The Aragon Ballroom, Dance Watchdogs, and Weird Echoes


Just 12 days after the Uptown Theatre opened amid a burst of hoopla in August 1925, the city issued a building permit for a dance hall down the street from it. Before construction began, it was already being hyped as “the largest and most beautiful ballroom in the world.”1 It did not have a name yet, but it would be called the Aragon Ballroom.

“The ballroom will surpass in beauty and capacity the beautiful Trianon located on the South Side of Chicago,” one advertisement proclaimed, urging readers to consider investing in the project.2 More beautiful than the Trianon? Was that even possible?

“In December 1922 Andrew and William Karzas … stunned the dancing and entertainment worlds when they opened their new, majestic Trianon Ballroom at Sixty-second Street and Cottage Grove Avenue,” Charles A. Sengstock wrote in That Toddlin’ Town. “… The Trianon was mammoth, its decor elegant—some would say posh—and its giant oval floor was the second largest in the city. Dancing in Chicago would never be the same again; in fact the Trianon sent shock waves through the entertainment industry nationwide. It set higher standards for ballroom design, decor, and operation, not to mention size, and it seemed to eliminate any doubt as to whether or not ballroom dancing was just a fad.”3

The Trianon Ballroom. Left: Undated photograph, ICHi-050765. Right: Undated postcard. Both from the Chicago History Museum.

The Karzas brothers now planned to build a similar ballroom at the northwest corner of Lawrence and Winthrop Avenues—roughly one block east of the Uptown Theatre and the Montmartre Cafe. “Here within a small radius are innumerable retail shops, large stores, theatres, office and hotels—making for a shopping and amusement center unequalled, out of the Loop District, in Chicago and rivaling the main business districts of many of larger cities,” Andrew Karzas wrote to potential investors in 1925.4

By creating these luxurious ballrooms, the Karzas brothers helped to make dancing a respectable pastime in Chicago. Back in 1921, moralists had pushed for a crackdown on salacious dancing. The National Association of Ballroom Managers prohibited slow music that might prompt people to get too close together on dance floors. “Moonlight dances became a thing of the past,” the Chicago Daily Tribune reported. “The slow jazz quickened into catchy, dance inspiring tunes. With the new type of music the slow, languorous, questionable dancing changed to quicker steps, perhaps no more graceful but certainly less dangerous.”

At the same time, ballrooms had begun hiring the Juvenile Protective Association’s hostesses to supervise dancers. “The hostesses selected were mostly Juvenile Court officers, very fine types of women who understand girls and their interests,” said Elizabeth Crandall of the Juvenile Protective Association. In 1923, she declared that clean and wholesome dancing had prevailed in Chicago’s ballrooms. “There can be no ballroom without girls, and the majority of girls are seeking interesting places of unquestionable repute,” she said.5

A map from The Taxi-Dance Hall by Paul G. Cressy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1932).

But moral watchdogs still worried about taxi-dance halls, where men paid to dance—with half of the money going to the woman, and the other half to the dance hall’s owner. “The girl employed in these halls is expected to dance with any man who may choose her and to remain with him on the dance floor for as long a time as he is willing to pay the charges,” explained Paul G. Cressey, a Juvenile Protective Association investigator. “Hence the significance of the apt name ‘taxi-dancer’ which has recently been given her. Like the taxi-driver with his cab, she is for public hire and is paid in proportion to the time spent and the services rendered.”6 The girls were also known as “nickel-hoppers,” but if they were young and unsophisticated newcomers, people called the girls “punks.” Meanwhile, the men interested in dancing with these girls were “monkey-chasers.”7

Cressey disapprovingly described the way people behaved in taxi-dance halls, which were especially common the city’s West Side.8 “Twice as many men ogle as dance,” Cressey noted. “They jostle each other for room along the side line and gradually, involuntarily, they encroach upon the dance space. ‘Back to the line, boys, back to the line!’ An Irish policeman in uniform walks along the side lines pushing back the overzealous with vigorous, persistent shoves.”

