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The splendor and romance of Chicago's dance-hall days

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In an age of information overload, when cellphones double as video cameras, it's refreshing to recall the excitement a radio once produced with simple announcements on the order of: "We're coming to you live, from the lovely Aragon Ballroom in beautiful Uptown! It's the danceable tunes of Wayne King — the Waltz King!"

Then across the stillness of a Chicago evening, the throaty sounds of saxophones and the brassy notes of trombones floated into homes of listeners perhaps too old or too young for a night on the town. From the 1920s to the 1960s, romance ruled the local airwaves and ballrooms.

In living rooms and on dance floors, couples held each other close. Their eyes met, and they moved as one to the accompaniment of lyrics like:

If you were the only girl in the world

And I was the only boy

Virtually every neighborhood had a dance hall, and white-tablecloth restaurants had dance floors. Collectively, they constituted a network of big-band music invisibly stitched together by the magic of radio, which was coming into its own. A popular "remote," a live broadcast from a ballroom, could make the career of bandleaders like King, Jan Garber, Kay Kyser and Eddie Howard, regulars at Chicago's upscale venues.

Perhaps the most elegant of Chicago's ballrooms, the Trianon, even had its own station, WMBB, reportedly for World's Most Beautiful Ballroom.

Indeed, a truly glamorous ballroom like the Trianon was an occasion for civic celebration. The Aragon's crosstown twin opened with a charity ball on Dec. 5, 1922. The grand march was led by Mrs. Potter Palmer, the grande dame of Chicago society, and Gen. John Pershing, who had commanded American troops in World War I.

"We wanted to take dancing out of the speak-easies and put it into good surroundings," William Karzas recalled for the Tribune in 1954. Karzas and his brother Andrew were Greek immigrants who started with a billiard parlor and became barons of the ballrooms. Their Trianon was modeled after Louis XIV's Versailles; their Aragon was a wondrous architectural pastiche, Moorish on the outside with innards looking like a Spanish village.

The fantasy must have worked. For its 32nd anniversary in 1954, the Trianon invited married couples who had met on the dance floor to a reunion. "Some sent their wedding pictures, and one even enclosed a photostatic copy of their marriage license," William Karzas said. "So far, no complaints."

For all the magnificence of their ballrooms, the Karzas brothers hardly had a lock on the local market. Not far from the Trianon was the White City Ballroom, with room for 1,000 dancers. An adjoining restaurant seated 2,500. Nothing was ever done halfway, as the Tribune noted of a 1932 St. Patrick's Day bash at White City: "Fifty thousand shamrocks had been obtained from Ireland to be distributed as favors."

Also on the South Side was Midway Gardens, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. A Tribune critic pronounced it: "the product of an eccentric builder in his most interesting mood — a gaunt, jagged and yet graceful outline of brick and stone, within which are spacious terraces, balconies, and halls and small nooks and eeries (sic) brilliantly lighted and dim, and all comfortable if haunting to the eye."

Midway Gardens featured dancing under the stars, as did the Edgewater Beach Hotel's Beachwalk, on the North Side. Before Lake Shore Drive was extended north of Foster Avenue in the 1950s, the hotel sat on lakefront property. Patrons could kick off their shoes and dance into the surf.

By current standards, dance steps of the period — the foxtrot, the waltz — were slow moving and stately, even staid. And every generation seems fated to criticism that youth's fads are the devil's handiwork. In 1913, the Tribune reported: "Ald. George Pretzel, who has become much interested in the tango situation after making a tour of investigation in several of the dance halls, declares the dance is highly immoral and should be stopped."

Pretzel's was a losing crusade. On Feb. 18, 1923, the Trianon presented a one-time-only appearance by Rudolph Valentino, the great romantic idol of silent movies. A legion of Valentino wannabes showed up. "Many wore their hair glued to their heads," the Tribune reported. "There were sideburns and patent leather dancing shoes."

But when Valentino and his wife danced the tango, women in the audience had eyes only for him. "They hurled bouquets and posies at him," Karzas recalled. "Then came a shower of bracelets, hair combs, gloves, vanity cases, and even wedding rings."

There were notable ballrooms in Bronzeville, where jazz was in fashion. But as in so much of Chicago's life, a color line ran down the middle of the city's dance scene. Blacks who tried getting into the Trianon and White City were harassed, sometimes arrested.

The ballroom craze peaked in the years around World War II — especially when GIs came home looking for romance postponed — but declined quickly thereafter. Couples who met on dance floors moved to suburbia, and while the music didn't stop, it dramatically changed its beat.

By 1966, the Tribune posed the existential question: "Can ballroom dancing survive the era of the frug, Watusi and monkey?"

For his answer, John Dames, manager of the Willowbrook ballroom in Willow Springs, pointed to the Grim Reaper: "The persons like me who appreciate ballroom dancing are getting old, and many are dying off with no one to continue the tradition." Still, the Willowbrook and a few other ballrooms, like Milford on the Northwest Side, hung in by marketing themselves as senior-citizen friendly.

The Aragon went with the flow. It became a roller-skating rink in 1964, hosted boxing matches in the 1970s and now presents rock concerts. The Trianon, which was at 62nd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, was demolished in 1967, an act of euthanasia for an aging sentinel housing only memories of the big-band era, as a Trib reporter observed of its passing:

"Like a once beautiful woman to whom the passing years have not been kind, the Trianon faded too."

rgrossman@tribune.com

Editor's note: Thanks to Thomas Morsch and Dolores Kohout, both of La Grange, for suggesting this Flashback.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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