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CBMR Digest is a publication of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago

ISSN # 2168-3301spring 2014 | Volume 27, No. 1

Dancing in Chicago: The Trianon Ballroom

Near the edge of the University of Chicago campus, on the corner of Cottage Grove Avenue and 62nd Street, the Trianon Ballroom provided its patrons with a place to dance and socialize for thirty-two years. Founded during the Roaring Twenties, the Trianon Ballroom was just one of several hundred public dancehalls operating in Chicago during the first half of the twentieth century. This particular ballroom, however, stood out from these other halls because of its extravagant size, luxurious decorations, and overall elegance. Moreover, the Trianon and its sister ballroom, the Aragon Ballroom, which was located on Lawrence Avenue on Chicago’s north side, were frequently dubbed “the world’s most beautiful ballrooms” by the press.1 But, like many of Chicago’s historical treasures, the Trianon Ballroom eventually became a thing of the past, as the changing social conditions surrounding this entity of unprecedented glamour and proportions eventually gave rise to its tragic demise.

The Trianon was the brainchild of two Greek immigrants, Andrew and William Karzas. The Karzas brothers came to the United States in 1907 (Andrew) and 1909 (William) and opened a small restaurant on the South Side of Chicago. As the restaurant flourished, they used the proceeds to fund a second investment, a nickelodeon.2 Both businesses prospered, enabling them to purchase a chain of movie theaters, all of which were on the South Side. The Karzas chain was not the first in Chicago; rather, 1917 marked the onset of the Balaban and Katz theater chain, whose theaters earned a reputation for their French-inspired décor. This prompted the Karzas brothers, whose financial resources continued to grow substantially, to build a ballroom that resembled Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles—their ballroom, built in 1922, was known as the Grand Trianon.3

While the Karzas brothers instigated the building of the Trianon, their endeavor was supported by other businessmen, as well. For example, the president of the American Bond & Mortgage Company, Mr. W.J. Moore, supported the creation of the Trianon with over $1,000,000 in bonds.4 Moore became interested in the Trianon Ballroom at the suggestion of Robert Beck, who served as the president of the Longacre Engineering & Construction Company. Beck had also been instrumental in financing the Apollo and Harris theaters in Chicago; for the Trianon project, in addition to securing financing, he was also responsible for contracting the architecture firm of Rapp & Rapp.5

The Trianon Ballroom was erected at a time when America’s dance craze seemed unstoppable. Indeed, the Trianon Ballroom not only furthered the widely popular activity of dancing, but it also attracted some of the most famous musicians to its venue. This was due, in part, to the main attraction of the ballroom—its dance floor. The Karzas brothers and their financial supporters understood the importance of social dancing, on both national and local levels. Thus their goal was to build the grandest dance floor in existence. The oval–shaped ballroom measured 170 feet long by 100 feet wide. The ceiling was domed and measured fifty feet at its greatest height. Contemporaneous writings suggest that nearly 3,000 people (1,500 couples) could dance at the Trianon, which indicated that dancing, especially in Chicago, was more than a passing fad—it was a type of entertainment that rivaled the popularity of movies, musicals, and vaudeville shows.6

After a year of planning and construction, the Trianon Ballroom opened its doors to the public on December 6, 1922.7 An announcement presented to “the people of Chicago” in the November 27, 1922, issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune, lists the similarities between the Chicago dance “palace” and the French palace of the same name. Called a “Palais de Danse,” this announcement states that Chicago’s Trianon Ballroom is a faithful reproduction of the original Trianon in France, which was designed exclusively for usage by royalty. In addition to providing a written-out pronunciation of the word “Trianon,” the announcement sites the “grand staircases…beautiful paintings…gorgeous draperies…and…Louis XIV style of architecture”8 as notable features of the new ballroom.

