3136 North Sheffield Avenue
Opened in 1921, Chicago’s Merry Garden Ballroom was one of the city’s most popular dance spots. Owned and operated by the husband-and-wife duo of Jack and Helen Lund, Merry Gardens attracted a steady clientele of dancers with its convenient location, modest prices, and exciting, sometimes outlandish dance promotions.
The Merry Garden Ballroom was located at 3136 North Sheffield Avenue, across the street from the Victoria movie theater and just south of busy Belmont Avenue. Most patrons of the ballroom lived on the city’s north side, although special events and sponsored dances sometimes drew men and women from other parts of the city as well. Convenient connections to the city’s public transporation network enhanced the ballroom’s capacity to draw large crowds on a regular basis. Many patrons accessed the ballroom via the nearby Belmont Avenue ‘L’ station and streetcar lines that ran along Belmont and Sheffield Avenues.
To increase patronage, the Lunds employed a variety of novel promotional gimmicks. During the summer of 1925, they used special decorations and white confetti to stage “snowstorm and blizzard” dances. The following year, they began to court one of the neighborhood’s larger ethnic groups by hosting weekly Swedish dance nights. Another common promotion enticed dancers with reduced-price 25-cent admission fees if they signed the back of their ticket with their name and address. With this information, the Lunds compiled large mailing lists which they later used to advertise the ballroom through newsletters and advertising pamphlets.
Among the more notorious of the ballroom’s promotions were its lengthy dance marathons. The first marathons at the Merry Garden were held during the late 1920s, but they attained their greatest notoriety during the Great Depression years of the early 1930s, when endurance dancing became a national craze. Dancers from around the city and the surrounding region flocked to the Merry Garden to test their stamina and compete for cash prizes. At the Merry Garden, as at other ballrooms around the country, dance marathons often lasted several weeks or months. Contestants were allowed short breaks to eat and rest, but otherwise had to remain in motion on the dance floor at all times. Patrons often adopted a favorite couple, cheering them on and occasionally bringing them gifts of food and money. Deprived of adequate rest, however, dancers’ health often deteriorated rapidly as the marathon went on. pectators sometimes mocked or taunted couples as their bodies gradually weakened and eventually collapsed.
Events at the Merry Garden Ballroom both reflected and transformed the national endurance dance craze of the early 1930s. During one of the most closely followed dance marathons of the era, Mike Ritof and Edith Bourdreaux set the world’s record for the longest continuous dance at Merry Garden. The couple danced for 5,154 hours and 48 minutes between 29 August 1930 until 1 April 1931. They won $2,000 and the admiration of thousands for their victory. However, the extraordinary length of this and other record-setting dances bolstered the case of those condemning marathon dances as dangerous and exploitative. In Chicago and other American cities, newspapers published reports about the health risks posed by marathon dancing and possible fraud on the part of semi-professional marathon dancers. A strong public backlash against marathon dancing quickly ensued, prompting officials in Illinois and other states to adopt laws regulating the length and promotion of dance marathons.
The management and patrons of Merry Garden also helped launch the career of pop singer Frankie Laine. Born to immigrant parents in Chicago’s Little Italy in 1913, Laine showed promise as a singer at an early age as part of a church choir group. In 1930, the teenager caught his big break during a charity ball at the Merry Garden Ballroom. While giving dance lessons to a group of young dancers, Laine was asked to ascend the bandstand and sing a few tunes. “Soon I found myself on the main bandstand before this enormous crowd,” Laine recalled. “I was really nervous but I started singing ‘Beside an Open Fireplace,’ a popular song of the day. It was a sentimental tune and the lyrics choked me up. When I got done, the tears were streaming down my cheeks and the ballroom became quiet. I was very nearsighted and couldn’t see the audience. I thought that the people didn’t like me.” But the Merry Garden crowd went wild and the ballroom’s manager quickly arranged to have Laine sing there on a regular basis.
The following year, with the help of the manager of Merry Garden Ballroom, Laine went to Baltimore to host, sing, and dance at a new series of East Coast dance marathons. In 1937, the young singer took over for Perry Como as part of a regional big band led by Freddy Carlone. Following the Second World War, Laine gained national stardom. His recording of “That’s My Desire” was the first in a string of songs that made it into the Top Ten on the American music charts, topping out at number four in 1947. Other hits included “That Lucky Old Sun,” “Mule Train,” “The Cry of the Wild Goose,” “Jezebel,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “High Noon,” and “I Believe.”
By the mid-1930s, Merry Garden Ballroom had become a major fixture on Chicago’s dance hall landscape. Aside from nightly general admission dances, the ballroom hosted a growing number of invitation-only dances and sponsored balls, some of which were quite extravagant. The annual Chauffeurs’ Balls, sponsored by the Chicago Private Chauffeurs’ Benevolent Association, were especially spectacular. A Tribune reporter described the 1937 ball as a swank affair. Jewelry, fur coats, including mink and other luxurious articles of apparel and decoration were plentiful. Many of the chauffeurs drove up in their employers’ limousines. About 500 chauffeurs and their wives or sweethearts were preent. For the first time, however, the rigid rule of formal attire was lifted, and many of the men came in civilian clothes. All the women, however, wore formal gowns.” Merry Garden also hosted an annual Saint Patrick’s Night Ball that drew thousands. These were sponsored by various Irish-American social organizations, including the United Celtic-American Societies and the Sons and Daughters of Erie.
Later demolished, the Merry Garden Ballroom was replaced by a surface parking lot. In 2004, the Chicago City Council approved plans for the construction of a fifty-one-unit loft condominium complex on the site formerly occupied by the ballroom.
Sources: Variety, 4 Oct. 1923, 1; 29 July 1925, 39; 24 Feb. 1926, 55; 13 Aug. 1930, 1; Chicago Daily Tribune, 15 March 1925, 4 Dec. 1937, 18 March 1940.
Image source: Author’s collection