Photo by Andy Pierce
Historic Music Venues: The Aragon Ballroom
As a performance venue, Chicago’s famous Aragon Ballroom is much like the city itself. Tough. Resilient. A survivor.
By Glenn McDonald
The Place to be in Chicago
When the Aragon opened in July 1926, it was considered the most elegant and gorgeous ballroom in the United States. Ever since the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the Windy City had gained a reputation as a place of architectural wonder. Weary of snooty dismissal by Eastern neighbors such as New York and Philadelphia, Chicago focused on erecting the nation’s most ambitious buildings and public spaces.
Designed in the Moorish architectural style and named for a region of Spain, the Aragon featured grand chandeliers and sweeping arches, a domed terra-cotta ceiling, mosaic murals and faux-wood concrete columns. No expense was spared. The building’s $2 million price tag at the time equates to about $2 billion today. That’s billion, with a “b.”
From the 1920s through most of the 1950s, the Aragon was the place to be in Chicago. Radio station WGN broadcast live from the venue six nights a week. The biggest of the big band acts—Lawrence Welk, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo—played for crowds that averaged 18,000 per week.
After a relatively fallow 1960s period when the Aragon served under various owners as a boxing arena, roller skating rink, flea market and even a wildly ill-conceived discotheque, the venue returned to its popular music/culture roots.
So-called “monster rock” shows in the early 1970s were marathon events lasting up to eight hours, with odd-combo, multi-act bills including the Doors, Dr. John, the Grateful Dead, the Byrds, B.B. King, the Kinks, Jethro Tull and Steppenwolf. The rowdy rock shows—and the venue’s rep as a clearinghouse for recreational drugs—earned it a new nickname: the Aragon “Brawlroom.”
“The drugs were there, but it was not grass or pills that people paid five dollars a piece to get in for,” reads the history on the Aragon’s official website. “They could have gotten stoned anywhere they wanted to for free under more comfortable circumstances. The Aragon was what it always was, a place to hear top-name performers in an awe-inspiring setting. The Aragon had finally found a new era and it was called rock ‘n’ roll.”
An Encyclopedia of Music
A comprehensive rundown of the rock concerts held at the Aragon Ballroom would take several hundred pages. But we can certainly look at some of the highlights, which tell a story of their own about the progression of rock ‘n’ roll and popular music—by both U.S. and international acts—in the past few decades.
German techno pioneers Kraftwerk played a famous gig there in spring 1975. Lou Reed played there a few weeks later. And Kiss. And Foghat and Santana and Nazareth and Rory Gallagher. Durable Canadian prog-rockers Rush launched their greatest (at the time) assault on the United States there in 1977 with two dates supporting A Farewell to Kings; returning after mere months for three more sold-out shows.
New Wave pioneers including Devo, the Cars and the Talking Heads performed at the Aragon in the late ’70s. The list of acts that played the Aragon in the ’80s and ’90s reads like a virtual encyclopedia of the many stylistically diverse sub-genres under the broad umbrella of rock: The Police. The Clash. U2. Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Violent Femmes. Living Colour. Megadeth. The Beastie Boys with Fishbone. Jane’s Addiction. Public Enemy. Phish. Cracker. Weezer. The Black Crowes. Korn. Green Day.
A Personal Testament
Senior year of high school, 1989 or so, I kinda-sorta remember going to a Replacements show at the Aragon. It was an epic road trip from Detroit, where I grew up, with friends of (I think I have this right) my best friend’s girlfriend’s friends.
It’s rather a blur, quite honestly, but I do remember seeing Paul Westerberg onstage, looking like the world’s first and last rock star. I was able to sing along with almost all the songs, and at some point, this girl in front of me—on the Aragon’s gi-normous general admission dance floor—turned around and kissed me on the mouth for no good reason at all.
Later I bummed a clove cigarette off a Norwegian woman who looked just like Chrissie Hynde. I recall staring at one point at a mosaic tile pattern on the Aragon’s walls. In the street after the show, some guy said I looked too skinny and gave me half of his submarine sandwich.
You just don’t argue with evenings like that.
Mixing it Up
The Aragon stands today as testament to the viability of a multi-ethnic, wildly eclectic and ultimately urban performance space that reflects the cosmopolitan nature of its host city.
For more than 85 years now, the Aragon has hosted an array of diverse musical events and happenings that may be quite literally unrivaled for a single big-ticket venue. Big band revivals, jazz, Latin dance parties, techno raves, folk festivals, wrestling matches, Mexican wrestling matches, rock concerts, freestyle rap battles, more rock concerts, charity benefit shows, break dancing competitions, even more rock concerts, musical theater—you name it, the Aragon has hosted it.
Aragon Ballroom special event coordinator Alex Jorge, who grew up in Chicago, said he came to work for the venue specifically because of its place in the history of music and of the city.
“The cool thing is you’ve got this mixture of not just music and rock ‘n’ roll, but really this has been an entertainment venue for 85 years,” Jorge said. “From ballroom dancing to big bands; from blues musicians to rock musicians to Hispanic musicians—all types, all types.”
In the most recent testament to the Aragon’s status as one of the city’s premier venues, President Barack Obama is slated to celebrate his 50th birthday there with a major fund-raiser on Aug. 3.
That’s an event that Jorge is taking in stride.
“It depends on his schedule, and also on the recent budget talks a bit,” he said about juggling the logistics of such an event. “But it’s OK—we’ll figure it out.”