By Paul Sheldon, Jr.
One summer, while I was still in high school, a friend invited my sister Hunter and me to go to "The Intersection," the original folk dance coffeehouse in Los Angeles owned by Rudy Dannes and Athan Karras, and after which "The Museum" in Pasadena where we danced had been patterned. That evening was one of the many peak experiences in my life. I was so scared I almost didn't go. Then I was scared to go in the place when we got there. I had never been in a place like that -- a little storefront bar, with barrel tables, old steamer trunks to sit on, a tiny dance floor, and lots of adults. It felt like what I had imagined going into a bar would feel like, although it wasn't really a bar (Rudy always felt strongly that there should be no alcohol served at The Intersection).
The little room was crammed with people -- mostly young adults -- doing dances from Greece, the Balkans, Scandinavia, Hungary, Israel, Armenia, The Ukraine, and probably lots of other places I couldn't recognize. I was completely intimidated yet inspired. I knew I would never be able to do any of those dances. I remember one Bulgarian dance in particular that involved men in one line, holding each other's belts, facing women in another line. The leaders of the lines would call out complicated Bulgarian phrases, which told the dancers which steps to do next. I couldn't even imagine myself doing that dance, much less being one of those leaders. Yet, within ten years, with Rudy's assistance and support, I would not only have been hired as a dishwasher, waiter, assistant manager, teacher, and host, but also as director of a performing group that included that dance in its repertoire.
Rudy had been going through a bitter divorce. His marriage was unhappy. He needed somewhere to escape to. The apartment he was living in was too small to dance in, after the recreational folk dance groups quit for the evening, and it just seemed that there was no place to go. He thought about finding someplace where people could go to dance after the custodian kicked them out of the local school gymnasium at 10:00 p.m. Then a friend introduced him to Athan Karras, a Greek actor, who got so excited about the idea that Rudy decided to give it a try. As with so many creative ideas, Athan remembers that it was HIS idea, and several others later told me it was their idea as well.
Athan and Rudy rented a little hole in the wall on Alvarado Street in Los Angeles, a block north of the Hollywood Freeway, where Rudy could live in the back. He and Athan could use the front for a workshop and occasional dance parties. Rudy's stories of that time were bitter-sweet. Of all his friends, most of whom thought it was a great idea, Athan was the only one who came down to help him fix up the barrels so they could make tables. They had to cut off the ends, tighten the staves, nail tops on, and paste old luggage stickers around the barrels for flair.
They scrounged up an old piano, which would be used for live music on party nights. They began with old steamer trunks for seats, but later moved them out to make more room for dancing.
The early parties must have been great, because people wanted more and more. Eventually, The Intersection was open every night, featuring a different nationality each night -- Israeli, Armenian, Balkan, Greek, international, Turkish, etc. Working as a draftsman at an engineering company became a problem for Rudy. He would be up all night making The Intersection a success and try to go to work early the next morning.
One night, Rudy had the following dream:
"I'm riding on a train in Mexico or someplace in South America. I'm looking for someone, going between cars. There are poor people standing in the aisles. One had big eyes, like the drawings on velvet you can buy in Tijuana. She had her feet in shoe boxes. I convinced her I could help her."
Here the dream went in another direction. I brought her into The Intersection, but it wasn't the original building. We entered through a patio to a large dance floor, which had skylights and a balcony overlooking the dance floor. I put the girl on a table and cut the ribbons off the boxes she was wearing on her feet. One foot was just a big lump. A flower started to grow from between her toes. I plucked the flower and she was okay and could dance."
Rudy and his employer parted company -- Rudy's heart was in The Intersection.
Later, Rudy would design the building he had seen in his dream. There would be a much larger dance floor, with big floor-to-ceiling sliding doors that could be opened in the summer and closed in the winter, separating the patio from the dance floor. It would be a folk arts center, with dance as the focus, surrounded by ethnic foods, a gift shop for folk arts, crafts and costumes, a library, and inspiring performance groups visiting from around the world.