Observing the women and girls on the dance floors, Cressey wrote: “Occasionally a girl more brazen than the rest, with cynically curled lips and too generously applied rouge, dances by, exhibiting in her actions a revolt against the conventional. But for the most part the dancers appear to be giddy young girls in the first flush of enthusiasm over the thrills, satisfactions, and money which this transient world of the dance hall provides.”9

Some of the dancers would “cease all semblance of motion over the floor, and while locked tightly together give themselves up to movements sensual in nature,” Cressey wrote. “… These couples tend to segregate at one end of the hall where they mill about in a compressed pack of wriggling, perspiring bodies. It is toward such feminine partners that many of the men rush at the end of each dance; these are the taxi-dancers who, irrespective of personal charm, never seem to lack for patrons. ‘It’s all in the day’s work, and we are the girls who get the dances,’ would seem to be their attitude.”10

The thing that may have alarmed the moralists the most was what happened after couples danced at these places. Most of the men “seem to be seeking a certain girl for a ‘date’ after closing hour,” Cressey wrote.11

“There girls are compelled to dance with any partner who asks them, and it is only a question of time how long a young girl can stay morally straight under such conditions,” Elizabeth Crandall remarked. “… When a girl is reported missing by her parents, we go to numerous dance halls and there we frequently find her.”12

The Arcadia. Left photo, circa 1926. Right photo, undated. Both from Compass Rose. 

Meanwhile, Variety offered a glimpse of the freestyle dancing inside the Arcadia, a hall at 4444 North Broadway, near Montrose Avenue in the Uptown neighborhood. The Arcadia was “architecturally unpretentious, a handicap in competing with such palatial ball-rooms as Trianon, Marigold, Paradise, etc.” And it was attracting “only a limited attendance,” in spite of its proximity to what Variety called “the Gold Plate district around Wilson avenue and Sheridan road.”13

Entertainment and sports promoter Paddy Harmon had been leasing the Arcadia since 1923. Harmon, who also ran the Dreamland Ballroom on the West Side, would later build Chicago Stadium, which was the world’s largest indoor arena when it opened in 1929.14 At the Arcadia, Harmon featured Black musicians as well as white bands, making it one of the few North Side venues with integrated musical talent.15

Visiting the Arcadia in December 1925, Variety’s reporter observed: “Two mediocre bands alternate continuously and supply a poor sort of dance music. One is labeled ‘warm’ and the other ‘hot.’ The latter smokes a little, but never, burns.”

What really attracted the reporter’s attention were the idiosyncratic moves of the young men and women on the dance floor. They were all “sheiks” and “shebas.” Girls paid 35 cents for admission, while “stag boys” paid a cover charge of 75 cents. “If they like one another’s looks they mingle,” Variety explained. The newspaper gave this description of the dancing:

Popularity here is based on the ability to twinkle an eccentric toe. Much of the dancing is individualistic, done in the corners where the stag line converge with the young frails. When the individual dance style pleases one of the opposite sex a team is formed, and they venture out on the main floor. Everybody seems intent upon drawing the limelight in their direction. Fashions in stepping are exceedingly versatile and varied.

In spite of the tremendous labor put into the dancing, no one seems to grow thirsty; the soft drink concession is dying on its legs. The boys and girls hit the floor around eight and stick until the last note of the last number.

While the Arcadia sometimes held special events such as “barn dances,” it didn’t feature shows by professional dancers. “The reason is that the boys and girls would probably regard a team of professional dancers with disdain,” Variety commented. “And at that very few professionals could imitate some of the dancing pulled by the Arcadia amateurs.”16

The wilder forms of dancing that prevailed at taxi-dance halls and the Arcadia might have prompted a stern look of disapproval at a higher-class ballroom like the Trianon. “Although the Trianon was an important ‘jazz age’ institution in Chicago … people who were looking for hot dance music would have scorned the waltzes which Karzas reportedly mandated every third number,” William Howland Kenney wrote in Chicago Jazz. “They also would have resented the tuxedoed ‘floor men’ who circulated constantly to reprove any who indulged in wild dancing and/or displays of affection on the dance floor.”17

The Trianon’s bands played dance music “several steps removed from what insiders considered Chicago jazz,” Kenney wrote.18 According to Kenney, “Other large, commercial, all-white Chicago ballrooms similarly refined, diluted, and camouflaged jazz.”19 At Lawrence and Clark—half a mile west of the planned site for the Karas brothers’ new ballroom—the 3,000-seat Rainbo Gardens venue appealed to “the ‘white collar’ middle class element,” Variety reported in November 1925. “Numerous family groups that would not feel comfortable in the hotsy-totsy environment of the cubby-hole cafes can step out in the Rainbo and still be dignified.”20

As the Karzas brothers prepared to open their new ballroom in Uptown, an advertisement claimed that it was the answer to an outcry from North Side dance lovers. These people had supposedly said: “Build us a ballroom, that we may enjoy our dancing in the same splendor and refinement of surrounding that the Trianon provides on the south side.” 21

Andrew Karzas in a 1927 cartoon by Pedro “Pete” Llanuza. National Hellenic Museum.

