Andy Karzas discusses the Aragon Ballroom
BROADCAST: Aug. 2, 1963 | DURATION: 00:35:59
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Studs Terkel It really sounds good and sounds impressive, but is a wholly different Aragon of which we're thinking; not of Spain, not somewhere along the Iberian Peninsula, but somewhere here along Chicago's North Side, this Aragon, the ballroom and where the music of Hal Kemp, a band popular in the '30s, the '40s, too. But also you might say a sort of a hallmark band of this particular Aragon of Chicago. Its history is not as long, not as old as that of the old world, but there's enough of its history to explain its reputation and to explain, too, part of Chicago's history. And Andy Karzas is with us, Andy's family built the Aragon back in the '20s, and Andy himself, Andy Karzas, has been connected with this ballroom, part of Chicago's two great ballrooms of another era, though the Aragon today is still open and, I was about to say swinging, not swinging so much as the dances continue. But Andy, too, happens to be an opera buff. He supplied many of the rare recordings for some of the opera programs on WFMT, and is now also involved with the educational department of the Lyric Opera Company. Andy, I thought perhaps as--and strangely enough, opera is involved with the story of the Aragon, we'll come to that in a moment. Suppose through you, through the stories told to you by your father, William Karzas, who built the Aragon and through your own memories of now, we can get a part of Chicago's history.
Andy Karzas There are memories of the Aragón in Spain involved, too, because the Aragon was modeled after the Aragón palace in the Alhambra. 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. It is an open-air place with stars in the sky and clouds that float over and twinkle.
Andy Karzas Right.
Studs Terkel And the style of your Aragon in a way is not too removed from what might described as Balaban and Katz--this is not meant in a derogatory way--Balaban and Katz Spanish. You know, I mean there was a flamboyance, a rococo building going on in this particular period, and the Aragón of the Trianon, you had two, this place on the South Side.
Andy Karzas The Trianon was in French style and the Aragon in this Spanish or Moorish. 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.
Studs Terkel And remember, just I remember I was ten, 12 at the time, remembering that particular period going into the big theaters, the Balaban and Katz theaters and seeing that, and being so overwhelmed by the flamboyance of it, and it seemed the ballroom itself now, the Aragon and its history. There were--the dances then, waltzes and foxtrots.
Andy Karzas Mostly, that's right. The Two-Step, the Charleston and those novelty dances were never permitted in the Aragon or the Trianon. They were--they took up too much space. The management felt that someone might get kicked if they permitted the "Black Bottom" but mostly waltz and foxtrot.
Studs Terkel The waltz and the foxtrot. It was 1926. You were talking before we went on before the nature of the building itself. The importations of the marble, the glass, the floor underneath, the floors had springs.
Andy Karzas Yes, 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. They did this. The floor is actually cushioned and people can dance all night and not feel fatigue in their feet.
Andy Karzas Ted Fio Rito, who was then in partnership with Dan Russo, and they had been playing at the Edgewater Beach and other places in Chicago. They were one of the nation's most famous orchestras at the time.
Studs Terkel On crystal sets, too, we were able to hear the Coon-Sanders Band and the Ted Fio Rito-Dan Russo Band, Isham Jones. They opened and, perhaps, this may have been this kind of music in the '20s. This would have to be called a new moon and an old serenade, or "The New Moon and an Old Serenade", and it would have to be, too, Andy bring these records down, these would have to be 78s. This--the people who came. I know that there's been a change in patronage through the years, a kind--who came to dance?
Andy Karzas Mostly young people, even late teens and in their early 20s, single people, unmarried. 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?
Andy Karzas Groups.
Andy Karzas Yes, there's more--if the athletic entertainments like bowling and so on have become more popular than dancing, probably because young people today, the fellows don't want to learn how to dance. They think it's a sissy activity. And young people go through high schools without learning. They do a lot of gyrations in record stores, but they don't learn beautiful ballroom dancing.
Andy Karzas Yes, the kids today are getting married at the age of 18 and 19. As you say, in years ago people married more in their middle twenties. And all this period from the late teens through the middle 20s was an age in which people would come to the Aragon to meet other young people.
