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New play remembers music impresario John Dolphin

Merdies Hayes | 3/26/2015, midnight

In the late 1940s—a full decade before Motown Records—John Dolphin opened his world-famous record shop at Vernon and Central avenues in South Los Angeles. It was an immediate hit with teenagers of all colors as Rock ’N Roll and Rhythm & Blues began to supplant the Big Band and Jazz sounds once favored at sock hops and record hops that were so popular among the high school set.

A new play, “Recorded In Hollywood,” will run from April 11 through May 17 at the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood to recall an often overlooked era of music in Los Angeles. Based on the biography of the innovative music entrepreneur, the play recounts the days of the popular Dolphin’s of Hollywood record shop and includes a memorable score of 16 original songs and covers of original tunes launched by Dolphin, including Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” “Earth Angel” by the Penguins and “Wheel of Fortune” by the Hollywood Flames.

For nearly 10 years, Dolphin recorded a host of top acts on a series of record labels with evocative names like “Lucky,” “Money,” “Cash” and “Recorded in Hollywood” and helped launch the careers of Jesse Belvin, Charles Mingus, Pee Wee Crayton, Major Lance and many others who would eventually change the way teenagers listened to music. His cavernous store had a big, plate-glass window to showcase famous disc jockeys spinning the latest platters (45 rpm) for eager teens. Names like Hunter Hancock (“Ooold H.H.”), Dick “Huggy Boy” Hugg and Charles Trammel performed live and would often greet customers and sign autographs.

Tension began to mount between the teenagers and LAPD Chief William H. Parker who strictly enforced the city’s segregation laws and subsequently banned such inter-racial gatherings in South L.A.

Dolphin’s of Hollywood was always open for business—24 hours a day including on Sundays—and popularized a new marketing strategy—“buy one, get one free”—that became one of the record industry’s most profitable sales campaigns. Dolphin was said to have pioneered the “crossover” music concept and broadcast Black music on White radio station KRKD. White youth would fill the record shop in South L.A.—skipping Wallach’s Music City in Hollywood—to hear the latest, most popular acts on AM radio including Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Big Moma Thornton, The Platters, The Cadillacs, The Silhouettes, Fats Domino and a host of others who made music history.

“John started from scratch and evolved into one of the most important figures in the history of American music,” said Jamelle Dolphin who penned the biography of his grandfather. “When he realized that no one was going to let him open his record store on all-White Hollywood Boulevard, he brought Hollywood to Central Avenue. By naming the store ‘Dolphin’s of Hollywood,’ he was telling the world that he was going to stare discrimination in the face and not blink.”

In 1958, Dolphin was murdered in his office by a disgruntled songwriter; the incident was witnessed by Bruce Johnston who had come by to see if Dolphin would sign an unknown band from Hawthorne, the Beachboys.

The cast of the play includes Stu James (“Benny” from Broadway’s “Rent”), Jade Johnson, a recent graduate of the USC School of the Performing Arts; Eric B. Anthony (“Hairspray,” “The Lion King” on Broadway), Godfrey Moye (“The Color Purple” at Celebration Theatre), Nic Olsen (“Avenue Q” at Repertory East Playhouse) and recording artist Rahsaan Patterson.

“Recorded in Hollywood” will open on Saturday, April 11, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and on Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets to all performances are $30.

The Lillian Theatre is located at 1076 Lillian Way in Hollywood, a little more than one block west of Vine Street. For reservations or more information, call (323) 960-4443.