by DARLENE DONLOE
Jamelle Dolphin is sitting inside the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, watching intently as workmen put the finishing touches on the lights and set for the musical, Recorded in Hollywood: The Music, The Movement, and The Mogul, a project he co-wrote and co-produced about his grandfather’s hugely successful record shop and record company.
The true story takes place in the 1940s and 50s when his grandfather, John Dolphin, made a name for himself as not only a successful black businessman, but a music mogul and producer. In 1948, he opened a record shop and music label on Central Avenue in South Central Los Angeles called Dolphin’s of Hollywood. The record store would stay open for 24 hours for patrons who worked the late shift, and attracted local singer/songwriter wannabees and big names alike, including Sam Cooke, Tina Turner and Elvis Presley. It was also popular with black, Latino and white teens who would crowd the place to hear the music, see a celebrity, and dance. In short, it was a music mecca — the place to be, until the police would come and shut down the party.
As fate would have it, John Dolphin was killed at his record company in 1958 by a disgruntled songwriter. Dolphin’s triumphant, inspirational, and albeit tragic story is brought to life in Recorded In Hollywood.
The play, co-written by Matt Donnelly, co-produced by Lou Spisto and directed by Denise Dowse, is an offshoot of the book Dolphin, 43, authored and published in 2011, called Recorded In Hollywood: The John Dolphin Story. The book is based on hundreds of hours of research and interviews with family and friends. What Jamelle Dolphin found out about his grandfather was eye-opening and, he says, transformative.
“I realized just how much of a trailblazer he was,” says Dolphin. “He truly was an amazing man who did amazing things during a time when things were difficult for blacks. He was a civil rights activist. He wanted to help his people.”
This is the second time Dolphin has produced the show. It had a successful run in 2015 at the Lillian Theater in Hollywood. This time around, John Dolphin’s story is brought to life with a six-piece live band, 15 original songs by Andy Cooper, and a cast of 21.
Jamelle Dolphin, who runs Dolphin’s of Hollywood Productions with his siblings (Ahman Dolphin and Glory Dolphin Hammes) in Los Angeles, says he was inspired to write the book because he didn’t want his grandfather’s legacy to vanish. He realized the progress and historical significance of his grandfather’s accomplishments were in danger of fading into obscurity.
“People were not remembering what my grandfather did, but they all remembered what Berry Gordy did with Motown,” explains Dolphin, a tall, laidback, soft-spoken man who is deliberate with his words. “My grandfather came first. Dolphin’s of Hollywood came before Motown.”
In the show, not only does Dolphin touch upon how his grandfather managed to create a hugely successful business, but also how he avoided dealing with the mafia and how he refused to let racism derail his dream.
John Dolphin originally had wanted his company positioned in Hollywood, but it was not to be. Dolphin says that when his grandfather tried to open his business in Hollywood he received backlash “because he was black.” Undeterred, he took his store to South Central Los Angeles and called it Dolphin’s of Hollywood.
“He couldn’t actually be in Hollywood so he brought Hollywood to South Central,” says Jamelle Dolphin. “He said he would ‘bring Hollywood’ to him. Those were his exact words. That’s how the company got its name.”
I recently sat down with a proud Jamelle Dolphin inside the Kirk Douglas Theatre to talk about the show and his grandfather’s legacy…
(Read Part II, the full Q&A with Jamelle Dolphin.)
NOW PLAYING: RECORDED IN HOLLYWOOD at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, through August 7.
The true and fascinating love, life, and times of 1950s Los Angeles entrepreneur and activist John Dolphin—the trailblazing black businessman who made his mark on the national music scene long before Motown ever existed.