The Rainbow Ballroom is legendary as a music venue, but it began in post-World War I Fresno as an indoor swimming pool complex — part of a craze sweeping the nation.
The Fresno Natatorium was built in 1918, at 1725 I St. (later Broadway), combining Modern and Mission Revival elements.
It housed a 40- by 100-foot pool with a high dive platform, spring dive boards, trapeze rings over the pool for stunts, 165 dressing rooms, a roof garden and walls of windows to light the three-story building.
Then another craze sweeping the country in the Roaring ’20s transformed the “Nat.”
By 1924, the pool had been drained and covered with a maple floor, part of a plush ballroom, replete with sculpture, heavy furniture and a big band stage. It was rechristened the “Rainbow Ballroom.”
Musician and band leader Wally Johnson ran it from the 1930s to the ’60s, hosting Glenn Miller, Harry James, Woody Herman, Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington, who recorded his popular “Skin Deep” there in 1952.
During World War II, Fresno was a military city, with troops at Hammer Field and Camp Pinedale. Romances blossomed at the ballroom, where sometimes 1,000 couples danced into the night.
The ballroom flourished in the mid- 1960s and early ’70s, on the circuit for the “West Coast Rock Sound.”
Legendary rock acts played there, including Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Carlos Santana Blues Band, Ike and Tina Turner Revue and Fleetwood Mac.
The Rainbow today is owned and operated by Valdivia Enterprises, and hosts Latin music concerts, parties, receptions, and, of course, dances.
Special thanks to Conrad Jimenez, chairman and founder of the Central Valley Rock Hall of Fame research project.