Filed Under Music

Aragon Ballroom

The Last of Cleveland's Big Band Era Dance Halls

October 22, 1933. The depth of the Great Depression. Thousands of banks have failed over the past four years. The U.S. economy has ground to a near standstill. Nearly 15 million Americans--a quarter of the workforce--are out of work. But there is hope. A new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was elected last November, and just seven months ago he took office, promising change while telling us that the only thing we had to fear was, well, fear itself. Many believed him and believed in him. Some thought things were already starting to get better that year.

The Meyers family may have been among those who believed Roosevelt. But even if they were not, they must have had cause for hope. Three years earlier, 46-year-old George had moved his dance hall from a little building on the corner of Pearl and State roads to a much larger building on the northeast corner of Althen and West 25th Street in what is today Cleveland's Clark-Fulton neighborhood. Erected in 1905 by Cleveland architect Harry A. Cone, the building had served primarily as the site of an indoor roller rink that had operated under a variety of names. In 1929, a fire destroyed the rink. George and his son Lloyd immediately set to work repairing the interior of the building and constructing Cleveland's largest ballroom floor there. It was 150 feet long by 80 feet wide, and composed of two layers of wood, one Appalachian hardwood maple and the other a wooden subfloor, separated from each other by an air space to give "bounce" to the dance floor. In addition to building a band stand up front, they procured and placed enough tables and chairs around the dance floor perimeter to accommodate 100-200 patrons. That really wasn't a lot of seats when you think about it. The dance floor could hold up to 2,000 dancers, and on a typical weekend night over 1,200 might show up. But you came to George's dance hall--originally named Shadyside Gardens--to dance, not so sit.

And come they did. As the Great Depression dragged on, Americans looked to mass entertainment to take their minds, at least for a while, off the terrible reality of the worst economic period in the country's history. Many went to the movies for this escape. Others turned on the radio and listened to their favorite sport or sports team. But a lot of Americans, and certainly a lot of Clevelanders, went to dance halls. There they listened and danced not to the fast-paced jazz music of the Roaring Twenties, but to a new, slower, more romantic music. It was perfect for dancing. It was called Swing and it was the music that helped Americans dance their way through the Great Depression.

The year 1933 was momentous for Americans, but in the end it was a tragic year for George Meyers and his family. Active in politics, he had run for the office of Councilman for Ward 9 but lost in the spring primary. Seven months later, on that October 22, 1933 date which began this article, George Meyers was struck by a car and killed, as he crossed West 25th Street near his dance hall. Hope in the Meyers family might have died that day too, but it didn't. After burying his father, twenty-three-year-old Lloyd Meyers took over the family business and, with him at the helm, the dance hall not only survived but began to thrive. Four years later in 1937, with his finances in order, Lloyd was finally able to marry his longtime girlfriend, Madalene Wilkinson. That same year he decided, possibly with a whisper from Madalene, to change the name of the ballroom to the Aragon, after the famous ballroom with the same name in Chicago. You can say that the rest is history. You wouldn't be far off.

For the next fifty-two years, the Meyers family successfully operated the Aragon Ballroom at the West 25th Street location, making it one of the best places in Cleveland for ballroom dancing. The biggest names in the big band era performed there. Band leaders like Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo,Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Sammy Kaye and Xavier Cugat. Even Lawrence Welk, who credited the Meyers for much of his later TV success, brought his orchestra there. Many famous singers also appeared on the marquee. Dean Martin, Perry Como, the McGuire sisters, and many others. For some, it was where they got their start.

Lloyd and Madalene Meyers, with help in later years from their daughter Donna Mae, kept ballroom dancing alive in Cleveland long after rock-n-roll became the new popular music for the young post-World War II generation. One by one Cleveland's other historic ballrooms, seeing their customer base shrinking, closed. The Trianon at East 98th and Euclid. The Golden Pheasant downtown on Prospect. Mayfair Casino at 1515 Euclid. Danceland just up the street from the Trianon. Luna Park. Even the ballroom at Euclid Beach. When Lloyd Meyers died in 1984, his wife and daughter continued on for another five years before finally bowing to the inevitable in 1989. It was the end of not only Cleveland's last ballroom, but of a very special era in Cleveland history.

