LA Times: Inside the iconic Conga Room’s very last night

By Sonaiya Kelley

The iconic L.A. nightclub the Conga Room closed its doors for a final time Wednesday night, but not before filling its walls with one last celebration of Latin music. Drink glasses clinked. Hands clapped. Dresses swayed to the exuberant beats.

The night, hosted by founder Brad Gluckstein and co-investors Paul Rodriguez and Jimmy Smits, featured live performances, including a jam session featuring salsero Jerry Rivera, Latin soul performer Andy Vargas and a set by salsa legend Gilberto Santa Rosa, known as El Caballero de salsa.

“Gilberto Santa Rosa is probably the next-in-line living legend behind Celia [Cruz],” Gluckstein said in an interview preceding the event. “To bookend the Conga Room in tropical music, with Celia to open [in 1998] and Gilberto Santa Rosa to close, has special significance for me.”

Salsa has always been a beloved offering of the venue despite its reputation as a pan-Latin hub of music and entertainment. “If the blues were born in New Orleans and the South — they took a note and blew it through a horn,” said Rodriguez, standing onstage wearing a pinstriped suit and his signature fedora. “But salsa was a beat that they picked up in the street. And they wore it down so long that they put it in a conga and that’s where salsa began.”

At its height in the mid-aughts, the Conga Room enjoyed a status akin to that of Planet Hollywood or the Sunset Strip House of Blues — an intimate venue where Angelenos could go to drink, enjoy live music and maybe even rub shoulders with a star or two.

The confluence of famous investors like Smits, Rodriguez, Jennifer Lopez and drummer and percussionist Sheila E and the celebrity-obsessed culture of the ’90s and noughties made the Conga Room an emblem of L.A. nightlife.

“It was nice to have the celebrity influence, especially in a city like Los Angeles, but it was always about the music,” said Gluckstein.

Over the course of 25 years, from its original Wilshire Boulevard location to its final L.A. Live outpost, the Conga Room has offered live shows before packed audiences. But the business model was destabilized affected by the pandemic when the club’s regulars struggled to keep up with the cost of living, let alone a night out. And where once some artists were content to perform intimate sets in small and midsize venues, many now prioritizes bigger venues and bigger budgets.

“The cost of artists ratcheted up significantly after the pandemic,” said Gluckstein. “After the pandemic, artist royalties and monetization became singularly about concerts. National tours became the highest priority for artists, and we were just not able to compete.

“Of course I’m emotional over the closing. But what is brought up for me is not sadness but an awareness that had been lost over many years of the inspiration behind the original Conga Room. Ultimately, it becomes a business, and you lose that awareness sometimes.”

The farewell celebration kicked off with a dance presentation by a dozen of the Conga Kids, spanning salsa, cumbia, the Charleston and hip-hop. The African diaspora dance curriculum and nonprofit organization reaches about 50,000 underserved elementary school students across L.A. and Orange counties annually.

“I would say one of the pivotal reasons why the Conga Room is closing is that my attention has been on the impact we’re having on [Conga] kids,” said Gluckstein. “It is a music and dance program, but the takeaway for the kids is a lot more.”

The night was also attended by a handful of notable figures, including legendary labor rights leader Dolores Huerta and actors Edward James Olmos and Constance Marie.

Elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla of California and former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made remarks and reminisced about the club’s 25-year run. Gov. Gavin Newsom was there in spirit, having pre-taped a video message that was broadcast onstage. A lifetime achievement award was presented to actor Renée Victor before the night gave way to music and dancing.

“I believe very steadfastly that it will be hard to replicate a Conga Room,” said Gluckstein. “I believe we are the Troubadour or the Apollo of Latin music. I think it’d be hard for a venue to replicate a 25-year run like the Conga Room or the Apollo or the Troubadour. It’s now an underplay when an artist decides to play a venue like this, whereas for us, for the first 20 years, it was a staple of our weekly presentation.”

“It’s been a love affair with you, Conga Room, and we will all miss you dearly, but the drumbeat will live on in our hearts and through Conga Kids,” Gluckstein said onstage. “Gracias, por siempre.”

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