to a club at another location.
Sometime around 2000 Dreamland closed. The building housed an artist's loft, a gallery, a photographer's studio. Bands played there, including a reggae festival in Spring of 2004. In December of 2004, a rave took place at 833 S. Spring Street. The cops were called to respond to reports that shots were fired, and found an unruly crowd of 400 people on the street. Inside the building were the bodies of two 17 year old young men, lying in a litter of empty beer bottles, party fliers, and tanks and balloons of nitrous oxide.
Today the building is being renovated. The sign outside calls it "The Primrose Design Building." There's a fashion wholesaler on the third floor. The fourth floor is being marketed as an event space to the fashion industry.
But what went on inside those walls? What was it really like, up those stairs to the once-graceful fourth floor hall? Don't miss Dancing Girls Part Seven, for more about taxi-dancing.