One of the pleasures of writing this column for the past 24 years has been drawing readers' attention to the consistently outstanding work turned out by the Arkansas Educational Television Network in its original productions.
There is no better example than Dream Land: Little Rock's West 9th Street. The entertaining and educational film -- an important film -- premieres at 7 p.m. today on AETN and encores at 9 p.m. April 17.
Directed by cinematographer Gabe Mayhan (Greater, Pillow), the hour documentary tells the fascinating tale of the six blocks of West Ninth Street from Broadway to Ringo Street that was once a bustling black business and entertainment district, and home to Taborian Hall with its Dreamland Ballroom.
Producer Tanisha Joe Conway says, "West Ninth Street and the Dreamland Ballroom have patiently waited for their story to unfold so new audiences can connect to their historical past and unknown future."
Author Berna Love adds, "To understand the whole story, you have to understand the birth of this street. This was the heart of not only Little Rock's African-American community, this was the capital city, I guess you could say, of the African-American communities in Arkansas."
Using archival photos, interviews with local residents and historians, Dream Land helps viewers see past the current vacant lots and parking lots to what was once a vibrant business district that supported a thriving black urban middle class.
It was thriving, but locals called Ninth Street "the line," because it was the boundary between Little Rock's white and black societies.
Opening in 1918, Taborian Hall, at 800 W. Ninth St., is Ninth Street's only remaining historic structure. Originally known as Taborian Temple, the building was home to the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, a black fraternal organization. The building gives just a hint of the community's former grandeur.
Bought by Kerry McCoy in 1991 as the home of Arkansas Flag and Banner, Taborian Hall once boasted a number of important businesses, including professional offices, a black USO, Gem Pharmacy and, on the third floor, the famous Dreamland Ballroom.
"The old-timers would come by to visit me," McCoy says. "To see who that lady was who had restored Taborian Hall. And I began to realize I had been entrusted with something more than just saving an old building."
By the 1930s, Dreamland was host to musicians, dances, socials, concerts and basketball games. It became a regular stop on the "Chitlin' Circuit" that showcased regional and national bands, performers and stage shows.
Musician Billy Sparks Jr. recalls the astonishing list of those who performed at Dreamland. They included Duke Ellington, Nat "King" Cole, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Dinah Washington, the Ink Spots, Mills Brothers, Louis Jordan, Billy Eckstine, Redd Foxx, Little Richard, Sammy Davis Jr., B.B. King and Ray Charles.
Adding a special magic to the film are re-enactments by Rodney Block and The Real Music Lovers, Bijoux, Detroit Johnny, Jazz R Us and dancers from the Tidwell Project, among others.
Then the dream faded.
Urban Renewal, school desegregation, the Housing Act of 1949 and the neighborhood-killing Interstate 630 program all chipped away at the community and served to move the black population away from traditional areas of residence.
One of the most poignant moments in the documentary is when old-timer Leon Majors takes the camera on a tour of overgrown lots, broken foundations and sidewalk tiles and recalls what used to be.
"Don't look like Ninth Street now," Majors laments. "We had buildings all that side. They tore everything down. People was like ants down here. I wish them days come back to me. I had a good time. We got nowhere to go now."
Note: Majors died March 13 in Little Rock at the age of 93, after production on the film was complete.
"This is a part of the American story," says Cherisse Jones-Branch, a history professor at Arkansas State University. "We need to know about these communities."
Dream Land: Little Rock's West 9th Street is an outstanding place to begin to learn and understand.
The TV Column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Email
Weekend on 04/06/2017
Print Headline: AETN special recalls vibrant life of city's Ninth Street