President Obama’s Spanish Castle

Pay no attention to the man screaming into the hot August night wind on the gritty streets of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.

Can’t make out what he’s saying? Ignore that man. He’s crazy.

Pay attention to the fact that you are in an ancient Spanish castle.

It’s designed to put you inside an ancient Spanish castle. The Aragon Ballroom. First stop on President Obama’s 50th birthday fund raiser slash birthday tour.

Inside the Aragon Ballroom, where the President rolled up his sleeves and stoked the fires of the crowd last night, if you were to look up, you’d see the twinkling elegant stars in the elegant courtyard of a grand Spanish castle.

That grand Spanish castle was the vision of Andrew and William Karzas when they opened their Aragon Ballroom, in the shadow of the El Train, on Lawrence Avenue at Winthrop St. on a hot July night in 1926.

The Karzas Brothers knew exactly what they were doing. Their $2 million dollar palace was 4 stories high. Patterned Spanish style brickwork, terra cotta design for the exterior. Two stately promenades lined with opulent draperies and hung with oil paintings flanked the room and connected a Grand Salon on one end and three stages on the other. A maple dance floor built on a cushion of felt and cork accommodated 5,000. Access to the dance floor was on the plushest carpeting of the day. And the staircase sported statues of two giant plaster dragons to guard all who passed.

Building on the success of their south side Trianon Ballroom; the Aragon was more than a dance hall. It was a social statement; communicating that the earlier saloon-like dance halls that populated the rough and raw streets of Chicago, could now give way to a new standard in refinement. In short, Chicago was no longer a rough and wild frontier town. And truth told, it was, like the Trianon, a social statement colored by the fact that inside it’s walls, all were not welcome.

Architectural racism.

No one said that. No one could prove it. It can be argued. But it wasn’t. We can be subtle about our sins here Chicago.

While the south side clubs of Bronzeville were blending African American spirituals and blues into what would become jazz, led by the likes of King Oliver and his young friend Louis Armstrong; the more “refined tones” of popular white orchestras whose names have been lost in the mists of musical history would be the ones drifting out on to Lawrence Avenue from the stately Aragon Ballroom.

The orchestras of Freddy Martin, Wayne King and Dick Jurgens were Aragon regulars. And all had large followings at the time. Familiar names?


This is the haunted ghost of a building where the President began last night’s celebration. Inside on the Karzas Brothers stage. While outside, right across from Uptown’s Peoples Church, that street man kept screaming. A silent scream. No one really heard him.

And the hot August night went on.

At its peak, the Aragon was bringing in 18,000 people a week. And that didn’t include all the concerts broadcast across the Midwest by radio station WGN.

Through the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s, the management’s style of keeping true to that vision of “refinement” kept the crowds coming. Crowds of the “right” kind of people.

Floorwalkers stopped anyone who tried to jitterbug or any of the other wilder dances that grew popular through the years.

This was a time when all public dancing was considered by many to be evil. And the grand opulence of the Aragon helped change that view. The Aragon didn’t just have slower paced music. It had chaperones.

But time, and television, took its toll.

A 1955 fire started next door and did serious damage. And the era was over. William Karzas sold the building for less than it cost him to build.

For a brief stint, the next owners tried ice-skating. Then in 1966, the “Discothèque” craze shimmied in from New York and the Aragon became “The Cheetah Club.” After that died, there was a brief try at returning the Aragon to it’s former Big Band Glory. But that fizzled too.

Then came rock and roll. The Grateful Dead, Jethro Tull, The Allman Brothers and even blues legend BB King played the Aragon.

But as the economics of rock and roll changed, moving to stadiums, the boom rock and roll years gave way to the Aragon’s latest new life as a center of Hispanic entertainment. Current owners Viva Entertainment now open up the venue for corporate and private parties. And, on occasion, English speaking acts, including the legendary Bob Dylan, will appear at The Aragon.

And of course, now the President.

It’s become a familiar routine, the President coming home. Every few months. The throbbing train of black military helicopters taking off from O’Hare, skimming the treetops, barreling along above our house to Soldier Field on the lake. Then a caravan of black SUV’s. This time into our neighborhood. To the Aragon. Last time I was in there, I believe it was to see The Marshall Tucker Band. All of whom are probably in rock and roll retirement homes. I remember beer was involved.

But the silent screams of that street guy outside last night, they weren’t there. Back then he wasn’t screaming.

Which is why I kept listening to what he was screaming, as I stood outside with him on the sidewalk while the President had his party under the twinkling electric Spanish stars inside. I kept listening till I finally heard what he was screaming.

“Mr. President, the way to do what’s right is NOT to split the difference between good and evil.”

That’s what I heard the man scream. I had to listen carefully. Had to think about it. Because it sounds simple, but it’s not. So I listened harder. And I heard it again.

“Mr. President, the way to do what’s right is NOT to split the difference between good and evil.”

And after he screamed it one more time, I looked around to see if anyone else had heard. To see if anyone else understood.

But I found I did not know.

2 Responses to “President Obama’s Spanish Castle”

  1. Paul Haider Says:

    Great post, Roger. The most recent time that I was in the Spanish castle known as the Aragon Ballroom was on October 31, 2009. I saw Bob Dylan and his wonderful band there for a Halloween concert. Appropriately, Bob performed the song “Boots of Spanish Leather,” but I would have also welcomed the 1978 song “Senor.”
    Paul Haider, Chicago

  2. Helen Gagel Says:

    My first and only visit to the Aragon was in 1964. The then-shuttered ballroom was the HQ for a new animal called “News Election Service,” which would collect election returns from precincts all over the country for the TV networks (this was before exit polls told us the results 30 minutes after the polls close). I was a freshman journalism student at NU, one of many who responded to the call to staff the phones and earn a paltry sum for our election night work. We were required to attend a training session, and during the course of it, some 200 smart-ass (but poor) students discovered that the phone lines WERE OPEN. We placed calls to friends and family all over the country, running up a multi-thousand-dollar phone bill for NES in the process. Our stunt was front-page news in Chicago (and maybe nationally–I don’t remember)–but they allowed us to come back for election night (who else could they get to work for cheap?) and help get out the news of LBJ’s landslide victory over Goldwater. Thanks for waking up this memory, Roger — I hadn’t thought about it in years.

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