Staff Reporter

Get ready to rumba on the sleepy Miracle Mile.

A group of Hollywood celebrities including Jimmy Smits, Jennifer Lopez and comedian Paul Rodriguez are opening the Conga Room in the old Jack Lalanne Health Spa next month on Wilshire Boulevard, just west of La Brea Boulevard.

"There is a huge void for a culturally intelligent, commercially viable nightclub in Los Angeles," said Brad Gluckstein, a real estate developer who conceived the idea for the salsa club in the heart of the Miracle Mile. The district is currently populated by supermarkets, office buildings, small shops and the L.A. County Museum of Art.

"There is a certain kitsch to this club," said Rick Shoemaker, an investor and president of Warner/Chappell Publishing. "When you walk in, you feel like Ricky Ricardo. It's cool."

The $2 million club, which opens Feb. 19, will feature two bars, a ballroom for concerts, a restaurant, a VIP area and the "Conga Room" that will have colorful murals of the percussion instruments.

In addition, there are plans to open a restaurant featuring a nuevo Latino cuisine created by Yuca, a prominent Miami Beach chef.

The music, of course, will be dominated by the pulsing sounds of rumbas, mambos and cha-chas, all of which are best known as salsa.

The club is the latest entertainment venue to open on the Miracle Mile, where the historic El Rey Theater has been turned into a successful concert hall. Ticket prices at the Conga Room will range from $15 to $100, depending on the caliber of performers. Alex DaSilva, known in Latin dance circles as "the Mambo king" will offer dance lessons with his partner Maryam Farissh.

"This (district) is going to be an alternative to the Sunset Strip," said Gluckstein, whose investors include L.A. Philharmonic Managing Director Ernest Fleischmann; Nely Galan, president of Galan Entertainment; baseball star Bobby Bonilla; Warner/Chappell Publishing Chairman Les Bider; and Gary Foster, producer of "Sleepless in Seattle."

"Latin music is the new frontier," said Shoemaker. "It's like country music. It is big, big stuff. There is a growing audience for sophisticated, quality Latin music."

Galan said the new club should fill a void for Latinos looking for a venue that caters to their music and culture. "This guy (Gluckstein) is on to something," she said. "We need our Planet Hollywood where we can give off our passion."

The club is clearly taking aim at the burgeoning Latin middle and upper classes that have been looking for an entertainment complex outside East Los Angeles or downtown L.A.

"This is a safer environment; it's upscale," Gluckstein said, adding that he anticipates the club will draw about "a 50 percent non-Latin clientele."

This wider audience is anticipated due to the integration of Latino culture into the popular culture, said Sandy Fox, an investor and independent entertainment attorney who represents many Latino music artists.

"The marketplace is now much larger," Fox said.

Gluckstein, who is president of Apex Realty Co., first leased the upper floor of the former health spa in late 1995. He spent two years raising funds for the project, getting permits and obtaining a liquor license. And he hired Ron Meyers, designer of the Atlas Bar and Grill, to create a "Salsa Moderne" fantasy for the new club.

Gluckstein, who became enamored with Latin music about a decade ago, had to convince residents to approve the creation of a nightclub in an area with many apartment buildings and single-family homes. At one point, he took a portable stereo to a meeting of 150 residents at the nearby Craft and Folk Museum.

"I wanted them to understand that our music isn't acid or grunge rock," he said.

He seems to have succeeded. "We are very pleased to have a diverse cultural entity coming to the Miracle Mile," said Walter Marks III, president of the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition, who owns commercial property directly across from the Conga Room. "This gives people another reason to come to the Mile."

Shelley Werts, president of the 2,500-member Miracle Mile Residential Association, said there were some concerns that parking problems could be created by nightclub patrons. She said Gluckstein came to her organization voluntarily to minimize any disruptions to residents that the club might create.

"We don't want to be another Hollywood," she said. "With the Conga Room and the El Rey, we have enough clubs."

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