Andrew and William Karzas were immigrants from Piles, a village on the Greek island of Karpathos. Before they’d shortened their name to Karzas, it had been Karayanis, Karagianis, or Karaginnis (according to the spellings on various documents). Andrew had immigrated in 1907, when he was 25. William, who was seven years younger, followed him in 1910.22 They were “practically penniless,” the Tribune later noted.23 Their first business venture was a tiny movie theater near 31st and Halsted Streets.

In 1918, they opened the Woodlawn Theatre, at 853 East 63rd Street,24  reportedly with financial backing from “two ex-newsboys.”25 Three days after the Woodlawn opened, a bomb exploded—half an hour after the audience had departed from the day’s final movie—ripping up the front of the building. Police believed it was the result of “labor troubles.” As Andrew Karzas explained, he’d “opened the house with a nonunion operator” after refusing to pay a $1,000 bribe to a union.26 In spite of those initial troubles, the Woodlawn Theatre became a smashing success.

The Woodlawn’s advertisements called it “The Shrine of the Cinema,” boasting of 2,000 comfortable seats, a mammoth pipe organ, and an “Orchestra of Symphonic Proportions.” Andrew Karzas, the managing director, declared that it “not merely a motion picture theatre, but an architectural triumph.”27

The Woodlawn set an “artistic and majestic precedent that has undeniably governed the latter day conception for all motion picture edifices of extravagant proportions and presentations,” according to Illinois: The Heart of the Nation by Edward F. Dunne, a former Chicago mayor and Illinois governor.

Dunne’s book showered Andrew Karzas with effusive praise: “Andrew Karzas was the first showman in Chicago to visualize and adopt the exotic comprehension of the warmth and color of European and Asiatic architecture as the motif for the treatment of entertainment centers—a motif and a treatment that have extensively spread throughout the entire America. The creative, inspirational and financial acumen of Andrew Karzas is founded on more than pronounced business ability. He has much of that priceless advantage that emanates from a brilliant European training and education, combined with vision, sagacity and the enviable and progressive American born ‘go getiveness.’ The principal life studies of Mr. Karzas have been art, architecture, engineering and human nature.”28

The Woodlawn Theatre’s success inspired Karzas and his brother to build a dance palace with a fantastic architectural style that would match the era’s increasingly elaborate movie palaces.29

Like the Riviera Theatre in Uptown, the Trianon Ballroom evoked the majesty of old France. “The Trianon is patterned after the original Trianon at Versailles, which was built by Louis XIV and which Louis XV gave to his queen, Marie Antoinette,” Dunne (or his ghost writers) explained. “The interior is a breath-taking combination of the genius of modern architecture and treatise, with all the beauty that can be bestowed by the decorative treatment and furnishings of the old world. It is said that the art galleries of Europe were ransacked for tapestries and furnishings, some taken from the original Trianon itself and from the celebrated art centers of Europe in order to complete the ideals of the designer of the American Trianon.” According to Dunne’s book, the opening of the Trianon on December 6, 1922, “was one of the most important and outstanding social events of Chicago history.”30

By the mid-1920s, Andrew Karzas was expanding to the city’s North Side. Even as construction was underway for the ballroom on Lawrence Avenue, Karzas opened the North Center Theatre at 4031 North Lincoln Avenue on February 3, 1926.31 “An architectural dream, seating 3,000 people on the main floor alone, it creates a new amusement center,” the Chicago Daily News commented. With these new projects on the North Side, “the name Karzas takes on a new meaning as a leader in Chicago’s amusement world,” the newspaper said.

At the time, Karzas was also making plans to demolish the Woodlawn Theatre and replace it with a more lavish movie palace. Although the Daily News said the Woodlawn was “still one of the outstanding theaters in Chicago,” the newspaper explained that it simply wasn’t “elaborate enough to suit the architectural dreams of this modern ‘miracle man.’”32

As he tore down the old Woodlawn, Karzas vowed that his 4,500-seat New Woodlawn Theatre would be even larger than the Uptown Theatre or the Roxy Theatre, which was then being planned in New York City. “Chicago is to have a moving picture theater that for size and magnificence will eclipse all the movie houses in the world, according to … Andrew Karzas, noted here for his de luxe ballrooms and cinemas,” the Tribune reported.33

But for some reason, those ambitions plans fell through. Nine months later, Karzas sold off the Woodlawn property, along with the North Center Theatre and another movie house he’d built, the State Theatre in Hammond, Indiana. The Daily News reported the “retirement of Andrew Karzas from the theater business.”34 (Balaban & Katz would open the 1,800-seat Maryland Theatre in 1928 at the former Woodlawn Theatre site; it closed in 1977 and was demolished in the 1990s.35) But even as Karzas exited from the business of showing movies, he remained Chicago’s top impresario of magnificent ballrooms.