On December 5, 1922, prior to the grand opening for the general public, the Trianon Ballroom hosted a Bal Fantastique charity ball whose proceeds supported the Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society.9 This ball marked the first major society event to take place and be housed on the south side of Chicago. The prominent guests in attendance mirrored the importance of the occasion; the grand marshal for the evening was General Pershing.10 Paul Whiteman’s band from New York was hired to play the music for the event.11

The Trianon received tremendous praise in the press during the last few weeks of 1922. On December 12, 1922, the Chicago Daily Tribune featured an article, “What Chicago Thinks of Trianon,” in which statements printed in other media were compiled and presented. Members of the Bal Fantastique committee and writers from the Chicago Daily Tribune, the Chicago Evening American, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Post, and the Chicago Journal unanimously agreed that the Trianon was the largest, finest, most beautiful ballroom in Chicago. Many felt that the splendor of the ballroom alone was capable of transfixing its patrons, who came to associate this elegance with dancing.12 While the Karzas brothers wanted to open the Trianon to ordinary citizens, they did maintain a dress code that was in line with the ballroom’s appearance; the Trianon was the first ballroom in Chicago to require men to wear a coat and tie.13 The admission fees for the Trianon, which were published in this Chicago Daily Tribune article, differed with respect to gender and night of the week. For example, on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings, and Saturday afternoons, men could enter the Trianon for $1.10; women were charged $0.60. On Saturday evenings, Sundays, and holidays, men paid $1.25 while women were charged $0.75.14

In order to maintain the feverish energy surrounding the Trianon’s early days, those responsible for its success, the Woodlawn Theatre Company, programmed some of the most well-known big bands of the times for the Trianon’s steady flow of patrons.15 Among the musicians hired during the 1920s were Bee Palmer and Isham Jones16 as well as the bands of Jan Garber, Guy Lombardo, Wayne King, Coon Sanders, Hal Kemp, Griff Williams, and Ted Weems.17 Perhaps the most widely publicized performer was Rudolf Valentino, who danced the tango at the Trianon on February 18, 1923. The audience was so enthralled with his exotic dance that they threw flowers and jewelry onto the stage.18

On nights without special guests and performers, the types of dance music performed at the Trianon varied in accordance with the theme of the evening. For example, the Trianon often promoted “waltz nights” and “Charleston nights” in addition to its regular dance nights.19 Dancers at the Trianon also enjoyed polka music.20 One of the first bands to play regularly at the ballroom was Roy Bargy and his Trianon Orchestra.21 In 1926, Dell Lampe and his band were providing the regular shows.22 Other performers included Art Kassel and his “Kassels of Air” and Lawrence Welk, who, at the time, was known solely for his accordion playing. Over the course of its thirty-two years of operation, approximately 150 bands played at the Trianon.23

None of this would have been possible without Andrew Karzas’ well-documented business acumen.24 He established rapports with his hired guests and his staff, while providing the best dance music and best service available to his patrons. Whereas many of these early shows were produced for the Trianon’s regular patrons, the management did promote an “employees night” on December 10, 1930, whereby all of the proceeds went directly to the Trianon’s staff.25

The Trianon employed relentless publicity campaigns to maintain its loyal following. For example, in an attempt to differentiate itself from other dancehalls, the Trianon sponsored frequent raffles for expensive items such as automobiles and diamonds.26 In 1927, in a gamble on the unknown potential of radios, the Trianon’s programs were broadcast live over a telephone line through Chicago’s WGN studios.27 As the 1920s progressed, the Karzas brothers had enough money to build a second ballroom, the Aragon Ballroom, which, as the name suggests, resembled a Spanish palace.28

In the 1930s, however, the economic climate in the United States changed, and despite the Trianon’s initial triumph in the dancehall business of Chicago, it, too, was forced to cut back on its expenses. Rather than pay an entire band to perform, the Trianon installed a Wurlitzer organ, which, with a single player, could replicate all of the sounds of a band.29 In general, this decade witnessed a shift away from ballroom dancing toward a preference for swing music. Though the Karzas brothers did occasionally feature swing bandleaders like Benny Goodman, the Dorsey brothers, and others at their ballrooms, swing music found its home in other venues in Chicago. And, whereas the broadcast of music from the Trianon in the late-1920s had propelled the ballroom’s legacy before an excited audience, radio broadcasting became passé in the 1930s. By the end of the 1930s, the brothers had to reorganize and refinance their businesses.

