The Aragon was built in 1926 by two brothers, William and Andrew Karzas, at an exorbitant cost of two million dollars (considering the price of admission was only .90c). The Aragon, named after a providence in Spain, was the crowing jewel in a cluster of lucrative properties owned by the Karzas. It was designed to replicate a Spanish palace courtyard with its crystal chandeliers, mosaic tiles, garishly painted plaster, terra-cotta ceiling and beautiful arches. The shiny bent wood floor was created for dancing and rests on a cushion of cork, felt and springs. It appears to be a palace of illusions, where artificial stars twinkle overhead and projectors beam clouds scudding across the domed roof some 60 feet above the dance floor. Even the “wooden” beams located throughout the venue are make-believe (simulated from concrete).
When it opened in July, 1926 more than 8,000 people jammed the Aragon to enjoy its unprecedented beauty. It was dubbed the most beautiful ballroom in the world. The Aragon was a smashing success and soon became the most famous dance hall in America.
A Nation Danced
And in the Midwest those who weren’t dancing perhaps sat at home by their radios and waited impatiently until the announcer ended his station break by saying: “…. we return you to our studios in the Aragon Ballroom, where the dancing is now in progress.” The announcer spoke of the beauty and described the happy crowd enjoying the music of the best orchestras in the nation. Radio broadcasts were of paramount importance to the Aragon for advertising. These broadcasts were made live six nights a week from 10:05 PM to 11:00 PM on WGN Radio. The ballroom was closed only on Monday.
Many out of towners traveled great distances to dance at the famous Aragon. The venue’s close proximity to public transportation was also a key factor in its ability to attract large crowds. The Aragon enjoyed near capacity crowds every day. Weekly attendance regularly topped 18,000 during the 20′s, 30′s, and 40′s. Men were obligated to wear jackets and ties. Attire for women was semi-formal evening wear. Smoking was prohibited on the second floor and tuxedoed floorwalkers prevented close dancing or jitterbugging. It was the place in Chicago to meet single men and women. Many couples meet for the first time at the Aragon later to be married. On one special occasion, 800 couples gathered to share their stories of how they met at the Aragon under the twinkling stars.
Every big name band played the Aragon, which became a status symbol separating the orchestras that had “arrived” from the amateurs. Playing the Aragon was regarded as having obtained “big-time” status. Acts like Frank Sinatra, Lawrence Welk, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo, Dick Jurgens, Harry James, Xavier Cugat, Eddy Duchin, Carmen Cavallaro, Kay Kyser, George Olsen, Benny Goodman, Sammy Kaye, Art Kassel, Artie Shaw, Ted Fio Rito, Jan Garber, Frankie Masters, Russ Morgan, Orrin Tucker, Griff Williams, Ben Bernie, Tommy Tucker, Abe Lyman, Henry King, Bernie Cummins, Shep Fields, Gus Arnheim, Ted Weems, Eddy Howard, Wayne King and many more frequented the Aragon.
End of an Era
Eras have a way of ending. By 1955 an era in which an estimated 50 million people had danced at the Aragon to the very best of America’s orchestras was in decline. They danced through Prohibition and danced during the Depression.In 1958 the Normandy Cocktail Lounge, located next door to the Aragon, caught fire and an explosion erupted. The blast, probably set off by pressure from heat generated by the fire, ripped off the glass and brick storefront of the saloon, hurled bar stools, glass and shreds of fancy draperies across the street and punched a huge hole into the wall that separated it from the foyer of the ballroom. Damage to the Aragon was estimated at $50,000.00. The explosion occurred at 3:35 am, three hours after the Aragon had closed. No one was injured. Consequently, the Aragon closed for a few months in order to repair the lobby. When it reopened, attendance dwindled.
In 1964, William Karza sold the famous Aragon to Oscar Brotherm and Leonard Sherman for a price far less than the two million dollars it cost to construct. On February 9, 1964, regularly scheduled dances ceased. The new owners transformed the 100 by 175 foot dance floor into a skating rink. This, however, was unsuccessful. During early 1965, the Aragon moved into sporting attractions (ex: boxing and wrestling matches) and was granted television rights to the World Boxing Association’s heavy-weight championship fight.