The first reports about a new Karzas ballroom on Lawrence Avenue revealed that it would have a Spanish theme, similar to the nearby Uptown Theatre. “Gorgeous Bit o’ Hispanola for Uptown Dancers,” a Tribune headline promised, calling the planned ballroom as “Spanish Trottery.”36

The architects were Huszagh & Hill, working together with movie palace expert John Eberson. This was just one of several buildings that Boyd T. Hill and Ralph D. Huszagh would design on Lawrence Avenue in Uptown in the late 1920s—elegant structures that still stand today. They also designed the Viceroy Hotel, at the southeast corner of Kenmore and Lawrence, built in 1926; the Lawrence Hotel, 1020 West Lawrence Avenue, built in 1928; and a four-story addition to the Sheridan Trust and Savings Bank, at the southeast corner of Lawrence and Broadway, in 1928.37

Eberson, an Austrian immigrant from what is now Ukraine, would design more than 500 theaters, earning the nickname “Opera House John.” His movie palaces in Chicago included the Capitol Theatre, 7941 South Halsted Street, and the Paradise Theater, 231 North Pulaski Road, both of which were demolished, as well as the Avalon (later called the New Regal Theater), 1645 East 79th Street, which still stands.38

As Huszagh & Hill and Eberson began designing the Lawrence Avenue ballroom, the Tribune reported: “Their interior plans call for an architectural representation of a Spanish courtyard or patio … with a blue sky dotted with twinkling stars, similar to Mr. Eberson’s Capitol theater on the far south side and an idea to be used in his new Avalon theater.”

Chicago Daily Tribune, July 7 and 9, 1926

As for what this new Uptown ballroom should be called, the Tribune remarked: “As the entire architectural scheme will be Spanish, the owners have an unlimited supply of gorgeous sounding names with which to christen it appropriately. If it’s to be as beautiful as claimed, it surely shouldn’t have a commonplace name.”39 As construction begin in the fall of 1925, one article referred to it as “The Patio” dance hall.40 Meanwhile, the Lawrence Amusement Company—the business Andrew Karzas had formed to construct the ballroom—blandly called it the Lawrence-Winthrop Building in an advertisement.41 But then, as the venue prepared to open in July 1926, advertisements finally revealed its name: the Aragon Ball Room. (“Ball Room” was two words in the first ads.)42

Aragon, a region of northeast Spain that was a kingdom in medieval times,43 is famed for the Mudéjar style of architecture, blending Islamic ornamental traditions with Gothic and Hispanic elements.44 Andy Karzas, the son of William Karzas, later said that the Aragon Ballroom “was modeled after the Aragon palace in the Alhambra”—apparently referring to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.45

The Charles V palace in Alhambra, Granada, Spain. Photo by Jebulon, Wikimedia.

The bricks of the Aragon’s exterior walls are arranged in diamond-shaped patterns with “lozenges” at the center of each diamond. This technique of brickwork is known as “diapering.”46 The building’s southwest and southeast corners along Lawrence Avenue have a stucco surface, giving them the look of an old Spanish castle. The windows have checkered patterns of stained glass.

Decorative panels removed from the Aragon’s walls during restoration in 2023. Photo by Robert Loerzel.

And all over the Aragon’s outside, polychrome terra cotta trim ornaments feature human faces. (A lovely restoration of these details was completed in 2024.)

Engineering and Contracting magazine, January 1928.

The Aragon Ballroom in 2024. Photos by Robert Loerzel.

The Aragon’s interior was—and still is—just as striking. “There was an open-air terrace in Spain from which the Moors sat and watched entertainments in the courtyard, and the open-air effect is carried into our Aragon, too,” Andy Karzas recalled in a 1963 WFMT interview with Studs Terkel. “It is an open-air place with stars in the sky and clouds that float over and twinkle. … They combed the world for art pieces to put in the Aragon. There is so much marble and glass imported from Europe. They did everything they could to make it a real showplace for dancing.”47


The Architectural Forum, January 1927.

Like the Uptown Theatre, the Aragon Ballroom offered Chicagoans an illusion of sorts—the promise that they could step from Uptown’s sidewalks into a space from medieval Spain. “The spell of old Spain!” an ad for the Aragon proclaimed. “As expressed in exquisite Aragon, it assumes a magic power, transforming the modern girl into a flashing Carmencita—surrounding her escort with the glamour of a Castilian cavalier. Drab reality is banished as entranced couples dance in this enchanting atmosphere.”48 The Spanish theme even extended to the Aragon’s employees: “A dark skinned caballero in wide brimmed hat and polished patent leather boots greets the guests as they enter,” the Daily Northwestern  reported.49

Curt Teich Postcard Collection, 2DK541, Newberry Library.

