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Jan 19, 2012
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Harper’s charitable birthday bash is a thing of legend in Des Moines

By Michael Swanger

Mel Harper will host his annual “Birthday Extravaganza, Appreciation and Fundraising Event” on Friday, Jan. 20 from 5 to 11 p.m. at the Downtown Holiday Inn, 1050 6th Ave. Janey Hooper and guest musicians will perform. Admission is a minimum suggested donation of $10. Proceeds benefit the Eddie Davis Community Center in West Des Moines. Photo by Michael Swanger

“Good food, good music, good people for a good cause.” That is how legendary club owner and businessman Mel Harper is billing his annual “Birthday Extravaganza, Appreciation and Fundraising Event” to be held Friday, Jan. 20 from 5 to 11 p.m. at the Downtown Holiday Inn.

“Every year I say, ‘If we’re going to have a fundraiser, we might as well hook my birthday onto it to get more people and make a party out of it,’” said Harper, who turned 84 on Jan. 18.

This year’s installment will feature live music by local jazz and R&B singer-keyboardist Janey Hooper with several guest musicians. Over the years, Harper’s annual wang dang doodle has featured many of the best local jazz, blues and R&B artists and has become a thing of legend in Des Moines.

“The first one I had was at Robert’s Lounge in the ’70s,” said Harper, referring to the former nightclub that he owned on 11th Street and University Avenue in Des Moines. “They had moved us out of Center Street to build the freeway, and we held it at Robert’s until it closed in 1985. When I opened up Mel’s Bar & Grill in 1990, we held it there until it closed in 2000.”

During the last decade, Harper has hosted the event at the Val Air Ballroom, or Eddie Davis Community Center or Downtown Holiday Inn, drawing an estimated crowd of 300 people each year. Harper, who owned and operated live music clubs in Des Moines from 1957 to 2000, as well as M. Harper Construction Limited from 1984 to 2007, said that he enjoys the setting the downtown hotel affords his event.

“I like the way they treat us,” he said.

Harper also appreciates the support that he receives each year at his birthday bash. He asks that fans not bring gifts in lieu of a cash donation. This year’s proceeds benefit the Eddie Davis Community Center in West Des Moines, where Harper has spent much of his time and energy since retiring in 2003 volunteering as its fundraising director. The West Des Moines community center offers a range of free services to those in need, including meals, clothing, medical and legal assistance, youth programming and a computer lab without regard to income, demographics or any other restrictions.

“It’s very important that we keep this fundraising going so we can pay for the lights, the gas and all the things we need to do to serve the community,” Harper said, noting that donors like Prairie Meadows, the Polk County Board of Supervisors, City of West Des Moines, West Bank and others play an important role in maintaining the center. “It’s tremendous the number of people we serve.”

Harper says that the need to help people is greater now in this tough economy.

“I’ve noticed that people who used to help us come to us for help now with food and clothing and things,” he said. “If we got it, we gonna help you.”

Hooper says that kind of generosity extends to Harper’s support of musicians over the years.

“Mel gave me a job for a few years at Mel’s Bar & Grill. That was the first place I played that I was comfortable enough to do the music I wanted to do,” she said. “He has always had a hand in supporting and promoting live music, way before I was on the scene.”

In addition to supporting a good cause, Hooper said that Harper’s birthday bash is fun for participating musicians and fans alike.

“As far back as I remember, it’s always the biggest night of the year,” she said. “It’s a moneymaker, and the money goes to charity. As a result, he’s helped a lot of people.” CV

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