Andy Karzas Well, let me tell the story about that. After Fio Rito and Russo, the Aragon brought in a bunch of popular bands, but they needed a fill-in. And my father was unable to locate a band that could play for a few weeks at the Aragon as a fill, and he figured he'd better organize one or find somebody who would make a good leader. In the Trianon, [Del Lamp?]'s Band was playing, and there was a young saxophone player in [Del Lamp?]'s Band who had a nice personality, nice looking fella who always seemed to be friendly with the people, and Dad said, "Well, this guy would make a good bandleader." He took him from the [Del Lamp?]'s Band, put him into the Aragon for three weeks in front of an orchestra, and Wayne King stayed for nine years.
Studs Terkel So it was Wayne King. We think of Wayne King, the waltz king, and I suppose he, perhaps, if there's a representative figure of that period of this particular segment of America, the dancers, he would be king, wouldn't
Andy Karzas Yes.
Andy Karzas Yes, people came in formal ball gowns, particularly on matinees. Sunday afternoons were strictly formal, and they would come and dance for eight, nine hours, all through the day in formal clothes.
Studs Terkel Was this part of your father's billboard to advertising campaign, because Nelson Algren, in one of his memory sequences in his book, "Who Lost Early Chicago", speaks of the dancers, the waltzers, and Wayne King. On the billboards that are now tattered, now and then you find under three or four posters of subsequent years as you see the billboard poster work tearing off a lot of them, putting you find a couple in formal.
Andy Karzas Yes, he's talking about the billboards that advertised Trianon and Aragon on Michigan Avenue. And also there was a mechanical poster which showed dancing couples actually moving behind glass on Michigan Avenue.
Studs Terkel Yeah, that was part of it. And I suppose in thinking of that particular memory and Algren, of course, writes it quite poetically, the snows are falling, the years have passed, and tattered, tattered billboards. He thinks, and not that this particular couple is revolving, but the memories of the revolving couple. To our ears today this may sound a bit maudlin and sentimental, overly sentimental, yet at that particular time, again, in the history of American recreation, it was quite the music. And even now, I suppose, it's what you would describe--I, a non-dancer, would describe as very danceable music, I
Andy Karzas Yes.
Andy Karzas They're mostly young people again, in their 20s, single people who enjoy dancing and who enjoy meeting other nice people. It still is difficult to find places to go where you can meet congenial people. Where do you
Studs Terkel But once upon a time there were many ballrooms, who weren't--I mean, the two most celebrated were the--your father's, the Aragon that is now, the Trianon that was, but Chicago, I imagine most of the cities had a great many of the ballrooms.
Andy Karzas Yes.
Studs Terkel Was "The Dreamland" on the West Side. It was a bit rougher, perhaps, and that had more jazz bands, incidentally, playing there for dancers. But to what do you ascribe the disappearance of the rarity of the ballroom today.
Andy Karzas Well, a ballroom is as good as its attractions. And there became less and less dance bands that were available for the ballrooms as we took the emphasis off of dance music and put it on singers and instrumentalists. There were less people who came to dance in the ballrooms. We actually have gone through periods in the last few years where we've had difficulty finding bands that were available to play in the Aragon. And, yet, every band in the country wants to play there.
Studs Terkel The difference also what has happened, I suppose, expense to big bands, and we know that in the field of jazz, and this would apply to popular music, too, the big band, there are less big bands, far fewer big
Andy Karzas That's right. One of the reasons for that is that the entertainment now in America is weekend entertainment. In the old days, a band could book itself without any trouble Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, one-nighters around the country. But today only Fridays and Saturdays.
Andy Karzas Some of our older dancers like to talk about the nights they remember waiting in line on Tuesdays to get into the Aragon. There would be a hold-out crowd outside. Eleven-thirty the--a few people would leave, and then a few more could come in.
Studs Terkel Aside from the dance, there were novelty songs, too, weren't there, this was the time--well, of course the '20s was also, early '20s, "Yes, We Have No Bananas", and the Barney Google period.