Emerson Whitney became the next owner and then sold it to a group of investors that turned it into the Cheetah Club in 1966. The Aragon’s admitted low point came with this conversion to a mod-type discotheque brought here after resounding successes in New York City. The Aragon changed its name and became the Cheetah Club. The old palace rocked each night with mini skirts and what was known as the “now” sound of the sixties. A tent now covered the balcony and the star speckled ceiling, spotted fabric covered the chairs, colored strobe lights flashed and psychedelic-iridescent paint spots where splashed on the floors of the lobbies. The grandiose appearance of the Aragon had been replaced. The Cheetah Club turned out to be a flop. Chicago’s rockers never took kindly to the “beautiful people” type of joint. The Cheetah glided along and then folded.
In 1968, Emerson Whitney took back possession of the Aragon and reinstated its original name. He spent a near-fortune refurbishing the venue in hopes for a nostalgic revival of the big bands era and a romantic return to the dance floor magic of the late 1930′s. Whitney vowed to bring back the class and sophistication of earlier years. However, the hopes faded into little more than a scrapbook memory. Rebirth of ballroom dancing stirred memories and a brief flurry of interest, but little more. The Aragon continued to search for a new image.
In 1969 the Aragon was sold to Triangle Theatrical Productions. Triangle’s plans were for pop and rock n’ roll concerts, flea markets, art fairs, and folk and ethnic attractions. They, however, could not make their payments and ownership returned to Emerson Whitney.
In 1970, promoter Michael Butler of American Tribal Productions, the creator of the theatrical production “Hair”, introduced “monster” rock concerts to the Aragon. They were more like marathons lasting six or seven hours, sometimes until 3:00 am. Top name rock performers such as the Grateful Dead, Joe Crocker, Sha-Na-Na, B.B. King, the Bryds, Jethro Tull, Steppen Wolf and many others appeared. Craftsmen set up booths to sell their wares: art exhibits and drugs. Five dollars bought you a ticket into part of a social community that was bent on experimenting with drugs.There were good nights and bad nights. Only one thing was constant: Dope. Inside on the stairs, in the lobby or up in the ballroom, it was all the same: “Got a joint man?”. After six months, Michael Butler threw in the towel and a former employee of his, Scott Doneen, picked it up. Scott Doneen had the astoundingly bad fortune of having nine cancellations in July of 1970. By September of that same year,! ! ! things started getting out of hand. The police who until this time were keeping their hands off, started taking a more serious look. One evening, a patron on LSD thought he could fly and jumped from a second floor window breaking his leg. That incident along with crowd control problems put an end to the “monster” rock shows in October of 1970. All along, it was the music and the people that made the Aragon thrive. The drugs were there, but it was not grass or pills that people paid five dollars a piece to get in for. They could have gotten stoned anywhere they wanted to for free under more comfortable circumstances. The Aragon was what it always was, a place to hear top name performers in a awe inspiring setting. The Aragon had finally found a new era and it was called Rock’n Roll. However the future rock palace would not be uncovered for over two years.
In January of 1971, Harmond Harvey and Arthur Holleb bought the Aragon. They began restoring the venue to its original splendor. For a short time, Thursdays were nostalgia nights. The house band, “The Aragon”, played through a dance music library that spanned from the turn of the century to the ’70s. On Saturdays there were ethnic parties and wrestling matches were held every other Friday. Harmond, like every other owner before him, thought he could bring back big bands and dancing but low attendance soon stopped those dreams.
The Aragon reopened its doors to rock and roll concerts in 1972. Bands included the Doors, the Kinks, the Fabulous Rhinestones, Dr. John and many more. Although rock and roll was quickly carving its niche, the current promoters were unsuccessful in making the concerts profitable. In 1973, ownership of the Aragon finally landed in the right hands. Two Latin promoters, Willy Miranda and Jose Palomar, had been successfully producing Latin dances in Chicago since 1964. When word spread that the Aragon was yet again up for sale, the partners quickly extended an offer. They concentrated their efforts on restoring the appearance of the venue while continuing to promote their dances.Shortly after they purchased the Aragon, they were approached by two new concert promoters Arny Granat and Jerry Mickelson of JAM Productions. Jam possessed what it took to make rock concerts work and the new rock era at the Aragon began.
The current owners operating under the name of Aragon Entertainment Center, are also the owners of Viva Entertainment, Viva Marketing Group and other venues throughout Chicagoland area. With a production company, a marketing company and venues, the new ownership is taking the Aragon to new heights. They host a variety of Hispanic shows as well as English language rock concerts. The Aragon also hosts large private and corporate events.
… If only the walls could talk …