Andrew Karzas died suddenly in 1940, but under the leadership of the remaining brother, William Karzas, the Trianon managed to secure its loyal following once again following WWII, by promising to provide the most dance music in Chicago.30 Throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the Trianon’s patrons had always been white, as set forth by the policy originally established by the Karzas brothers. Because of this policy, however, civil rights groups picketed the ballroom in the early-1950s.31 The ballroom closed on May 2, 1954, shortly after its thirty-second anniversary celebration for which Don Glasser’s Orchestra supplied the music.32

The next month, on June 5, 1954, the Trianon, now owned by the 62nd Street Amusement Corporation and managed by Val Hutchison, reopened its doors, but this time to an entirely different group of patrons consisting of more than 2,000 people, most of them African Americans. While the new patrons danced to the music of Count Basie, the new owners promised that the Trianon would not be a segregated venture in the future, citing their plans to hire Tommy Dorsey’s band to perform.33 That same year, tenor saxophonist Rusty Bryant, singer Roy Hamilton, and jazz trumpeter Erskine Hawkins were all scheduled to play at the Trianon. The Chicago Defender, noticing the immediate change in music offered at the Trianon, published an article on August 7, 1954, entitled “Trianon to Go on Blues, Rhythm Kick.”34 The Defender also chronicled the double feature of the Mahalia Jackson Gospel Song festival and the annual “Miss Bronze America” competition, both of which were held at the Trianon. The music for the beauty pageant was provided by Horace Henderson’s band.35 The Trianon housed other events, too, such as Alpha Phi Alpha’s 41st annual convention in 1956.36

The ballroom closed in 1958 for a second time but was purchased by the El-Sid Management Corporation and reopened in 1963.37 Headed by Wilbur S. Sidney, the corporation changed the name of the Trianon to “El-Sid” and executed a renovation project that exceeded $100,000. Because the building had been unoccupied for nearly five years, Sidney hoped to provide the exterior of the building with a more contemporary look while restoring the interior to its original Louis XIV style.38 Twenty members of the Midwest chapter of the American Theater Organ Enthusiasts, also known as the Kimbar Club, spent nearly two years restoring the Trianon’s Wurlitzer pipe organ.39 Sidney’s aim was to make the El-Sid the center of entertainment that the Trianon once had been. Count Basie and his sixteen-piece band performed at the El-Sid on April 28, 1963,40 and as of June 1963, Sidney had scheduled performances of Fats Domino and Lionel Hampton in the renovated building.41

Unfortunately, the El-Sid’s life was short. Despite the renovation and efforts to bring in famous performers, the building was demolished in 1967 to make room for an urban renewal project of middle-income housing.42

The significance of the Trianon ballroom as a music and dance venue in Chicago cannot be underestimated. Located on the South Side, the Trianon/El-Sid was ideally positioned to witness both demographic and musical changes that occurred between the 1920s and the 1960s. After its grand opening in 1922, Variety magazine wrote “the development of dancing in Chicago has covered 12 years, reaching its climax last week with the opening of the Trianon, declared to be the world’s finest ballroom.”43 The Trianon was also recognized by Variety for its effect on the commercialization of dancing; the magazine also speculated that within the refined atmosphere of such a sophisticated ballroom, the sexual characteristics of dancing had been eliminated, making dancing an activity no longer subjected to questions of morality.

As the years passed, the music presented at the Trianon/El-Sid transitioned from big-band and swing to jazz. Although the music and the clientele of this famed venue changed over its unstable forty-five year history, the Trianon/El-Sid Ballroom remained unique in its ability to provide some of the most danceable music in Chicago.

Melanie Zeck is CBMR Research Assistant and the Managing Editor of Black Music Research Journal. She has served as the CBMR’s primary fact-finder and fact-checker since 2005, and is a PhD candidate in Music History and Theory at the University of Chicago.

