Atomic Ballroom Kick-Starts the Heart of Dancing in Downtown Fullerton’s Historic Williams Building

Photo courtesy of the Fullerton History Room

The Santa Fe train and bus lines run through the city of Fullerton like a main artery straight to the heart of downtown. Terrestrial travelers flow through the district as though clusters of white blood cells—in and out with each arrival and departure. The pulse of the few blocks that make up the historic downtown is sometimes slow and sedentary, other times wild and raucous.

And the building that has served as the right atrium to the heartbeat of downtown since 1927 is the Williams Building. This three-story brick building on the National Registry of Historic Places has served many functions in its time, but providing a space for the local community was at the heart of each function. It’s been a post office, an events center, a meeting hall for several community-volunteer organizations, a ballroom and, of course, a speakeasy (as in a real one, necessitated by Prohibition, not a trend).

The building (also called the Odd Fellows Temple) was constructed in 1927 for and by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a Stonecutters-like fraternal organization, and designed by member and Fullerton resident Oliver S. Compton. In 1928, Lodge No. 103 opened to the public. The second story served as an exclusive meeting hall for the Odd Fellows, and the third floor operated as a speakeasy. The ground floor was open to the public and initially served as a post office.

After World War II, Dave Williams returned home to Orange County and in 1949 opened a chain of Army and Navy supply stores called the Williams Co. The company leased out the ground floor that was formerly the post office for a few years before purchasing the building outright from the Odd Fellows in 1962.

“One day, an attorney stopped by and suggested the dancing stop after picking up cans that were being thrown out the window,” recalled Sam Williams—one of the titular Williamses who have owned the building since the early days of the county’s post-World War II business boom—in a 2004 Fullerton News Tribune article. This anecdote would have been from around 1964, when Sam took over his brother Dave’s business. The Williams Co. was once synonymous with Levi’s 501s and denim jackets in North Orange County and later scouting and camping supplies; it would be a staple of downtown Fullerton for nearly half a century.

The store’s stone’s-throw proximity to the train station made this location the shipping-and-receiving hub for the Williams’ surplus store chain around Orange County. What was once a hotbed for dancing and drinking on the sly—and doing whatever it is Odd Fellows do in their fancy odd-fellow robes—later laid dormant for decades. The plain brown boxes of surplus inventory, which sat scattered about the second floor, belied the lively activity that once stomped and stepped about the wood ballroom. Only the original Art Deco-era lighting and sconces kept the dancehall flame alive during those years.

And in 2002, the pulse jumpstarted again. The Imperial Ballroom moved from Buena Park to the second floor of the Williams Building, where it has served as a defibrillator to the local community, operating as a dance studio and events center.

One such event is Inspiration Weekend, a three-day swing-dancing soiree every March. Nikki and Shesha Marvin, owners of the Atomic Ballroom in Irvine, run the event and were quite taken with the venue. When they found out the owner of Fullerton Ballroom and Dancesport Center was looking to move and sell, they Lindy-hopped on the opportunity to purchase.

The partners—in dance, business and marriage—met at the Atomic Ballroom in Irvine in 2003 when Shesha was an instructor and Nikki (who was featured in the Weekly’s 2007 People issue) was learning swing dancing. It was on the floorboards of that industrial-park dance studio that the pair fell in love with dancing together—and each other. In 2008, the Atomic Ballroom went up for sale, and the Marvins purchased it from the original owners.

Under their lead, the Atomic Ballroom has brought to Orange County many varieties of dance, from classes and social dances seven nights a week at their Irvine studio to Strutter’s Ball, a weekly swing-dance social night at the historic Women’s Club in Old Towne Orange on Wednesday nights to Muse Burlesque, a monthly show that brings world-class seductresses and strip-tease artitsts to the stage of the Copper Door in Santa Ana’s Artists Village.

A decade later, a similar, yet different, opportunity has presented itself for the duo to purchase a local dance legacy. The Atomic Ballroom is expanding to a truly historic spot, with close ties to dancing. And, according to Shesha, it’s the perfect home for the historic dances the Atomic Ballroom teaches.

“The partner dances that we are involved in—such as ballroom dancing, swing dancing, Argentine tango, country—these are all historical dances,” he notes. “It’s not like the dance was invented a few years ago and it’s the new fad. And we’re really into building communities around social dances. It’s pretty rare that a dance studio also hosts social dances. We’re going to keep the dance-sport engine going here, but we’re also going to infuse Fullerton with social dancing.

“We’ve created a social atmosphere that welcomes everybody of all ages,” he continues. “It’s amazing when teenagers are dancing with people in their eighties and everybody is just coexisting, and all different social backgrounds come together, and they swing dance or ballroom dance or salsa dance or tango dance.”

The Odd Fellows Temple will again be a place of community gathering. “I think it’s a really good pairing to have vintage dancing be at a vintage building,” says Shesha. “It’s just going to feel really magical.”

The Atomic Ballroom Fullerton, 114 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-5155; Opens Aug. 1. Grand-opening party with free lessons, Aug. 4, noon-6 p.m. Free.

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