Rudy and Athan saved enough money during the early years on Alvarado to buy a piece of land nearby on Temple Street, just south of the Hollywood Freeway and a block west of Rampart. They hired a contractor to build the structure Rudy had designed. The contractor poured the concrete slab in the bathrooms without putting the drains in the floor Rudy had called for, which made cleaning the bathrooms very difficult.
When dance groups visited Los Angeles from other countries, they were invited to The Intersection for parties after their performances. Often, the groups' lead dancers taught institutes and master classes at The Intersection.
In the late 1960s, Rudy fell in love with Rubi Vučeta, who had taught Balkan dances at the Intersection, and the couple became engaged to be married. Rubi and Rudy had founded The Intersection International Dancers. Rudy taught South American tango and adagio choreographies, while Rubi created complicated Yugoslav and Bulgarian numbers. They imported beautiful costumes or made them from scratch. Some of the dancers learned to play traditional musical instruments and sing traditional songs to accompany the dancing.
There was always a great deal of tension between Athan and Rudy, partly because they were very different, very dynamic individuals, and partly because they never fully agreed on the form their dream for The Intersection was to take. Throughout the history of The Intersection, the scene of Athan and Rudy yelling at each other late at night was accepted as part of the ambience, just as Athan and his Greek friends would yell at each other over heated games of "tavli" (Greek backgammon).
Rudy wanted The Intersection to be in one place -- a center to which people could come from all over the world. Athan, on the other hand, dreamed of selling Intersection franchises all over the world, and began fulfilling this dream by opening the Athens Intersection on the Plaka in Greece (without, however, any monetary investment from Rudy). Along with Rudy's reluctant help, Athan began opening "satellite" coffeehouses.
Rudy and Rubi dreamed of starting a folk arts library at the center for the materials they had already gathered and the materials that Rubi would collect on her research trip to Yugoslavia. Rudy also wanted The Intersection to serve light, simple snacks and sandwiches from all over the world as a supplement for the dancers and to enhance the atmosphere for dancing. Athan, in charge of the restaurant portion of The Intersection, wanted to develop a large money-making dinner and catering business and began to grow the restaurant to include rather elaborate meals.
In 1969, Rubi went to Europe to conduct research for The Intersection Dancers. She took thousands of dollars worth of video and audio taping equipment so she could record the dances and songs she would learn. But she never came back. Rubi died in a car crash in Yugoslavia. All of her possesions disappeared and were never returned. Sadly, a large part of Rudy's desire to see his dream come true died with his fiancée.
Rudy and Athan stayed together another 12 years because Rudy knew that it was Athan's flair and Greek spirit that gave The Intersection much of its flavor and spark and that The Intersection could not have grown to what it already was without Athan. Athan respected Rudy's work ethic and organizational and design abilities. But Rudy also knew that that his dream of one big international center could not be all that he wanted it to be with Athan in the picture.
The restaurant, for whatever reasons, never grew beyond subsistence levels, despite the eventual addition of beer and wine to the menu (a move Rudy had strongly opposed for many years). The gift shop muddled along, but lacked an inspired person to take it over and make it work. None of the satellite coffeehouses succeeded and they all closed. Athan ran into conceptual differences with his partners in Greece and, after only two years, the Athens Intersection was no more.
What happened to the dream? Rudy gave up. In a personal communication to me in 1983, Rudy wrote: "It was like hanging onto a tiger's tail, and I lost control. The hardest thing about success is to control it -- to make it do what you want it to do instead of what it wants."
Rudy sold his half of the business interest to Athan, and tried to start another, similar place, with a similar vision, but, for reasons unknown, it did not flourish. After several years, Rudy's previous employer was happy to hire him back in his old job as a draftsman. Athan continued to run The Intersection for several years but without the fliers announcing coming events in Rudy's characteristic lettering.
Rudy haunted The Intersection on special occasions, but the flower, which he had dreamed he had pulled from between the girl's toes and which he had painted on the wall above the stove in the kitchen, was painted over some time before The Intersection's eventual closing.
This article was condensed and edited by Dick Oakes from the Masters thesis, "Dreams for the Future," by Paul Sheldon, Jr. Paul wrote, "The Intersection was, for me, an environment, both physical and social, for fun, work, learning, courtship, and growth." Used with permission of the author.