Even a historic rain and flood cannot dampen the plans to breathe life into one of north Tulsa’s most notable landmarks.
The June storms blew across the metal roof of the Big 10 Ballroom, testing the screws, bolts and materials that kept it in place.
Rains that swelled the Arkansas River found paths onto the dance floor and stage once graced by such greats as Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Ike and Tina Turner, Little Richard, B.B. King, Fats Domino, Jackie Wilson, James Brown and the Temptations.
After the storms, Lester Shaw, a public school teacher and founder of the youth arts nonprofit A Pocket Full of Hope, walked into the 14,000-square-foot building at 1632 E. Apache St. to find water that just kept coming.
“When the wind is that extreme, the metal roof shifted after screws were loosened, and water went seeping through,” Shaw said. “We’ve never had water in there, and it just wouldn’t stop raining. It came down walls and straight down to the floor. It was like a swimming pool in there.”
That was bad enough. Worse was when the insurance assessor denied the claim, deciding the roof was not properly repaired from previous damage.
Shaw has suspicions about the denial because the assessor did not climb on the roof for an inspection, instead sending a family member who was being trained on the job.
“He blamed the roof, but the roofer who fixed it did his job. It was the worst flooding in a century. I don’t care what roofer you have, some roofs cannot withstand strong winds like that,” Shaw said.
Then, he sought help with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Small Business Administration. Both turned him down.
“FEMA said we didn’t qualify since the water came from the top down. I get that,” Shaw said. “The SBA said we were denied due to being a nonprofit but sent us to other emergency funds. We did all the paperwork and jumped through hoops but were told we’d get about $700 if we followed through. I said, ‘This is enough.’ ”
It’s a frustration that sadly too many people deal with after natural disasters. A Tulsa World analysis in September found that 1 in 3 of the 11,400-plus claims made to FEMA after the June floods were approved.
Even people who qualify and are approved for insurance or emergency funds get tired of the bureaucracy.
Shaw believes that the high number of claims prompted officials to be more conservative about approvals.
“We know the fix is in but decided we’d keep moving on,” Shaw said. “I used my personal money to get the roof fixed. Now, every screw, every seam is sealed up. We added more even in places that weren’t blown off or shaken loose.”
Shaw, who teaches vocal music and piano at Booker T. Washington High School, paid $3,700 to get the work done.
It’s not the first time Shaw dug into his pockets to keep the Big 10 Ballroom restoration going.
Shaw grew up in Tulsa, graduating from BTW in 1975 before earning a bachelor’s degree in music from Allen University in South Carolina. He completed a master’s degree in counseling from the University of Oklahoma and earned a doctorate in education from Oklahoma State University. His expertise is in different learning styles.
For about 13 years, he worked with youth living in public housing. He noticed the arts being eliminated in schools so he founded A Pocket Full of Hope in 2000 to give north Tulsa youth a place to learn and participate in the performing arts.
The problem was that there was no permanent home for the nonprofit. To host this kind of program, ideally the group would have a building with storage and a stage.
For years, Shaw has rented, reserved and borrowed locations for students to perform. On Sunday, the Pocket Full of Hope Upbeat 360 group of performers will be a special guest at a talent show from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Rudisill Regional Library, 1520 N. Hartford Ave.
In 2007, after going by the dilapidated former Big 10 Ballroom, Shaw purchased the building for the nonprofit. He has been working on it piecemeal ever since.
“The kids — A Pocket Full of Hope — is what it’s all for,” Shaw said. “They will be at the core once we get everything there. It will enhance everything. We will have more kids and more productions. The kids can stay longer if they need instead of having to load up and leave at a certain time.
“And, we’ll be able to make room for any issues they have. We have kids who can sing and dance, but they are going through some things that might require a professional touch. So, we have room in the Big 10 to help them with that. We want them to know this is a place for them, and they can share safely.”
It is expected to be a destination in the community. Shaw plans to use the facility to host other events and concerts.
Two years ago, Sen. James Lankford held a town hall meeting at the ballroom to bring attention to economic development of the area.
The restoration is about 72% complete, Shaw said. The roof and preventive mold treatments were a step back, but not too far.
Left to be done is the fire alarm system ($10,000) and parking lot ($60,000).
The Big 10 Ballroom was called a “swanky nightclub” when it opened in 1948 and become a popular spot on the “chitlin circuit.” It was built by Lonny Williams — the second black officer on the Tulsa police force — in an art deco streamline style intended for black performers.
It closed in 1966, sliding into disrepair. But, the bones of the building were strong and echoes of the music never left.
Two years ago, Shaw decided to take a teaching job at his high school alma mater. It’s a school where his father taught and children graduated.
His heart is still with the nonprofit he founded and the Big 10 Ballroom.
“The initial purpose was to keep that historical perspective,” he said. “Without historical perspective, it is hard empowering young people. It gives them an instant feeling of belonging. I can connect this to their relationships, and musical theater, dance and vocal performance brings that to the forefront.
“History is a gift that keeps giving. It’s phenomenal for the community and a major music venue to be the pride of Tulsa.”