Aragon ballroom

By Caryl Clem:

In 1925, Americans felt secure in the promise of continuing prosperity. Uncle Sam is boldly standing on the Peak of Prosperity waving a banner proclaiming, “Highest Living Standard in the World” in a 1925 political cartoon. The Chicago Tribune’s slogan, The World’s Greatest Newspaper spread the influence of Chicago style living.  Andrew and William Karzas in 1926 built a lavish Spanish castle style ballroom complete with stars and clouds moving across the ceiling.  Alcohol was prohibited, crowd control was maintained by “chaperones” and a strict dress code was enforced.  Classy, glamorous entertainment with live band performances, in Uptown near the “L” propelled the Aragon Ballroom into an instant success.

Wayne King played his saxophone and led his band featuring all the favorite love songs with waltz and fox trot rhythms.  He started recording with RCA/Victor in 1929. In a ballroom that could hold thousands, Wayne King sold millions of his records.  During the 1930-40’s decades romance ruled the dance floor;  song titles such as “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” – Cole Porter, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” – Jerome Kern ,“Night and Day” – Cole Porter , “My Funny Valentine” – Rodgers and Hart“How Deep is the Ocean” – Irving Berlin .  Recorded in 2014 by Barbara Streisand and Michael Boule, a favorite of mine from this time period, “It Had To Be You”.

Radio was the main vehicle to transmit information and entertainment.  Chicago’s own WGN owned by the Tribune featured live broadcasts from the Aragon Ballroom since 1927. Not only were there stars twinkling in the ceiling but many star performers graced the Aragon Ballroom. In 1958, a fire next door to the Aragon closed it down for about 6 months.  When the Ballroom opened its doors again, dance styles and formality were changing. By 1964, the swanky ballroom dance era was over.  Top Hits from 1965 showcased The Beatles singing “Ticket to Ride”, “Help”, The Rolling Stones groaning about “Satisfaction” and the McCoy’s belting out, “Snoopy Hang On” introduced new styles of music entertainment. .

The Aragon hung on trying different venues such as wrestling, roller-skating and disco. Rock concerts lasting for 6 hours were held during the 1970’s.  Zack Snyder‘s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was filmed in 2015.  Eventually the new ownership in the 1970’s linked up with the promoters of Jam Productions. Currently, Aragon has hosted over 1,000 rock concerts in the last few years.  A picture of these events testifies to the ongoing popularity of entertainment.  In August 2019, the Chicago Sun-Times announced Byline Bank sponsors the Aragon, offering a full concert schedule of events that will start performing when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

Photo found on Creative Commons “Aragon Ballroom Chicago IL.” by CharmaineZoe’s Marvelous Melange is licensed under CC BY 2.

Memories of the Palmer House

It was always the lobby as a child growing up in Chicago looking at the intricate, lavish ceiling, the amazing gold chandeliers as well as candles throughout. I could not speak, my eyes wide, staring at the beauty. It was always the ornate lobby chosen as an adult for meeting a friend for dinner or drinks. The lobby is actually known throughout the world; one of the most elaborate of all time. A hotel almost 150 years old, built only thirteen days before the Chicago Fire, and re-built by Potter Palmer. In the late 1930’s, my father talked of seeing Frank Sinatra sing in the Empire Dining Room. A friend of Mom’s got to see The Letterman in 1973. Now, the Palmer House may close like so many hotels throughout the county.

According to sources, The Palmer House was the first hotel in Chicago with electric lights and elevators. Telephones were in all the guest rooms. It opened on September 26, 1871, but burned down just 13 days later on October 9, 1871 in the Great Chicago Fire. It was initially a wedding present from Potter to his wife. Potter Palmer secured a little over a million dollar loan and rebuilt it again, completing it in 1875. Many presidents stayed there at the time such as Ulysses S Grant, Grover Cleveland as well as well-known writers, Oscar Wilde and Frank Baum. It was re-built again in the 1920’s on the same site to include more rooms and facilities.

In December 1945, Conrad Hilton bought the Palmer House for $20 million and it was thereafter known as The Palmer House Hilton. In 2005, Hilton sold the property to Thor Equities, but it remains part of the Hilton chain. The hotel was completely restored beginning in 2007-2009 while spending 170 million. The Palmer House Hilton currently has 1,639 guest rooms.

The hotel has been closed since March because of Covid and may not re-open. The reports claim that the debt owed may not be able to be paid. According to the Chicago Tribune, the owner has been sued for an unpaid loan resulting in 338 million dollars. Banquets, weddings, and conventions have been the hotels livelihood in the last few years.

After a massive Chicago fire, that destroyed most of the city, the hotel was re-built and survived decades and decades later. I don’t know if violent protests and a virus is going to save it this time around.