Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
Jazzed in Cleveland Complete Index

Part 145 - The Aragon Ballroom

Story filed January 9, 2015


ARAGON BALLROOM - 1937

The Aragon Ballroom on West 25th Street near Clark Avenue was not a center of hot jazz, but it provided live big bands for dancing for more than half a century. During its most popular years, the Aragon hosted more than 200,000 dancers a year.

Built in 1905 as a roller rink, the hall became the Winter Gardens in 1916 and the Shadyside Gardens before George Meyers purchased it in 1930. He renovated the building and constructed Cleveland’s largest dance floor, 150 by 80 feet, big enough to accommodate 2,000 dancers. The dance floor was constructed with two layers, a subfloor and a maple top floor, separated by an air space that was intended to give some bounce for dancing. After constructing a band stand at one end, they opened the doors to Cleveland dancing couples.


ARAGON DANCE FLOOR

But tragedy struck in October of 1933 when Meyers, a onetime City Council candidate, was struck by a car and killed as he crossed West 25th Street. His 23 year old son Lloyd took over the business and renamed the ballroom the Aragon after a famous dance hall in Chicago. Lloyd and his wife Madalene ran the business until his death 51 years later.


LLOYD MEYERS

Combing old newspaper articles and ads we learned the earliest bands at the Aragon included Red Nichols and His Five Pennies in 1934, Tommy Blue and his "Music For You" band in 1938 and ‘39, and the Cleveland orchestra of George Duffy. Other popular local bands, including Emerson Gill and Austin Wylie, were featured for extended engagements.

During the 1930s and early ‘40s, the Aragon Ballroom was competing with a newer and larger East Side dance hall, the Trianon Ballroom at East 100th and Euclid, which presented some of the nation’s best big jazz bands. To meet the competition, Meyers in 1941 began advertising "A new orchestra every week." Late in ‘41, Meyers began booking some nationally-known "sweet bands" including Jan Garber, Bob Chester, and Lakewood native Alvino Rey.

By 1942, when America was at war and the popularity of the Trianon was fading, the Aragon increased its number of name bands. They included Jack Teagarden, Louis Prima, Shep Fields, Charlie Barnet, and Frankie Masters. Jan Savitt led a 22-piece orchestra in January of 1943, followed by Johnny Long, Shep Fields, Glen Gray’s Casa Loma Orchestra, and Russ Morgan.

During the war years of 1944 and ‘45, the Aragon featured mostly local "house bands" on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday nights. But, after the war ended in August of 1945, Meyers announced he also planned to book major name bands for one-night engagements. In 1946, they included Clyde McCoy, Alvino Rey, Johnny Long and Clevelander Ray Anthony playing his first dance hall gig in his hometown. The bands in 1947 included Elliott Lawrence, Ray Anthony, Louis Prima, Harry James who was paid $2,500 plus a percentage of the gate receipts, and Claude Thornhill who had played 17 years earlier with Artie Shaw in Cleveland’s Austin Wylie Orchestra.

In 1948, there was a steady parade of top bands: Ray McKinley, Johnny Long, Tommy Dorsey who played for a capacity crowd, Ray Eberle, Victor Lombardo, Dick Jurgens, Ray Anthony, Lawrence Welk, Russ Carlyle, Frankie Carle, Jimmy Dorsey and Cleveland’s Harry Freidman who used the stage name "Blue Barron."

While some of the top national bands played a few jazz arrangements, Meyers was interested in presenting music for dancing. In a February 1949 article in The Plain Dealer, he said he polled his customers and concluded most disliked bebop bands and progressive jazz. PD columnist Glenn Pullen noted the success of the Aragon and said other bands "should start playing the type of ballroom music the public wants instead of what they like to play."

Bands in 1949 included Elliott Lawrence, Tex Beneke leading the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Blue Barron, Eddie Howard and Ray Anthony. In February of 1950, the biggest crowd ever at the Aragon Ballroom, 1,900, turned out to dance to the music of the Louis Prima Orchestra. Others that year included Russ Morgan, Art Mooney, and Lawrence Welk (three times).


LAWRENCE WELK & LLOYD MEYERS

The unusual decor of the Aragon Ballroom was part of the attraction. It included a glitter ball revolving over the center of the dance floor, salmon and purple walls, burgundy carpeting leading to the maple dance floor and wine-colored benches where the dancers could rest between sets.


ARAGON DANCERS - 1975

Carl "Doc" Pfeil, who had started working at the Aragon in 1930, made a framed sign which he placed in the ladies room. It suggested: "Don’t hesitate to accept the offer of a dance from a gentleman when he asks you. He pays you a compliment. Please consider it in that light and the enjoyment of your visit here will be increased. You come here for a good time. We do our part by giving you the finest dance music and a perfect dance floor in beautiful romantic surroundings. The rest is up to you, ladies."

Among the bands at the Aragon in 1951 were Ray Anthony, Ted Weems, Frankie Carle, Xavier Cugat, Harry James, and Rocky River native Sammy Kaye. Others in 1952 were Johnny Long, Lorain native Ralph Flanagan, and Shep Fields. Charlie Spivak, Billy May, Wayne King, Clyde McCoy, Eddie Howard, Tex Beneke and Flanagan played in 1953.

There was an unusual performance February 23, 1954. The very inventive Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, which was never intended to be a dance band, played a salute to Glenn Miller. The performance coincided with the release of the Glenn Miller Story movie. Bill Finegan, a co-leader of the band, had been an arranger for Miller, and Ray Eberle, who also appeared that night, had been a singer with the Miller band.

The parade of nationally known dance bands continued into the early 1960s with most of the sweet bands returning one or two times a year. When the orchestra of Cleveland native Freddie Martin played in September of 1954, a pianist and singer with the band was a young Merv Griffin, who later became a major TV host and producer. The sweet dancing format was varied slightly one week in October of 1958 when the very large and loud Stan Kenton Orchestra played. Three nights later, Pee Wee Hunt’s dixieland band played.

By the late 1960s, Meyers was paying the bands from $500 to $3,500 per night. There were 25 part-time employees working at the ballroom.

No band played more frequently at the Aragon than the Paul Burton Orchestra. Clevelander Burton began leading the house band in 1955 and continued until the late 1970s. For six years beginning in 1969, Burton and his band played for live radio broadcasts from the Aragon late Saturday nights on WJW. With only a few exceptions, local bands played at the Aragon during the 1970s.

Lloyd Meyers died in January of 1984 at the age of 73. His wife and their daughter continued to run the ballroom for three more years. In 1985, with little or no competition, the Aragon continued to attract as many as 500 dancers each night.

In 1987, Madalene Meyers sold the Aragon to a group of investors who wanted to serve the Hispanic population in the area, but promised to continue big band dances at least one night a week. Local bands continued to play on a regular basis until 1991. The new manager, Louis Vega, also booked Latin bands, polka bands, country music bands, and even amateur boxing matches.

In 1990, the old ballroom was declared an historical site by the Cleveland Landmarks Commission. But, in April of 1991, after more than 60 years as a popular and colorful ballroom, the music stopped. Cleveland’s last surviving ballroom of the big band era finally closed its doors.

There were several unsuccessful attempts to use the old structure for other purposes. Today, the old Aragon Ballroom remains a boarded up shell, a sad reminder of almost a century of live music and happy dancing.


ARAGON BALLROOM BOARDED UP

Copyright 2015 Joe Mosbrook


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