The amenities inside this “veritable fairyland of romantic enchantment” included the Cafe del Refreshment, where “appetizing dainties are served by charming senoritas,” and a “Grand Mirror Salon for the convenience of milady.”50

Chicagoans didn’t need to travel to Spain to experience all of these things. “And all this, not in some far-away corner of distant Europe, but here, at your door, in Uptown Chicago. Here you may come and dance in Old World Splendour—you may sit in darkened nooks, and listen and watch;—you may sit in a brilliant patio, and eat or drink, as you wish—in the Aragon, more wonderful, more magnificent, more beautiful even than the dreams of the Moors—here, the showplace of America—Yours!”51

Chicago Daily Tribune, July 12 and 14, 1926

In the days leading up to the Aragon’s official opening date—July 15, 1926—ads promoted it as the “Ball Room of a Thousand Delights,” promising that it would “carry public dancing to new heights as a popular diversion for people of discrimination.”52 Ads shouted: “Nothing Like It in All the World! … The Fondest Dream of the North Side Becomes a Gorgeous, Vivid Reality!”53

The Aragon actually held its first event on July 14, hosting a beauty contest sponsored by the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, who were gathered in Chicago that week for a convention. Ten thousand cheering Elks reportedly filled the Aragon for the occasion.54 According to an ad, the ballroom was big enough to accommodate 5,000 dancers.55 (Today, the venue has an official capacity of 4,873.56) “With 21,036 square feet of space for dancing, the Aragon had the fifth-largest ballroom floor in the city, exceeded only by those of the Midway Dancing Gardens, Paradise, Trianon, and White City,” Sengstock wrote. “… To accommodate two orchestras, the Aragon bandstand was two-tiered, the second stand slightly above and behind the first.”57

The Aragon’s dance floor was suspended on a system of springs, cork, and felt. 58 “They tried to make it comfortable for dancers and discovered that if you laid the floor on end and had taut springs underneath, that it would act like an innersole in your shoes,” Andy Karzas told Terkel. “… The floor is actually cushioned and people can dance all night and not feel fatigue in their feet.”59

The night after the Elks gathering was the first time when people walked into the Aragon to dance the night away. The band on the stage was one of Chicago’s most popular: the Oriole Orchestra (sometimes billed as the Oriole Terrace Orchestra or Original Oriole Orchestra).

Dan Russo, left, and Ted Fio Rito. Bloom Photo, via Wikimedia.

Led by pianist Ted Fio Rito and violinist Dan Russo, they’d gained a following through records, radio broadcasts, and a four-year-run at the Edgewater Beach Hotel.60 One of the Aragon’s ads promised “wonderful music, sometimes dreamy, soft, langorous; then quick, hot snappy, full of Spanish verve and fire and life,”61 but it’s not clear if the Orioles actually played anything that sounded Spanish.

Popular Science Monthly, January 1927.

In spite of all the hype, things did not go smoothly during the Aragon’s first days. “We didn’t do so well,” Fio Rito recalled decades later, talking with Sengstock in 1971. “It was a great band,” he said, noting that the lineup included violinist-arranger Victor Young (who would go on to fame in Hollywood, earning 22 Academy Award nominations62). But, according to Fio Rito, the young dancers who showed up during the ballroom’s early days didn’t seem to like the place. “The place was too plush for the ballroom-going public,” he said. “They didn’t like the plush carpet and the beauty of the place. It was tremendous, you know—clouds in the sky, you could see clouds going by and everything.”

As magnificent as it all looked, some youngsters apparently found the place to be a bit too stuffy for their tastes.63 Maybe these were some of those young “sheiks” and “shebas” who enjoyed making up their own dances at the nearby Arcadia. Or maybe these were young “monkey-chasers” and “nickel-hoppers,” more accustomed to the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of taxi-dance halls. If so, they probably didn’t appreciate the Juvenile Protection Association’s hostesses, who were watching their every move.

“After four years of success at the Edgewater Beach, the Oriole Terrace Orchestra surprisingly ran into tough sledding with the young Aragon dancers, who felt the band was a bit old fashioned,” Sengstock wrote in Intermezzo magazine.

That mismatch in attitudes wasn’t the only problem. “The issue was magnified by the infamous ‘double-beat’ acoustical glitch that haunted many later bands playing the Aragon,” wrote Sengstock (who often danced at the Aragon in the 1940s and 1950s). “… The acoustical problem was an echo that set up a second beat toward the back of the ballroom, confusing dancers and musicians alike.”64 According to Sengstock, “The dancers seemed to be the most confused, trying to figure out which beat they should be dancing to, that of the band or that from the echo. The farther the dancers moved away from the bandstand, the more troublesome the problem became.”65

Ted Fio Rito in 1945. Wikimedia.