  1. Nancy Banks, “The World’s Most Beautiful Ballrooms,” Chicago History: The Magazine of the Chicago Historical Society 2, no. 4 (Fall–Winter 1973): 206. (return to text)
  2. Arthur Jackman, “Old Memories to Fall with the Trianon: Dance Palace had Colorful History,” Chicago Tribune, January 2, 1967, sec. D, D12. (return to text)
  3. Banks, “The World’s Most Beautiful Ballrooms,” 206. (return to text)
  4. “$1,000,000 Dance Hall takes Dancing out of Fad Class,” Variety, December 15, 1922, 9. (return to text)
  5. Ibid., 9. (return to text)
  6. Ibid. (return to text)
  7. “To the People of Chicago,” Chicago Daily Tribune, November 27, 1922, 7. This announcement clearly shows that the “grand opening” of the Trianon took place on Wednesday, December 6, 1922. The following statement appears below the announcement: “The Trianon Ballroom has been donated by the management on Tuesday evening, December 5, to the Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society for their Annual Benefit Bal Fantastique.” This announcement claims that the Woodlawn Theatre Company is responsible for the grand opening. Nancy Banks (Banks, “The World’s Most Beautiful Ballrooms”) indicates that the Karzas brothers had built the Woodlawn in the early 1920s. (return to text)
  8. “To the People of Chicago,” 7. (return to text)
  9. Ibid. 7. (return to text)
  10. “$1,000,000 Dance Hall takes Dancing out of Fad Class,” 9. (return to text)
  11. Ibid., 9. (return to text)
  12. “What Chicago Thinks of Trianon,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 12, 1922, 17. (return to text)
  13. Banks, “The World’s Most Beautiful Ballrooms,” 208. (return to text)
  14. “What Chicago Thinks of Trianon,” 17. (return to text)
  15. For information on the Woodlawn Theatre Company, please see the second half of Footnote #7. (return to text)
  16. “Ballroom Reviews: Trianon,” Variety, March 17, 1926, 43. (return to text)
  17. Jackman, “Old Memories to Fall with the Trianon: Dance Palace had Colorful History,” D12. (return to text)
  18. Ibid., D12. (return to text)
  19. “Ballroom Reviews: Trianon,” 43. (return to text)
  20. Banks, “The World’s Most Beautiful Ballrooms,” 212. (return to text)
  21. “What Chicago Thinks of Trianon,” 17 (return to text)
  22. “Ballroom Reviews: Trianon,” 43. His name is spelled “Dell” in this review. Nancy Banks, however, spells his name “Del.” (return to text)
  23. Lon Gault, Ballroom Echoes, 1st ed. (Andrew Corbet Press, 1989), 17. (return to text)
  24. Jackman, “Old Memories to Fall with the Trianon: Dance Palace had Colorful History,” D12. (return to text)
  25. Trianon Topics, Thursday, November 27, 1930. The announcement reads “every penny taken in on that evening goes to the employees who have served you so faithfully during the year.” Taken from the John Steiner Collection: Clubs, Events, Venues—Trianon Ballroom folder. (return to text)
  26. Ballroom Reviews: Trianon,” 43. (return to text)
  27. Ibid., 209. (return to text)
  28. Ibid., 209. (return to text)
  29. “Set 3-Hour Concert on Trianon’s Famed Organ,” Chicago Daily Defender, April 24, 1963, Daily Edition, 16. Information about the Trianon’s Wurlitzer organ and its primary organists (L. Berry and W. Knaus) can be found in Lon Gault’s Ballroom Echoes, 16–17. (return to text)
  30. Banks, “The World’s Most Beautiful Ballrooms,” 212. (return to text)
  31. Ibid., 212, 215. (return to text)
  32. Gault, Ballroom Echoes, 17. The closing also occurred just two weeks before Brown v. Board of Education was decided on May 17, 1954. (return to text)
  33. “2,000 Pack New Trianon Opening Night,” The Chicago Defender, June 5, 1954, 1. (return to text)
  34. “Trianon to go on Blues, Rhythm Kick,” The Chicago Defender, August 7, 1954, National Edition, 18. (return to text)
  35. “DeLisa Installs Unit Costing $30,000; The Trianon also ‘Comfy’,” The Chicago Defender, August 28, 1954, National Edition, 6. (return to text)
  36. George Daniels, “Dr. Howard Gives 3-Point Program to Alpha Confab,” The Chicago Defender, January 14, 1956, National Edition, 3. (return to text)
  37. “Trianon’s Old Pipe Organ to Sound Again,” Chicago Tribune, March 23, 1963, 7. (return to text)
  38. Dave Potter, “Old Trianon to Get $100,000 Face Lifting and New Home,” The Chicago Defender, June 8, 1963, National edition, 7. (return to text)
  39. “Trianon’s Old Pipe Organ to Sound Again,” 7. (return to text)
  40. “Count Basie and Crew set for Reign at Trianon, April 28,” Chicago Daily Defender, April 23, 1963, Daily Edition, 17. (return to text)
  41. Potter, “Old Trianon to Get $100,000 Face Lifting and New Home,” 7. Domino was scheduled for June 28, 1963, and Hampton was scheduled for August 8, 1963. (return to text)
  42. “Old Trianon Ballroom to Fall,” Chicago Daily Defender, January 3, 1967, Daily Edition, 7. (return to text)
  43. “$1,000,000 Dance Hall takes Dancing out of Fad Class,” 9. (return to text)

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