June 27, 2002
The Jewish Mambo King
Real estate entrepreneur Brad Gluckstein had a vision. Perhaps not as dramatic as one of those sightings of Mary Magdalene, but a vision nonetheless.
He was having lunch one day in 1995 at Brown's Deli in the Miracle Mile area and saw an old Jack La Lanne health spa for lease. "I basically said, as a 35-year-old educated, married guy, how would I like to spend my time? I came up with something that was part nightclub, part restaurant, but evoked the spirit and vitality of being in Latin America."
By February 1998, that vision became a reality, and the Conga Room was born.
Word of the muy caliente salsa club and restaurant has since scorched a path along Wilshire Boulevard among devotees of Latin culture. Perhaps you've heard of some of the Conga Room's 35 investors: Jimmy Smits? Paul Rodriguez? How about Sheila E. and Jennifer Lopez?
Getting the superstars on board was no easy matter in those early days, before the Latin explosion that catapulted Lopez to superstardom and made Ricky Martin a household name.
"It was a very humiliating process trying to sell concept with pigeons flying around the old Jack La Lanne club," Gluckstein, 40, told The Journal. "It was a vision that very few people could see."
But Gluckstein's dogged determination convinced the manager of Tito Puente and Celia Cruz to come aboard, and the celebrity investors followed. Cruz headlined the club's first shows, and since then, the Conga Room has showcased everyone in Latin, jazz and world music, from Pancho Sanchez to Yellowman.
What Gluckstein enjoys most about running the Conga Room is that "you deal with people; you get to influence their mood," he said, sounding not unlike a DJ who might spin records at the Toro Room, the Conga Room's club-within-the-club that caters to hip-hop fans, while people salsa, mambo and cha-cha-cha to live bands in the main room.
La Boca, the Conga Room's well-reviewed restaurant, brought in Asia de Cuba's executive chef to bring Nuevo Latino authenticity to the cuisine. Gluckstein has done a stylish job capturing the Latin-flavored swank of the Trocadero and the Mocambo nightclubs that once defined the Sunset Strip.
Gluckstein's parents, Robert and Rochelle Gluckstein, are fellow Conga Room investors, of whom, he said, "were not only instrumental in supporting my vision but it was their teachings that informed my philosophical underpinnings."
Sinai Temple members since 1946, the Glucksteins are very involved with causes, such as the Lupus Foundation and Stop Cancer. Robert Gluckstein was a founding board member of Beit T'Shuvah.
In a short time, Gluckstein has been able to use his club to bring communities together and facilitate philanthropy, raising millions for charities.
"It's much more impactful for me personally to be involved with charities and politics on a visceral level, rather than just writing a check," he said.
Gluckstein, a longtime Jewish Federation supporter, has employed his experience in the Jewish and Latino worlds to develop a new program sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC).
"The goal is that they should work together for something for the civic good," said Michael Hirschfeld, JCRC's director, of the collaboration that is set to start in the fall.
Gluckstein, a graduate of Beverly Hills High School, is a third-generation Angeleno, whose grandparents were of Russian and Polish descent. Gluckstein's paternal grandfather, Joe Gluckstein, started a real estate portfolio in the old Ambassador district, which Gluckstein's father, Robert, inherited and built up. After attending UC Berkeley, Brad Gluckstein formed Apex Realty, which continues to manage and enhance the portfolio started by his grandfather.
There was nothing calculated about Gluckstein's "merengue segue" into starting the Conga Room.
"I didn't get into the Conga Room because I love clubs," Gluckstein said. "I did it because I love Latin music."
At 30, he became entranced with Latin music and kicked off a personal journey that escalated from conga lessons to trips to South America to monthlong excursions in Cuba studying the roots of Afro-Cuban music.
Gluckstein even met his Romanian-born wife, Bianca, on Los Angeles' salsa-dancing circuit. The Glucksteins have found less time and energy to step out and salsa these days, with their 8-month-old daughter, Sonya, to care for.
As for his other baby, the Conga Room, Gluckstein is proud that it matches his vision.
"We really are authentic," Gluckstein said. "It's something Latinos really enjoy by virtue of the music we present. And it's a safe harbor for people of other cultures."
If Gluckstein has gleaned anything from his exposure to Latin culture, it is pursuing one's personal passions, and he is doing just that. His next venture is to take over the Hamburger Hamlet restaurant chain, a favorite family destination of his youth.
"The past five years have been the most dynamic five years of my life when you think that I got married, had a kid, started the Conga Room and became more philanthropically involved. It's been an incredible journey so far. Tzedakah comes in many shapes and forms and the Conga Room has been a lightning rod. I truly have a vehicle to do service."