Studs Terkel This was one of his. This was one of his, I think. This is "Goofus", and of course in listening to it, the violin, strings, in jazz this would be very much out although there are some jazz fiddlers. But the strings were of so much part of the popular dance band, weren't they?
Andy Karzas Divided.
Studs Terkel This is interesting, that Shaw did have the big band. Later on, of course, he's known primarily for his Gramercy Five, for the five pieces, six including himself. As another aspect of this particular ballroom, this place is a Chicago landmark it is in that it's part of Chicago's history. That aside from dances, there were special events in which, to which opera singers came in, to the time of Samuel Insull, wasn't it?
Andy Karzas In the late '20s a concert series took place of opera singers and some instrumentalists. They were on Sunday afternoons. And they attracted the very finest artists in the world, particularly the people who were appearing then with the Chicago Opera Company. As I mentioned to you, Tito Schipa, and Claudia Muzio, and--
Andy Karzas Well, simply a recital program that was held there each week. It was a series, just as you would, perhaps, by series for an Orchestra Hall concerts or something like that. The Aragon was chosen because of the beautiful acoustics and because of the beautiful background, or they would place chairs on the dance floor, and people would attend it just as a concert.
Studs Terkel Andy Karzas, this I know is your true love, the opera. So you've brought some 78s, and they're very rare ones, too. You mentioned Schipa as having entertained there. I remember when my folks had the hotel on the Near North Side, the man next door named Bertini who sold Italian statuary was a friend of Schipa's, and Schipa would come there sometimes on a Sunday night to his apartment which was above the store. So I remember seeing Schipa once there, you know, next door, you see, short, you know, kind of stocky as I recall, but short.
Andy Karzas Almost never given any more. And it seems a shame that the memory of the people is so short. Tito Schipa, who was one of the glories of the Chicago company all through the '20s and 1930s returned here just a few months ago to do a farewell concert, and the house was almost empty.
Studs Terkel Most felt. Yeah, 'cause it's a personal regret of mine not ending up at that concert and everyone was, here's a figure, you know, a figure of another era, but who never having been seen should be seen for one's own reward, you know. You say that the voice was still there.
Andy Karzas She was one of the best loved of the singers in Chicago, having left the Metropolitan because she was unhappy. 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. She was one of the most beloved singers in Italy as well, and would go back to Italy whenever she could. I brought a record today, "The Death of Cecilia", this is an opera that was written for her by a monk named Refice, and she was the first singer to perform this opera.
Andy Karzas Yes.
Andy Karzas Yes, this half-sung and half-spoken recitative in the aria where she is mart--she is being martyred as a saint. She performed this opera four or five times in Italy, and then toured with it to South America, and since Muzio parted, no one else has done it.
Studs Terkel Even Muzio's death scene from "Cecilia", her death then we hear the actress who, maybe this is the way Duse might have sounded like, and we hear the singer, the incomparable Muzio. Claudia Muzio, her death. We should point out, she didn't, she could not possibly have sung this during your Aragon Sunday concerts or your father's. This was written after. But she did, I bet she did "Traviata" there.
Andy Karzas Probably "Traviata". I've seen one of the concert programs, and she sang arias from "Traviata" and "Forza del Destino" and I think "Trovatore" and "Aida" plus a group of songs. They were beautifully balanced programs.
Studs Terkel That your father put out at the time that the patrons, the Sunday patrons, so here was a double face to the Aragon: the young dancers during the week. This was the bread and butter of the Aragon, this is the basis of it, and yet somehow it became also the locale for some of the Sunday afternoon concerts. This is Muzio, you had mentioned the Schipa story, since we heard Tito Schipa before. Schipa was quite a man for publicity.
Andy Karzas Yes, a story that everyone enjoys remembering is the publicity idea of going down to a drugstore or someplace like this with his wife, and they would have staged having another woman come running up to him, throwing her arms around him and kissing him, saying, "Tito, I love you, I love you." And the wife would step back, get very angry, push the woman away, and there would be a fight between the two ladies. Of course, a photographer would be handy, and the next day this was front-page space in every newspaper in Chicago.
