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HIDDEN GEM: The San Jose Woman's Club's Landmark Ballroom is pretty—but will it blend?

The New Landmark

Chris Esparza helps the San Jose Woman's Club bring its beautiful ballroom back to life

By Mike Connor

CHRIS Esparza is no newbie when it comes to making nightlife happen in downtown San Jose. He started Ajax and Fuel 44, and is now the co-owner of the Naglee Park Garage. But his most recent project is probably his weirdest.

The former nightclub owner was hired by the San Jose Woman's Club to book shows at their namesake building. At first glance, the pairing seems odd. This is a place that, in the beginning of November, hosted its annual holiday bazaar of "antiques and handmade treasures." Not exactly the next CBGB.

But of course it wasn't meant to be. The San Jose Woman's Club, formed back in 1894, built the Spanish Revival building in 1929 and used it as a home base from which they pursued their goals of "cultural, civic, educational and charitable betterment." The building itself is one of those hidden gems that seem much bigger on the inside than their physical footprint should allow. Planted in a mostly residential neighborhood on 11th Street right next to SJSU, it has a 3,000-square-foot ballroom with sprung hardwood floor and a raised stage with dressing rooms underneath, as well as balcony seating and a projection booth in the back of the hall.

While the ballroom is the main attraction, the building also has two (unoccupied) caretaker apartments, a large kitchen, a "Tea Room" suitable for large banquets or small conferences, and a cozy little "Fireside Room," as well as some office and storage space.

All of it has been recently renovated, which means it looks as good as it sounds, and now the Woman's Club is looking to bring it back as a cultural hot spot. Esparza has already done something similar with the Naglee Park Garage, which he essentially converted from an old gas station into a restaurant with music out on the patio.

"It's been something I've always wanted to do—find new use for historic buildings, make them something that the community can really be proud of and partly be responsible for bringing them back to life," says Esparza.

He's also working under the name of Giant Creative Services as an entertainment and economic development consultant, the capacity in which he was hired to book shows at the Woman's Club. "I took one look at this place and it was not a hard sell for me to come aboard."

Given the venue's unique identity, Esparza is envisioning an eclectic mix of events here. Live music and dance, sure, but also unique film festivals where the whole ballroom is filled with couches.

"The idea of sitting in a couch, having a really nice glass of wine or beer, with a meal cooked in front of you with a bunch of friends," says Esparza, "it's another easy thing to do in this space."

He also talks about recruiting partners and regular anchor events like Latin and swing dances on a monthly basis. But all of his new ideas have something in common: atmosphere. It's something he's much more interested in than he was when he was booking acts like Ben Harper and the Fugees at Ajax, which was more about the overall "scene" than the exquisite perfection of any particular event.

"When you're younger," says Esparza, "a black box is fine, you're just paying attention to scene, the band. When you're older, you go out for really quality things: good drinks, good food and a great performance all mixed together—more of a special event."

He talks about vintage balls where people get to dress up—a semiformal party that isn't the usual wedding or company Christmas party. Something with a casino and a Casablanca hookah lounge and sidecars and Manhattans—something to which the South Bay is entirely unaccustomed.

"It's scary in the South Bay because we're a little bit more of a commercial culture," says Esparza. "We don't always seek out the underbelly, the style of music that you'd have to look on the Internet for. We tend to have a suburban culture where the majority are kind of accepting what they're fed. ... We have to develop a crowd here that we think exists but is not just being fed the kind of quality performances that I'm thinking about."

To that end, he's already presented his first show at the Ballroom: a CD-release party for the local country band Careless Hearts, along with openers the Mumlers. Next up: the Royal Crown Revue on Dec. 20.

More than anything else, he wants to create the kind of venue that adds something to a show, kind of "It's gonna be a good show, but it's gonna be an amazing show at the Landmark Ballroom."

  THE LANDMARK BALLROOM is located at 75 S. 11th St., San Jose. (408.294.6919)

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