“The acoustics were atrocious,” Fio Rito remembered. “They didn’t think about the acoustics, so that when we’d hit a chord, you’d hear it three times coming back at you. So the band just suffered immensely with the acoustics.”

While the Oriole Orchestra was struggling during the Aragon’s early days, Fio Rito heard that another North Side venue, the Merry Gardens ballroom at 3136 North Sheffield Avenue, was pulling in big crowds. “A little dump, and they were doing all the business, and we were just flopping and going bad—going from bad to worse,” he recalled.

According to Fio Rito, the Aragon’s owners worked to fix the acoustics while the Oriole Orchestra continued to play there in the coming months. “They spent $70,000 in fixing up that ceiling,” he said. “… They corrected (the acoustics) while we were there.”66

It doesn’t appear that any hint of these difficulties appeared in Chicago’s newspapers. Of course, the Aragon’s ads continued blaring out messages about how magnificent the place was. It was summer, so the ads emphasized the venue’s air conditioning: “Dancing—a refreshing summer diversion at these two magnificent ballrooms! Thousands of dance lovers nightly agree that the COOL CLEAN SPACIOUS BEAUTY of the Aragon and Trianon Ballrooms, as contrasted with the seasonal discomforts of the outdoors, is alone worth the price of admission.”67 (The building had “a $100,000 ventilating and refrigerating system which will maintain an even temperature of 65 at all times.”68) Another notice declared: “COOL DELIGHT! Refreshing Breezes with the Tang of a Mountain Brook Have Made These Magnificent Ballrooms the Favored Rendezvous of Summertime Amusement Seekers. … If You Haven’t visited the Aragon, You Are Missing the Most Glorious Sight in All Chicago!”69

A 1930 photo, looking west on Lawrence Avenue from Winthrop Avenue, with the Aragon Ballroom to the right. Box 121, Image 85. Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.

While some people apparently didn’t appreciate the Aragon’s beauty, many others were blown away by its splendor. The Daily Northwestern praised the “brilliant illusion of old Spain” achieved by the ballroom’s interior. 70

Later that summer, the Associated Press reported that the Aragon, the Trianon, and Chicago’s other “luxurious public ballrooms” had succeeded in making dancing respectable—thanks in large part to the Juvenile Protective Association’s chaperone system.

“The chaperons agreed at the outset that their methods must be tactful and not arbitrary,” the AP reported. “… Chronic offenders are made unwelcome at all the ballrooms. Young people are urged to attend in groups, and thousands do. But strangers may meet young men and women introduced by the hostess to dance with them for the evening.”

The article described a young man entering a dance hall, with a bulge at his hip. A chaperone slipped up to him and whispered, “Let me take that bottle.” He surrendered his booze sheepishly, asking her a few moments later, “Did you throw it away?” She answered, “No. You’ll find it checked with your wraps. I’m not a prohibition officer. I’m just keeping this dance hall straight.”

In another incident, a girl was drunk when she showed up at a ballroom. A chaperone took her arm and quietly said, “Come on, dear, we’re going home.” After the hostess sheltered her for the night—phoning her mother to let her know that the girl wouldn’t be home—the girl told the chaperone, “You’re a good scout.”71

One hostess, Mary Ragan, had dealt with thousands of girls at the Trianon over the previous two years, coming to the conclusion that “there are still strong domestic inclinations in modern femininity.” As Ragan began serving as a chaperone at the Aragon on its opening night, she spoke with Tribune reporter Frances M. Ford.

“The girl of today is as much the potential homemaker as she ever was,” Ragan said. “She knows that is her destiny and she looks forward to it with pleasure. She thinks and talks about it even when the strains of jazz might be supposed to drive serious thoughts from her mind. She discusses her escort with her girl friend. Does she talk about his dancing or his capacity for spending money? Yes, but simply as incidents that connect with his qualifications as a husband.

“Her attitude of frivolous indifference to the important matters of life troubles you? It needn’t. She knows that women are independent nowadays, that they are enfranchised—whatever that may mean—and she fancies that she must take a pose that is suitable to that idea. Superficially, your modern girl may seem to be a phenomenon not altogether to be desired; fundamentally, she is as serious-minded and as interested in sane and safe pursuits as her mother was in her age.”72

Although Andy Karzas did not witness these early days of the Aragon—he wouldn’t be born until 1934—he did hear about them from his family. “Dancing was the prime social activity of the time,” Karzas, who later managed the Aragon and hosted radio shows on WFMT,73 told Studs Terkel. The dancers at the Aragon were “mostly young people, even late teens and in their early 20s, single people, unmarried,” he said. “This was the wonderful place for courtship in Chicago. What nicer place for a fellow to take a girl for an inexpensive evening of entertainment?” They danced the two-step, waltzes, and foxtrots to mellow music played by orchestras and bands of 13 or 14 musicians.

