6201 South Cottage Grove Avenue
Opened 1922, closed 1958
By the early 1920s, several recent dance crazes had begun to make dancing more popular than ever among Chicagoans. Hoping to capitalize on this trend, entrepreneur Andrew Karzas invested $1 million into the construction and promotion of a new dance hall on the city’s South Side. Located at Cottage Grove and East 62nd Street, Karzas’ Trianon Ballroom was Chicago’s most expensive and most extravagant dance hall when it opened in 1922. Its location was a strategic one, as Karzas hoped to draw patrons from apartment buildings in the Trianon’s own neighborhood and those who could reach the ballroom via the ‘L’ from more distant parts of the city.
The Trianon’s interior was designed both to accommodate enormous crowds and to satisfy middle-class aspirations and sensibilities. Its spacious dance floor could accommodate up to 3,000 dances, while the ballroom’s alcoves and upper level could hold just as many. Meanwhile, the ballroom’s Louis XVI-style decor and elegant furnishings helped gratify the fantasies of wealth and sophistication that the Trianon’s patrons held so dear. The ballroom’s elegance also weakened the public’s inhibitions to dancing and certain forms of jazz, as it became more difficult to question the respectability of such cultural expressions once they were showcased in such architecturally conservative surroundings.
The Trianon was an enormous success throughout the Jazz Age, even though it was never a hotbed of cutting-edge jazz music. Hot jazz, insiders knew, was not to be found at the Trianon, but rather in the black and tans of Bronzeville. For the Trianon’s more upwardly mobile, white patrons, much of the ballroom’s appeal lay in the conservative manner in which Karzas and his managers conducted the ballroom. Karzas jealously guarded the Trianon’s reputation, ordering his management staff to institute restrictive dance policies in an attempt to discourage customer behavior that might tarnish the ballroom’s polished image. Ballroom employees closely monitored patron activities, both on and off the dance floor. “We do not allow ‘spooning’ or ‘petting,’ etc., between dances,” one Trianon manager told the Juvenile Protective Association in 1924. “When the dance is over, my six floor men and hostesses take their positions at different parts of the Ballroom and see to it that everything is orderly.” The Trianon’s managers also employed a special force of matronly “hostesses” to instruct young women in the traditional rudiments of feminine behavior and to admonish those who failed to comply. One area of contention involved the smoking of cigarettes. The management banned smoking by its female patrons, but not male patrons, as such behavior among women contradicted the ballroom’s image as a dance establishment that upheld traditional, middle-class gender norms in a way that less highly regarded dance halls and cabarets did not. Still, some women who visited the ballroom smoked, at which point ballroom personnel intervened and reminded them that women were not permitted to smoke at the Trianon.
Also contributing to the popularity of the ballroom among white, middle-class Chicagoan was its racial exclusivity. Karzas, of course, depicted the Trianon as a thoroughly democratic institution, one in which all Chicagoans, so long as they could pay the price of admission and behaved themselves reasonably well, were equally welcome. According to Variety, the Trianon’s publicity agents described the ballroom as, among other things, a “marvelous tribute to democracy” and a “veritable palace for the people.” Such high-minded declarations aimed at building goodwill toward the ballroom among would-be patrons, as well as social reformers and others who might one day put the Trianon under the anti-vice microscope. In actuality, however, not all Chicagoans approached the ballroom as equals. Troubled by the mere prospect of interracial dancing, Karzas barred admission to blacks from day one, a policy that remained in place until well after the Second World War. Likewise, Karzas and his managers hired only all-white bands, such as those led by Paul Whiteman, Isham Jones, and Dell Lampe, all of which played a sweeter, more orchestrated brand of jazz than the city’s leading black bands. The management followed the same whites-only policy held when it came to hiring singers and exhibition jazz dancers, preferring the disciplined dance steps of Irene Castle to the improvisation of African-American jazz dancing. Karzas had no desire to confront questions of interracial or inter-class dancing and those who would raise them; keeping his young, middle-class dancers from becoming too affectionate while in one another’s arms was challenging enough.
Declining interest in public dancing and the changing racial composition of the Woodlawn neighborhood prompted the closure of the Trianon in 1958. In subsequent years, the ballroom periodically hosted boxing matches and flea markets but otherwise went unused most nights. It was demolished in 1967 by urban renewal authorities to make way for a low-income housing project.
Photograph: Dell Lampe’s Orchestra from the Trianon Ballroom [Red Hot Jazz Archive]
Sources: Variety, 15 Dec 1922, 9; 17 Mar 1926, 43; Chicago Tribune, 23 Mar 1963, 7; 2 Jan 1967, D12.