Ron Onesti: Where have all the ballrooms gone?
I went to visit a close friend of mine this morning. His name is Nick, or as I call him, “Uncle Nick.” He will be 92 soon, and he is in a rehab center after challenges he is experiencing with his legs.
I met Nick a few years back at the first big restaurant I owned, the Onesti Dinner Club at the former Old Church Inn in St. Charles. I had it set up like a supper club of the 1940s — live music and a dance floor surrounded by white-tablecloths and crystal wineglasses.
If you know Nick, you know him as a charming dance-floor wizard, with an infectious smile, great hair, a dapper demeanor and a tap in his step.
Our conversation today led to the nights he would tear apart the dance halls with his “lady friend.” It brought back memories of the ’40s and ’50s when there was a grand ballroom in every neighborhood, and every classy restaurant had a bandstand and dance floor.
“We lived to dance back then,” he would say. “I was selling shoes, my buddies worked in filling stations (gas stations), and the girls all worked in department stores and bakeries. But on Saturday nights, we all dressed in our best outfits, polished our shoes and greased back our hair,” Nick said.
This conversation brought me back to the countless times my dad reminisced about those days as well. His favorite place was the Paradise Ballroom on Crawford Avenue (Pulaski Road, now) and Madison Avenue, a bit west of his Taylor Street/Little Italy neighborhood in Chicago. On “big” nights he and his buddies would go farther north to the Uptown area to attend the regal Aragon Ballroom or take the elevated train to the Trianon on the South Side.
He would tell me about how it was during his 20s at the old ballrooms. “Everyone was dressed up. But all of us only had one suit, if we were lucky,” my dad said. “So we would trade suits among one another from one week to the next just so that it would appear as if we had many changes of our ‘classy clothes.’ We had a shoemaker friend that would let us borrow newly polished shoes that were left behind at his store. I was lucky because our family had the local tailor shop and cleaners, so I was never short of ‘borrowed’ clothing!”
Although these ballrooms were all pretty much built from 1910 to 1930, it wasn’t until the 1940s when the Jazz Age morphed into the Big Band, or Swing, Era, and dancing became more of an athletic experience rather than acceptable choreography.
All my dad’s stories were centered around Frank Sinatra and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Artie Shaw, Harry James, Horace Heidt, and Les Brown and his Band of Renown.
But as I read up on the ballrooms of the 1910s and 1920s, it was interesting to find that there were very strict rules with regards to what clothes were worn and which dances were allowed. Fox trots, waltzes and slower dances were OK; the Charleston and other “fast” dances were “the work of the devil.”
There were even attendants who walked around to make sure couples were not dancing too close to one another!
As I continue to open my themed restaurants, theaters and speak-easies, I make sure the decor gives a nod to those classic eras when the people and the places looked upscale and gaudy. It was a time when class reigned, and elegance ruled.
2020 marks the 100th anniversary of Prohibition, and of course, the 100th anniversary of “the speak-easy.” As most speak-easies were actually out-of-the-way, hidden, shot-and-a-beer gin joints, classic movies of the day represented them as grand showrooms with dance halls and Cab Calloway-style bandleaders.
Most of the grand ballrooms are gone now. Paradise is a memory of dances gone by, while The Aragon lives on through its rock concerts. We just recently lost the famed Willowbrook Ballroom to a fire.
Now, a second round of the Roaring Twenties is just beginning. Hopefully, those magical experiences of great food, classic cocktails and vintage ambience will continue to gain in popularity.
We tried to create our own experiences with “American Bandstand,” but our dance moves paled in comparison to the “Boogie Woogie” of the World War II era. Still, our Club Arcada Speakeasy in St. Charles and our soon-to-be-opened Bourbon ‘N Brass Speakeasy in Des Plaines are fan favorites. It is a sign that the bygone days of Boogie are comin’ back! Be Bopa A Lula!
Sometimes I daydream of the way things were when my folks were “hittin’ the clubs” back in the day. The pictures in my mind are always in that rust-brown sepia tone, imagining hip guys with greased-back hair tossing chic chicks into the air, their skirts spinning around their bodies — my dad as a young hipster, my mom with sleek, Ava Gardner hair.
And my “Uncle Nick,” twirling two ladies at once, the “John Travolta” of his time.
I never thought that simple sepia tone could be so colorful.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.