“The Charleston and those novelty dances were never permitted in the Aragon or the Trianon,” Karzas said. “They took up too much space. The management felt that someone might get kicked if they permitted the Black Bottom,” he said, referring to a 1920s craze that involved dancers slapping themselves on their rear end.74

Although Ted Fio Rito insisted that his “great band” wasn’t the problem, Andrew Karzas decided to change the Aragon’s music. Fio Rito and the group’s other leader, Dan Russo, were persuaded to tear up their contract, and the Oriole Orchestra’s departure was announced in January 1927.

Wayne King, circa 1931. Gillimas Service photo, via Wikimedia.

That spring, bandleader Wayne King took over at the Aragon, where he would become popular as the “Waltz King.”75 WGN began live radio broadcasts from the Trianon and Aragon that same year. And before long, “Tens of thousands came to the Aragon every week,” according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago.76

Wayne King reigned at the Aragon for several years, turning it into “a metropolitan institution—the uptown mecca of better dance music,” the Tribune wrote in 1931. The same article described King’s music:

 Mad Anthony, they call him, but he has never gone for the merry, mad gang stuff. King’s music has a style as definitely his own as Guy Lombardo, Rudy Valee, or Coon-Sanders. Hear a single phrase of his music over the air and you recognize it instantly.

Waltzes are Wayne’s forte, and he also presents lots of old favorites, such as “Poor Butterfly” and Herbert’s “A Kiss in the Dark.” His own song, “The Waltz You Saved for Me,” well typifies his melodic mesmerism. Other numbers that suggest themselves are “The Goofus,” “Star Dust,” “Merry Widow Waltz,” and his arrangement of “Liebestraum.”

King’s arrangements are always simple with the melody predominating above all else. Girls call his music “soulful” and “spiritual” and they dance to it, sometimes, with tears in their eyes. His music often has a touch of the nostalgic.77

Sengstock prefers not to use the word “jazz” to describe the music that the dance orchestras performed at the Aragon and similar venues. “Conservative-style ballroom dancing is what it was,” he told me in an interview.

Chicago’s true jazz musicians refused to play this “schmaltz” and “corn,” despite the fact that it offered a chance at better pay, according to Alson J. Smith’s 1953 book Chicago’s Left Bank. “Sometimes when things were really tough,” Smith wrote, “they would take on a despised ‘corn’ job, playing in a dance-hall or theatre or restaurant, but they hated every minute of it and their playing showed it.”

Wingy Manone. Photo: Bluebird Records, via Wikimedia.

According to Smith, here’s what happened when the New Orleans–born jazz trumpeter Wingy Manone agreed to play at the Aragon sometime around the late 1920s:

On one occasion, Wingy Manone, hunger gnawing at his vitals, scraped together an orchestra to play a two-night stand at the world’s foremost Palace of Schmaltz, the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. The boys put on the required paper hats and sawed away unhappily at the insipid waltzes to which The Waltz King had accustomed the Aragon patrons. Wingy Manone was making motions like an orchestra leader, and even had a baton. But when a jazz musician who happened to be at the Aragon that night came up to the bandstand and called out “take off the false whiskers, Wingy, I know you!” the band fell out laughing, broke off a waltz, and ripped the roof off with an incendiary Jazzin’ Babies Blues. The manager of the Aragon heard the sacrilege, and the next night The Waltz King was back, keening his somnambulistic dance-music.78

Will Rogers. Photo: Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation.

Starting in 1928, the Aragon hosted occasional concerts on Sunday afternoons, sponsored by the Central Uptown Chicago Association. Most of these matinees featured classical music, but the performers also included humorist Will Rogers.79

The star attraction at the first matinee was the Italian-born lyric soprano Claudia Muzio, who’d sung at La Scala in Milan, London’s Covent Garden, and New York’s Metropolitan Opera80 before coming to Chicago to perform with the Civic Opera Company.

“She was one of the best loved of the singers in Chicago, having left the Metropolitan because she was unhappy,” Andy Karzas said. “She didn’t like the working conditions there and came to Chicago and sang with our company for eight or nine years. ‘Traviata’ was her greatest part, but she sang many other things, both lyric and dramatic.”81

Claudia Muzio in 1916. Bain News Service, via WIkimedia.

