Andy Karzas discusses the Aragon Ballroom
BROADCAST: Aug. 2, 1963 | DURATION: 00:57:53
Studs Terkel It really sounds good and sounds impressive, but it's 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. [content removed, see catalog record] And with 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 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, 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.
Andreas Karzas There are memories of the Aragon in Spain involved, too, because the Aragon was modeled after the Aragon 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.
Andreas Karzas Right.
Studs Terkel And the style of your Aragon in a way is not too removed what might be described as Balaban & Katz, this is not meant in a derogatory way, Balaban & Katz Spanish. You know what I mean, the, there was a flamboyance, a rococo, building going on in this particular period and the Aragon of the
Andreas Karzas Trianon. Yes, the Trianon was -- Place in the South Side. The Trianon was in French style and the Aragon in this Spanish or Moorish and 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 I remember just, I remember I was 10, 12 at the time, remembering the, that particular period going into the big theaters, the Balaban & Katz theaters, and seeing that, and being so overwhelmed by the flamboyance of it. And it seems the ballroom itself now, the Aragon and its history. There were the dances then, waltzes and fox trots.
Andreas 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; foxtrot.
Studs Terkel The waltz and the foxtrot. It was 1926. You were talking before we went on, too, about the nature of the the building itself, the importations of the marble, the glass, the floor underneath, the floors had springs.
Andreas 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 inner sole in your shoes. You know, they did this. The floor is actually cushioned. And people can dance all night and not feel fatigue in their feet.
Andreas 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, and they opened and perhaps this may have been this kind of music in the '20s.
Studs Terkel This would have to be called "A New Moon and an Old Serenade," 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. The people who came. I know that there's been a change in patronage through the years, the kind -- Who came to dance?
Andreas Karzas Mostly young people, even late teens and in their early 20's, 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?
Andreas Karzas Groups.
Studs Terkel And there was, too, Fio Rito and -- What did you have up above? I mean, did you have, did your Father build what the impression -- Lights, too, I suppose? There were lights of sorts, weren't
Studs Terkel And dancing then was -- Actually, you know dancing as such was part of the American scene, typically among the young. Now, through the years you've sensed a lessening of this, haven't you?
Andreas Karzas Yes, there's more. And 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.
Andreas Karzas than then? 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 20s. 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.
Andreas Karzas period? 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 fellow 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 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 it,
Andreas Karzas Yes, people came in formal ballgowns, particularly on matinées. 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, too, 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 bill poster work tearing off a lot of them, putting, you find
Andreas Karzas a couple in formal -- Yes, he's talking about the billboards that advertised Trianon and Arago 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, 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, not that this particular couple is revolving, but the memories of the revolving couple.
Studs Terkel To our ears today, this may sound a bit maudlin, 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 it's what you would describe -- I, a non-dancer, would describe as very danceable music, I suppose.
Andreas 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 go?
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 the Aragon that is now, the Trianon that was, but Chicago -- I imagine most of the cities had a great many of the ballrooms.
Andreas Karzas Yes.
Studs Terkel There was the Dreamland on the West Side, there was a bit rougher, perhaps, that had more jazz bands incidentally playing there for dancers. But to what do you ascribe the disappearance of the of the the rarity of the ballroom today?
Andreas 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. That we know that in the field of jazz, and this would apply to popular music, too, the big band, there are far less big bands, far fewer big bands today.
Andreas Karzas Well, one of the reasons for that is that 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.
Andreas 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; 11:30, the, they would -- A few people would leave and then a few more could come in.
Studs Terkel There were, aside from the dance songs, 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 is "Goofus." And of course in listening to it, the violin. Strings and jazz, this would be very much out [unintelligible] jazz fiddlers, but the strings were oh, so much a part of the, of the popular dance band, weren't they?
Andreas Karzas Yes.
Andreas Karzas were prevalent. Every so often there would be larger ones. Artie Shaw came in one time with a 40-piece band. We have two stages at the Aragon, we had to use both of them to fit the band on.
