This Saturday, August 8, 2015, will be the fifth in a series of fundraisers by the North Riverside Historical Society to raise money to restore the neon sign from the Melody Mill Ballroom which was one of the last remaining ballrooms from the Big Band Era.
The origin of the Melody Mill is filled with conflicting stories and controversy. According to The Diamond Anniversary Edition Commemorative Book of Village History, the Melody Mill was purchased by Benjamin Lejcar Sr. in 1929 from the Brush Brick Company of Lyons after a small fire damaged the back portion of the property. A very good article entitled Remembering the moonlightFifty years of memories at North Riverside's ballroom written by local historical Chris Stach references a December 8, 1930 and a December 11, 1930 Riverside News article that describes an arson that nearly destroyed the building. The December 11th article mentions the owners’ names as Anton Bezchleba and Joseph Skaykes.
I had also found an article in the Chicago Tribune of September 29, 1932 that described a dynamite bomb being thrown from a speeding auto into the lobby of the ‘Melody Mills, a taxi dance hall and sports emporium’. Otto Martinek, the North Riverside Police Chief, stated that the operator of the dance hall was Anton Beschleba and that he believed that rival dance halls were responsible for the bombing.
Regardless of the beginnings, Benjamin Lejcar Sr., his wife Elsie and sons Ben Jr. and Clarence were responsible for the great success of the Melody Mill for almost 6 decades. The last dance was held on April 29, 1984. The estimates of the attendance of the last dance range from 3,751 to 5,700. This was pretty spectacular since the average attendance was about 500.
During the heyday of the Melody Mill, they would draw such big band greats as Stan Kenton, Jimmy Dorsey and Tommy Dorsey while about 3,000 young dancers would stroll across the 15,000 square foot dance floor.
In addition to “living” dancers there are two versions of a phantom dancer making an appearance at the dance hall.
One version of the story is supposed to have taken place in 1934 and involves a dancer named “Wally” who danced with a blond woman in a white gown and while driving her home she asks to be dropped off at Woodlawn Cemetery. Wally returns to check on her at her mother’s residence and the woman tells Wally that the girl has been dead for three years.
Another story is similar but was supposed to have occurred in 1933 but involved a dark haired girl in a “flapper-style” dress common in the roaring ‘20s. This girl, however, asks to be dropped off at Jewish Waldheim Cemetery. I have also heard some versions that she goes as far as Forest Home.
Both stories sound strikingly similar to the phantom hitchhiking dancer known as “Resurrection Mary”. Mary is a blond in a white dress who danced at the Liberty Grove Hall and Ballroom at 4615 S. Mozart in Chicago or the still extant Willowbrook Ballroom in Willow Springs. Mary asks to be dropped at Resurrection Cemetery in Justice, IL.
Either way, you really can’t have a legit ballroom without a dancing, hitchhiking ghost.
The Village of North Riverside purchased the property in 1984 and found that it would have been too costly to bring the building up to code in order to turn it into a multi-use recreational building and the building had to be torn down to make room for the current Villiage Commons at the same address of the old ballroom at 2401 S. Des Plaines Avenue in North Riverside.
The Melody Mill neon sign was eventually donated to the North Riverside Historical Society and they have been looking to raise the estimated $24,000 needed to restore the sign to its former glory.
I spoke with Bryant Rouleau, Village of North Riverside Program Coordinator and Historical Society member. Bryant told me that they have changed the theme of the dance every year and this year they have decided to honor the ballroom’s phantom dancers with a “Ghost Ball”
The Steve Cooper Orchestra will be playing a wide selection of big band music including “Moonlight on Melody Mill” which has its own bit of controversy. Ben Sr., according to Stach’s article claimed to have written the song while family members of songwriter, Henry G. Cramer, claim he was the author.
The fundraiser ball will be held on Saturday, August 8, 2015 from 4:00pm to 7:00pm at the Village Commons, 2401 S. Des Plaines Avenue in North Riverside. Tickets are $30.00 each and include beer, wine, appetizers, music and dancing. Tickets can be purchased in person at the Village Commons Dress code ranges from formal to comfortable dance clothes.
For further questions call (630)258-7099
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