Five thousand people crowded into the Aragon to hear Muzio on January 29, 1928. “There is nothing which Claudia Muzio cannot accomplish with her lovely voice,” Musical Leader magazine’s critic wrote after the concert. “She sings French, Italian and English with equal facility, exquisite musical taste and a poise and distinction that only a few operatic artists ever gain. It is trite but true that Miss Muzio kept the vast audience spellbound. The clamor for additional numbers was so great that she was still singing at five o’clock—two hours after the program opened and the last number found her voice as fresh as at the beginning of the recital. Even those who knew of her great art as interpreter of the greatest dramatic and lyric roles in opera were surprised and amazed at her catholicity of style, her tremendous command of the various schools of composition, clearness of enunciation of the English language and talent for conveying the story in song. She looks lovely on the stage, a fact which only adds one more item of enjoyment.”

Muzio opened with “Selva Opaca” from Rossini’s William Tell, and concluded the scheduled portion of her concert with a selection from Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani. But as the audience clamored for more, she kept on returning to the stage. By the end, she’d sung a total of 29 songs—including 16 during her encores, ranging from an Italian street song to “I Passed by Your Window.”

But what about the “atrocious” acoustics that Ted Fio Rito experienced at the Aragon in 1926? Had the work on the ceiling fixed this problem? “Acoustically the hall is one of the best in the country, and although it is one block long, every note which Miss Muzio sang carried to the farthest corner with absolute clarity,” Musical Leader observed.82 And when violinist Francis MacMillen performed at the Aragon a week later, Tribune writer Hazel Moore observed that “the acoustics of the hall are good.”83 According to Andy Karzas, the Aragon was chosen as the venue for this concert series “because of the beautiful acoustics and because of the beautiful background.”84

And yet, the Aragon’s acoustics continued to be problematic for decades to come. I’ve often heard people complaining about echoing and muddy sound during rock concerts I’ve seen there since the late 1980s. I’ve attended Aragon shows that sounded just fine—but the quality of the acoustics could be drastically different depending on where you were standing.

The Aragon was recently equipped with a new house sound reinforcement system, as reported by ProSound Web in 2023. “The Aragon Ballroom is a very acoustically challenging room with a domed ceiling,” Jason Vrobel of the Eighth Day Sound company, which worked on the project. Adam Ross, the Aragon’s head of audio, told ProSound Web: “The building is from an era before amplification, so the dome is designed to spread sound all over the room without any reinforcement at all.” In addition, he noted, “if you stomp your foot on the spring-loaded dance floor there is a seven-second decay.” The new D&B Audiotechnik KSLi loudspeaker system sends out the sound in a cardioid pattern, which “helps tremendously in reducing many of the unwanted reflections,” Ross said.85

The interior of the Aragon Ballroom in 2021. Photos by Robert Loerzel.

Like the Green Mill, the Aragon has attracted legends about Al Capone. Over the years, dubious tales about Capone’s supposed connections to the Green Mill seemed to spread, stretching to include the Aragon. As far as I can tell, Capone had no connection with the Aragon. Considering the ballroom’s reputation as a “Palace of Schmaltz” where uptight chaperones would stop anyone from drinking, it doesn’t seem like the sort of joint where Capone would have much interest in hanging out. And this wasn’t Capone’s part of Chicago. Nevertheless, a 2006 Chicago Sun-Times article claimed that “Al Capone’s private booth was in the southwest balcony, where he had an escape route down a fire escape that faces the Green Mill and Uptown Theater.” Aragon employees may have told this story, but it seems far-fetched. In the late 1920s, Capone wasn’t running away from anyone by going down any fire escapes. According to urban legend, tunnels connected the Green Mill with the Aragon, but I haven’t any evidence of an actual subterranean passageway between these venues—let alone any proof that bootlegging mobsters used such tunnels.86 Of course, it’s hard to prove a negative, so we can’t say for certain that the stories connecting Capone with the Aragon are false. But I haven’t seen any reason to believe that they’re true.

While the Aragon Ballroom survives today, its sister ballroom on the South Side shut down in 1958. The Trianon was demolished in 1967 to make way for a public housing project.87

“Aragon has proved to be an artistic, important and financial success and has been written high in the foremost records of ‘greater achievements’ of ‘A Century of Progress,’” Edward F. Dunne wrote in the 1933 book Illinois: The Heart of the Nation, touting the Aragon and Trianon as top attractions for people visiting Chicago during the 1933 world’s fair.

“Trianon and Aragon are looked to for guidance by the entire dancing world,” he wrote. “Everything of social dance importance has had its inception in these two internationally known and approved ballrooms, listed importantly among the ‘Places to See’ when in Chicago. The majority of visitors to Chicago do not consider their visit complete until they have seen them or danced within Trianon and Aragon.”88



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