In the heart of Downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, stands a legendary venue that has witnessed the evolution of American music for nearly a century. Cain's Ballroom, an iconic dance hall and music venue, holds a treasure trove of stories and memories waiting to be unveiled. In this upcoming documentary, filmmaker Tate Wittenberg takes us on a captivating journey through time, tracing the roots of Cain's Ballroom and its significant impact on Tulsa's musical history.
The Genesis of the Project
Documentary filmmaker Tate Wittenberg is passionate about storytelling through film. Having worked in the film and entertainment industry for several years and inspired by a friend's project in Mexico, he realized the importance of preserving the history of iconic venues like Cain's Ballroom. Thus, an ambitious documentary project, Raisin' Cain, was born to capture the essence of Cain's Ballroom.
Tell us about your background in film or filmmaking.
Tate: "I grew up in Claremore, Oklahoma, and moved to Tulsa right around when I graduated. I was really excited to get out to the big city. I went to Tulsa Community College and studied broadcast journalism, and then, after a couple years, I decided to move to California to study film and work in the industry. My work mainly focused on films and music videos, commercials, and EPKs for musicians and bands. I also shot video for The Hollywood Reporter and the LA Times. But my focus was mainly in the film industry.
"I've worked on a lot of other people's films and projects, and I was ready to do something of my own. It can also be the nature of the beast with documentaries that they take a long time to perfect; Raisin' Cain is a 14-year-old project. Previously, I worked on a few other people's documentaries, one which took 17 years to make called The Wrecking Crew. Denny Tedesco was making it about his father, Tommy Tedesco, and Leon Russell was in it and all sorts of people. But yeah, you never really know how long these projects will take. With Cain's, once I got into it, it was just kind of like, 'Wow!' This was a much bigger story than I knew at the time.
"There were some delays to the project, both personal and due to COVID, of course, but I couldn't be happier with the timing of its completion, as next year is the 100th Anniversary of Cain's, so it just couldn't be any better. The goal is to get it out next year. I'd like to premiere it around the Circle Cinema Film Festival in 2024 next July."
Rich Tapestry of Musical History
The documentary weaves a rich tapestry of musical history, showcasing the diverse genres and legendary artists that have graced the stage at Cain's Ballroom. The venue has seen everything from Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, who established Western Swing as a genre, to iconic rock and industrial bands like Metallica and Ministry.
Why did you choose to tell the Cain's story?
Tate: "This was before there was a documentary about every venue out there. It's becoming much more prevalent now, but when I came up with the idea about 15 years ago, a friend was working on his documentary about a historic venue down in Mexico. He told me about his project and then sent me his DVD; at the time, to get it into a film festival, you had to drop off a DVD at the location by a specific time, so he asked me to do that for him and asked me to watch it, too.
"So that was the first time I was really like, 'Wow, that's super cool and very historical.' The first thing that came to mind was Cain's Ballroom. I grew up going to Cain's, and that's where I fell in love with live music as a teenager. I went to my first show when I was 16 or 17 years old and got hooked on the place then. I've always heard of the history at Cain's, from Bob Wills and his era to the Sex Pistols, in addition to all the shows I saw there, like The Call, Ministry, and Wilco to name a few. So, I've always loved Cain's, and the history is so rich. To me, it's one of the nation's most historical venues. A lot of people are like, 'Oh, yeah, we love Cain's!' but don't really know its story. Over the past decade-plus, since I've been researching for this project, it's been amazing to just find out more and more history and discover how legendary this venue is.
"Originally built in 1924 for Tate Brady, it was briefly his car garage. It then opened on October 13, 1924 as The Louvre, one of Tulsa’s premier dance halls and music venues. It was the roaring 20’s in the oil capital of the world and dancing was huge. Over the last few years, I’ve been discovering so much of that old history. It’s going to be fun to reveal in the film. In fact, nobody I’ve spoken with has ever been able to tell me why it was called The Louvre, I recently found that one out,but I don't want to give away too many spoilers!"
Cain's Ballroom stands as a living testament to the roaring '20s and the ever-changing landscape of American music. As the film delves into the venue's history, it unearths intriguing anecdotes and lesser-known details that will enlighten even seasoned Tulsa locals. For many Tulsans, Cain's Ballroom holds cherished memories, and this documentary will undoubtedly ignite a renewed appreciation for their city's cultural heritage.
What do you hope is the main takeaway from watching this documentary, especially for Tulsans?
Tate: "I think there's just a lot of history that not many people know, even historians I've talked to. So, I just want the film to be both educational and entertaining. Especially for anyone who is a music fan, I think there will be something in there for you, something inspiring and for everyone to enjoy.
"I also think Cain's is inspiring to the next generation. I've heard so many people say, "Oh man if you get to play at Cain's Ballroom, that's when you really know that you've made it!" Especially local bands playing at Cain's, it's usually a high watermark for artists. And then, there are people like Elvis Costello and Jack White who can play at any venue they want to play, yet they want to come and play at Cain's. Elvis Costello has been playing there since 1978 and he refers to the place as one of America’s finest musical addresses."
Spreading the Tulsa Legacy Worldwide
With the completion of the documentary, Tate Wittenberg plans to take Cain's Ballroom's story to film festivals and introduce global audiences to Tulsa's vibrant music scene and its vital contribution to the country's musical landscape.
What excites you most about the completion of the documentary?
"I am excited to share this film with the world. There are film festivals I’ve been in touch with in the UK, Scotland and Ireland and I think it will do well over there as well as markets like Germany and Japan. They are really into Americana and seem to be excited about the film. I'm excited to take the film worldwide and tell everyone about Tulsa's rich musical history."
The Road to Completion
Making a documentary of this magnitude comes with its challenges. This project has received a prestigious grant from the George Kaiser Family Foundation and Creative Arkansas Community Hub & Exchange to propel the project forward. However, Raisin' Cain still needs additional funding to complete the film and is still seeking contributions from individuals and corporate sponsors to bring this captivating tale to life.
Tate: "We are very excited as we were just awarded one of the Artists Creative Fund grants. This grant will help us get back on track with editing in time for the 100th anniversary of Cain's next year. However, we still need to raise more completion funds for the production to get the film over the finish line. If anyone out there would like to help do so, now would be the time to get in touch. We welcome funding from individuals as well as corporate sponsors. The film is under a 501(c)3, making all contributions tax deductible."