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Lou Shelby

Great Moments at the Fez

Lou Shelby Remembers

by Feiruz Aram

Located on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vermont, the Fez was Los Angeles’ first Arabic club and boasted celebrity clients such as Lee Marvin, Jayne Mansfield, and Danny Thomas (who loved to get up and dance the Debke) and later, the entire cast of the hit television series, “The Waltons”.   This is where Feiruz encountered basketball star, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, there to watch his current interest, a dancer named Keita, perform.

For years, the Fez was synonymous with the mystery and glamour of the Middle East.  It was decorated to capitalize on Americans’ fascination with orientalism — influenced by Hollywood’s version. There was a striped awning over the sidewalk outside where well-dressed patrons would wait for their tables on many a standing-room-only night. There was a separate bar, low-ceilinged and draped in striped fabric, a large dining room and another smaller, darker room upstairs called the Sindbad Lounge.  Patrons would sit or recline on pillows while the dancer performed among them in the more intimate setting of the upstairs lounge.

Lou Shelby sips coffee with Antoinette Awayshak, oudist Najeeb and company at the Fez.

The Fez, like later clubs, had entertainment six nights a week with two sets of costumed musicians playing simultaneously upstairs and down.  Three dancers per night would alternate shows and sometimes pass each other on the stairs.

Lou Shelby was the owner of the Fez from 1957 to 1969.  The Fez was an important milestone in the careers of dancers Feiruz Aram (1968),  Jenaeni Rathor (1965), and Antoinette Awayshak (1961), so it was most fitting that we three dancers should conduct this interview with Mr. Shelby together.  Among all the club owners in our careers, Lou stands out as the one who was the most artistic, supportive, professional, and just plain decent.  Knowing that this interview was for Habibi’s upcoming 20th Anniversary Issue, Lou mentioned that he was also interviewed for Habibi by Jamila Salimpour twenty years ago.

Our interview took place on August 27, 1994, at Al Amir Arabic Restaurant (where, incidentally, Jeanaeni’s daughter, Ansuya, is now the featured dancer).  Before Lou told us his story, we began by looking over some photos of some of the dancers and musicians who worked at the Fez to jog our memories — dancers such as Sabah, Kanza Omar, Zenouba, Maya Medwar (after whom Jamila Salimpour named the now frequently-done dance movement), Cozette, Nadia Simon and Desiree (as well as the dancers present for the interview).

Lou Shelby (pronounced Shelaby in Lebanese) was born & raised in Boston in a tightly knit community of mostly Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian immigrants.  Lou mentioned that they were all grouped together and called “Turks” by the Bostonians who had been there longer, as they all came on Turkish passports.  Lou’s exposure to Arabic music and dance was through parties, church events and his father’s records.  He began violin lessons at the age of nine in public school.  Later, when he began playing for parties, he had to struggle to convert his Western techniques to Arabic quarter tones.

East Coast weather had always adversely affected Lou’s health, so in the early ‘50’s, he took a Pullman train to Los Angeles and stayed with relatives.  He had intended to set up his own hair salon, but lost the use of his right hand in an auto accident, so began attending Los Angeles City College.  Before Lou opened the Fez, the Arabic community (composed mostly of Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians) would gather at churches such as St. Nicholas and St. Anne’s and at Syrian clubs to play music, dance and enjoy familiar foods.  Lou was playing in these bands and began to get encouragement, especially from his fellow students at L.A.C.C., to open a club were they could enjoy themselves on a regular basis.

In 1957, Lou’s parents and his brother, Fred came to California and Lou decided to buy a place called The Continental.  He reasoned that his mom was a good cook, his brother was a “big gorilla” and he, himself could do public relations and music.  At this point in time, he had only seen village or community girls dance informally, and neither his sisters nor his mom danced.

The first time he saw a professional dancer was in an Egyptian movie — this dancer was Samia Gamal, who he later would play for when she was working under contract at Ciro’s in Los Angeles.  Lou explained that Samia’s costumes disappointed the Arabic Community as being “too Hollywoodish,” and that she would have been better advised to wear a baladi costume instead of harem pants.  As far as her dance style, he compares her to Maya Medwar.  They also both played sagat.