Andreas Karzas Divided.
Studs Terkel This is Shaw. 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 that 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, from the time of Samuel Insull, wasn't it?
Andreas Karzas In the late twenties, 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 --
Andreas Karzas Well, it simply a recital program that was held there each week. It was a series, just as you would perhaps buy a 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. 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 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.
Andreas 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 Schipa's glory. Where he was best loved. Most felt. And this, yeah of course, this is a personal regret of mine not ending up at that concert. Everyone was -- Here's a figure, you know, a figure of another era, by the way, who who never having been seen, should be seen for one's own reward, you know. You say that the voice was still there.
Andreas Karzas Muzio
Andreas Karzas was there. Claudia Muzio. 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.
Andreas Karzas Yes.
Studs Terkel You can't help but think of her recitative reading the letter in "Traviata," Violetta reading Germond's letter, her acting and that, and here, too, there's a similar [unintelligible] scene.
Andreas Karzas Yes, there's 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 since Muzio parted, no one else has done it.
Studs Terkel Even the -- Muzio's the death scene from "Cecilia," her death, and we hear the actress who, maybe this is the way Duse some might have sounded like. And we hear the singer, the incomparable Muzio.
Studs Terkel 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, though it written after. But she did, I'll bet she did "Traviata" there.
Andreas 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 You've seen some 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. We heard
Andreas Karzas Tito Schipa before. Schipa was quite a man for publicity. 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.
Andreas Karzas Right.
Studs Terkel That Sunday, back to the Aragon itself and its role in Chicago's history of the fine and the lively arts, there was Schipa sang there on Sundays and Muzoi and you think, Andy, possibly Edith Mason did, too.
Studs Terkel Lovely lyric. I know you have in the programs a friend of yours who has been on the program, Mae Higgins, who was a confidant of Muzio. And today of Teresa Stich-Randall. I saved all these programs so as to check with her about Mason's appearance. But let's stick with opera here. I know you are a buff and how did you come to like the opera as much as you do?
Andreas 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 ever since --
Andreas Karzas -- Conchita Supervia sang here. 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," a beautiful Solveig song as he returns -- No, she's -- He returns. This is when Peer Gynt returns to Solveig. To home.
Andreas 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's the Aragon of which we're speaking, since that is now existent, still existent, 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.
Andreas Karzas to say what? 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.
Andreas Karzas Yes.
Andreas 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 the people wouldn't accept her anymore.
Studs Terkel What
Andreas Karzas Yes. She recorded a "Butterfly" complete with Beniamino Gigli, and a lot of people criticized it because she kept her voice sounding very young. She tried to enact a 15-year-old girl --
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, there were the fine pianists -- Josef Hofmann played there?
Andreas 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 up, elevated.
Studs Terkel 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.
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, or 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's is more of the 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?
Andreas 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.
Andreas Karzas Right.
Studs Terkel 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, [unintelligible] I think of the double life the Aragon led, you know. Schipa, Muzio, Eddy Howard, you know. This nonetheless part of the history of the place and of our city, too. The -- Herman used -- 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 University of Chicago artist series and he's at the Court outside, and Woody, they were -- In the time of Woody, too, was the time of jazz very much on the upbeat. And in addition to Herman, let's see, you had Goodman, 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 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, third stage, and this is the third, "Apple Honey," so thus with Andy Harzas [sic] as our -- Andy Karzas, why did I say Harzas, I'm thinking something else, but Andy Karzas is our guest and our 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 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, obvious in the case of Woody's "Wild Apple Honey" standing in front of the bandstand in front of the stage watching and listening, and you even had a time of Dixieland bands there for a period, didn't you?
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?
Andreas 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.
Andreas 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 a city. This is Ara-- We should point out where it is. It's north, it's on --
Studs Terkel "The Waltz You Saved for Me." "The Waltz You Saved Me [sic]" and perhaps we can waltz off with that one, too, then, and 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."