Andy Karzas Right.
Studs Terkel That Sunday, back to the Aragon itself and its role in Chicago's history of the fine and lively arts. They were Schipa sang there on Sundays and Muzio, and you think, And, possibly Edith Mason did, too.
Studs Terkel I know you have in the programs a friend of yours who has been on the prog--Mae Higgins, who was a confidant of Muzio and today of Teresa Stich-Randall, saved all these programs so we'll have to check with her about Mason's appearance. But let's stick with opera. I know you're a buff, and how did you come to like the opera so much as you do?
Andy Karzas Well, when I was very young, my father bought some records of opera arias for orchestra and I liked them so much that I wanted to hear what they sounded like in the actual opera version, and persuaded them to buy me these recordings with the vocals, and pretty soon I fell in love with my favorite soprano, you know, Licia Albanese, whom I've been a fan of, by the way, and I used to spend much too much time and money hitchhiking to New York to hear her performances. But I've always enjoyed opera.
Andy Karzas Yes. She was, she sang in Chicago mostly in the Rossini operas and "Carmen". She began a move back to singing the Rossini operas in their original mezzo-soprano key. And although she had a high register when she wanted it, she was essentially a mezzo, and she restored "Cinderella", "Cenerentola", and "The Barber of Seville" to the vocal range for which they were written.
Studs Terkel Let's hear her or something entirely different from Peer Gynt--no, Grieg's "Solveig's Song", the beautiful "Solveig's Song" as he returns--no, she's--he returns. This is when Peer Gynt returns to Solveig, to home. Supervia. Supervia, Solveig, I was wrong, by the way, she was waiting for Peer, I think, at the time of this particular sequence. Yeah.
Andy Karzas She was the singer who was most like Maria Callas in demanding to have things a certain way. When she would take a job with an opera company, she insisted that a certain tenor be engaged, and a certain conductor, and so on. She would always send this information in a very pleasant, nice letter. But all the impresarios knew that if it wasn't this way, Supervia wouldn't sing.
Studs Terkel Supervia. Another one of Andy, our guest is Andy Karzas, you may recall Andy is here remembering and also through the memories of his father who built the Aragon and the Trianon, but it is the Aragon of which we're speaking since that is now existent, still exists, and we trust for a long time, part of Chicago's history. Andy, you may recall, supplied the records and the notes for "Through the Recording Horn", that marvelous program that brought back I'm sure to a great many listeners memories, but to all of us, voices.
Andy Karzas I was just going to say that the station used to get an awful lot of comment on it, and it pleased me very much to know that there were that many people interested in old singers, old records.
Andy Karzas Yes.
Andy Karzas She could have. We don't know for sure. She was with the company, though, from 1924 'til 1928, singing mostly the coloratura things. She was essentially a lyric, and in Italy they were desperate for a coloratura soprano, and the impresarios at La Scala encouraged her to learn "Lucia" and "Rigoletto" and roles like this. Well, she did them for a number of years very successfully, but it was a strain, and when she was no longer able to do them, she tried to go back to the lyric roles, and then people wouldn't accept her anymore.
Andy Karzas Right.
Studs Terkel You know, there's another aspect of the Sunday concerts we should mention, perhaps hear one of the artists involved, aside from the vocalists, the singers, there were fine instrumentalists, they were the fine ar--pianists. Josef Hofmann played there?
Andy Karzas Rachmaninoff was there. They played on--when the singers appeared, we have a double stage. The first one is lower, the second one quite high up. The singers always sang from the lower stage. The instrumentalists worked up on the top, the grand piano or the violin stands were elevated.
Studs Terkel Concerts.
Studs Terkel Well, I imagine it was that for Rachmaninoff, say. If we could hear, perhaps, just what it may have sounded like there in the Aragon, "Presto", the fourth movement of the Chopin sonata here, Rachmaninoff and his incredible fingers. And today that very same piano that on which Rachmaninoff played is used by Carmen Cavallaro.