His first real experience with professional bellydancers came around 1959 with Siham, the first dancer hired at the Fez, and later with Maya.  Siham and some musicians came without papers through a convoluted route that included China.  Lou helped them acquire their papers after they arrived in the U.S.  He found them very colorful compared to anything that had been seen at the Fez up to that time, and they were also definitely “tough cookies!”  Realizing what disasters could befall the shows if dancers and musicians began “socializing,” he attempted to discourage mixing outside the club, and if they were seen leaving the club together, there was “hell to pay.”

In Lou’s experience, the main attraction in the show was between dancer and drummer, rather than the other instruments.  At times, this is especially unfortunate, since the drummer can make or break the show more than any other musician.  In response to a question regarding how to get musicians to cooperate with dancers and get the music the way we request, Lou said “I don’t know what caused musicians to be this way (sometimes uncooperative and spiteful).  It’s like a jealousy — they react badly to being upstaged.  But if I sing, why should I be jealous of the dancer?  If I play oud, why should I be jealous of the violinist?  I think it comes down to lack of ability.”  The foreign born musicians would tell him, “Be tough, we don’t like it if you’re easy,” so Fred and Lou were “always on top of them.”

In discussing some of the best parts of being a club owner:  “I had many favorite dancers and wonderful memories of when dancers had a ‘great moment of the theatre.’  I have lived long enough to see several of those, I’m very pleased to have been a part of those and they’re worth a million bucks.  The musicians usually didn’t know this was happening — but I would look around the audience and see that there were always a few people who were obviously aware and appreciating it.  It was a great, great thing — the musicians were ticking and the dancer would be vibrating and the whole atmosphere, just beautiful!…All three of you (indicating Antoinette, Jenaeni and Feiruz) were a part of those moments I experienced.  There seemed to be fewer of those moments when I owned the Cascades in Anaheim.”  (Lou closed the Fez in 1969 and opened a new club, the Cascades in 1978 to 1985 in Anaheim, just down the road from Disneyland, and the place that Sahra calls her “cradle”).

One of the biggest problems Lou had at both the Fez and the Cascades was fighting “The Flesh Market,” meaning the male patrons demanding young, pretty girls whose dance abilities were irrelevant to them.  “Not only did this pressure come from the public, but from within my own organization — it was awful.  I had a constant fight, but my purist’s instincts in music transferred to dance as well.”  Lou has always had to struggle to balance art with commercialism.  He cites the twelve person show which Sahra helped him produce.  It was  done on a small budget in a small club, but was a huge success.

Feiruz asked Lou to comment on M.E.C.D.A. (She was one of the original organizers in 1977, and Lou was the first club owner to become a member).  “Yes, I’m very familiar with M.E.C.D.A and have been from it’s beginnings. I was a supporter from the early days, because I believe in creativity and growth; I believe in life.  I just can’t help it, it’s just my nature.  I did feel that when M.E.C.D.A. first started it had too limited a scope, too much like unionism where the more experienced dancers were trying to keep the newer dancers out and were on the wrong track.  But I’m very pleased with the way it has developed, and I believe it has been very influential with the direction the industry has taken.  I credit the group for its creativity in costuming, for example, and for keeping the music and dance alive and in front of the public.”

We asked Lou to compare the situation in the clubs today with when he ran the Fez and the Cascades.  He replied: “The newcomers have gone a bit wild. They’re creative, they’re innovative and their careers seem to come easier for them than for the dancers of the 50’s and 60’s, but no one is out there maintaining the high standards in the clubs.”

Lou Shelby lives with his lovely daughter, Roxanne, a school teacher, and son, George, a professional saxophonist who tours with Brian Cetsna, and his grandchildren, a few miles from where the Fez used to be.  Lou can be seen occasionally at dance events, sizing up the scene and watching for those rare “great moments of theatre.”

Feiruz began her professional dance career in Hollywood in the late ‘60’s.  She danced professionally in Egyptian nightclubs and studied Middle Eastern music in Egypt in 1976-77.   She was co-founder of the first dancer’s union, M.E.C.D.A., and produced the first convention for Middle Eastern Dancers in 1973.  She has held a California teaching credential for fifteen years, and has taught Oriental dance for credit at a regional college.  She produced the first multi-media dance tutorial in 1991, and continues to be an active performer and teacher. elsamariebutler@aol.com

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