By Michael Swanger
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
“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.
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
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
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
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