Studs Terkel The instrument is there and says nothing, but the artist does. If we may come back, Andy, this is a double history of the Aragon, the Sunday afternoons and then the remainder of the week, of the nights that were there, the young dancers. You mentioned something earlier, Aragon still there, the dancers still come, but changes have occurred through the years, there's less participation. We know this today, generally there is more of a spectator, spectator entertainment than in the past. It happened, too, at the Aragon, didn't it for a time, when--when did it begin, with the singers coming with the bands, or?
Andy Karzas Right. Around the late 1930s, when the place was so crowded and that sometimes to relieve the congestion on the floor a little bit, they would feature the singers, and eventually the singers became almost more important than the bands. One of the greatest bands ever to play in the Aragon was Dick Jurgens, who was there for many years and he was very well-loved. But what the people really liked was Eddy Howard, who did the vocals with Dick's band.
Studs Terkel If we could hear this is Eddy Howard, pop singing of the time, very definitely of a time, pop scene very definitely. And the young people crowding to the floor. And thus and then the band comes, "A Hundred to One I'm in Love", I'm thinking of course, I can't help but laugh a little, and chuckle, you think of the double life the Aragon led, you know, Schipa, Muzio, to Eddy Howard, you know. This nonetheless part of the history of the place and of our city, too. The--Herman use--the big bands were there and on occasion still come. It's interesting that Woody Herman is in town tonight, Woody Herman played
Studs Terkel He's in town tonight at the Court Theatre, part of the Chicago artist series and he's at the court outside, and Woody--there were--in the time of Woody, too, it was a time of jazz very much on the upbeat and in addition to Herman, let's see. You had good--now I'm thinking now specifically of bands known as good jazz bands that played, and they had to, for bread and butter, for many of the dancers, too.
Studs Terkel We hear just part of Woody now. This he certainly played at the Aragon, I know, "Wild Apple Honey", which is one of his. This is the first Herd. And, so, Woody, certainly one of the prime jazz--I called it the first Herd, it's the third Herd, that would be the third band of Woody's, the third stage, this is the third, "Apple Honey", so thus with Andy Harzas is our--Andy Karzas, why'd I say Harzas, I'm thinking something else, but Andy Karzas is our guest and our guide, too. We have a picture of a city and of a ballroom and it had dance music, primarily. Sweet dance music. This was the base of it, and yet it had changes in the world of entertainment. Jazz bands were part of the picture, though--although the young couples danced to the bands, there was the watching, as you say, the watching as in the case of, obviously in the case of Woody's "Wild Apple Honey". Standing in front of the bandstand from the stage watching and listening and using, you even had a time of Dixieland bands there for a period
Studs Terkel And soloists and of course those Sunday afternoons, and today the Aragon is still there, going, and the audience today, the young people, are they, is there a difference? Again, you weren't born at the time it began. But from your observations and notes and your connection with Aragon, Andy, since it is your place, your father founded it. Is there a difference between the young people who come dancing now and then or are they basically the same?
Andy Karzas They take it a little more casually now. They don't dress up in formal clothes at all the way they used to do. And they come more for an evening of fun and entertainment rather than to dance. I think in the '20s people physically wanted to do the dance steps, this was most important. Today the kids use dancing as a form of relaxation, entertainment. And we have to be very careful to vary the fare a great deal. There has to be a lot of changes in our scheduling during the year: gimmicks, promotions. These things are important, where they weren't necessary years ago.
Andy Karzas Waltzes and foxtrots are here, we do play some swing, but not the Woody Herman-type, more of a ballroom swing, and Latin American is here to stay. There's an awful lot of cha-cha and rumba and mambo.
Studs Terkel I think the vertical, tall, vertical neon sign, Aragon, and below it, Aragon dancing, the name of the band is one of the marks of the city. This is Ara--we should point out where it is. It's north, it's on--
Andy Karzas Twenty-six.
Studs Terkel "The Waltz You Saved for Me", and perhaps we can waltz off with that one too, then, and sign--I know, end this particular history. Perhaps, Andy, you can come back again and hit more of the opera aspect of it, you know. Maybe we'll do here on the program on occasion "Through the Recording Horn".