Audio

Let's Go Dancing at the Aragon Ballroom Listen to this clip of "Calcutta" as performed by Paul Burton's Orchestra, the long-time house band for the Aragon, and feel like you're once again dancing in Cleveland's last great ballroom.

Images

Aragon Ballroom, 1937 Photo of the ballroom building taken close in time to its reopening as the Aragon Ballroom in October 1937. It had previously operated under the name of Shadyside Gardens from 1930 to 1937. Source: Cleveland Landmarks Commission
Three Blocks South of Clark Avenue This 1953 Sanborn Insurance Map shows the location of the Aragon Ballroom on Cleveland's near west side, a neighborhood today known as Clark-Fulton. In the Ballroom's heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, the Clark Avenue Trolley line would back up weekend evenings because so many Clevelanders were taking the trolley to the Aragon. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library, Digital Map Collection
George M. Meyers In 1930, Meyers, a third-generation German-American, moved his dance hall from a small building at the corner of Pearl and State Roads to a large building on the corner of West 25th Street and Althen Avenue. His dance hall was originally known as Shadyside Gardens. Three years later in 1933, Meyers ran unsuccessfully for Councilman for Ward 9. Image courtesy of the Meyers Family Collection
Tragedy On October 22, 1933, as this Plain Dealer article reveals, tragedy struck the Meyers family when George, the owner and operator of what was then called Shadyside Gardens, was struck and killed by an auto while crossing West 25th Street. His son Lloyd took over the family business and the rest is history. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
A New Partnership In April 1937, Lloyd Meyers, owner and operator of the Shadyside Gardens Dance Hall, married his long-time girlfriend, Madalene Wilkinson. Just six months later, he renamed the dance hall the Aragon Ballroom after the famous ballroom in Chicago of the same name. The couple operated the ballroom together for the next 47 years until Lloyd died in 1984. Image courtesy of the Meyers Family Collection
Cleveland's Largest and Most Established Ballroom Every week during the 1930s and 1940s, Cleveland's newspapers featured ads like this for the Aragon Ballroom and the city's dozens of other dance halls. The ads, like this one from the November 28, 1937 Plain Dealer, nearly always contained the name of the big band era orchestra leader who would be appearing that week. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Everyone became Family People didn't just frequent the Aragon. They came, they danced and became decades-long loyal patrons. Some celebrated golden anniversaries there. It was the same for the ballroom's employees. In 1969, waitress Josephine Conlon had already worked there for 35 years. Concessionaire Carl "Doc" Pfeil was like family. Paul Burton's orchestra was the house band for over twenty years. And Frank Menger (above right), shown talking with Lloyd Meyers at the Aragon in 1946, was the Cleveland dance inspector who kept order at the ballroom on West 25th Street for over 50 years. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library, Digital Photo Collection
Dancing according to the Rules In a January 27,1980 article about the Aragon Ballroom, the Plain Dealer reprinted the above circa 1925 official list of Cleveland dance hall rules and regulations. The rules were supposed to be enforced by the dance inspectors, but by the 1950s they were archaic though still on the books. Frank Menger, the Aragon Ballroom's long-time dance inspector, viewed his job as simply one of making sure that everyone who walked through the doors of the building and onto the ballroom floor was there simply to dance. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Lawrence Welk at the Aragon Among the famous orchestra leaders who played at the Aragon Ballroom in the big band era of the 1930s and 1940s was Lawrence Welk, who went on to have a successful television career as star of the highly popular Lawrence Welk Show from 1951 to 1982. Welk credited people like Lloyd and Madalene Meyers with keeping ballroom dancing alive in the United States. He is shown here (left) talking with the Meyers in 1969. Image courtesy of the Meyers Family Collection
The best ballroom floor in Cleveland That was how many Aragon Ballroom patrons viewed it. The floor was composed of two layers of wood, hardwood maple on top and a softer subfloor below, the two layers separated by an airspace. It gave the floor "bounce," and was perfect for gliding through the waltz-style dances of the big band era. Image courtesy of the Meyers Family Collection
Dancing for Decades This 1975 photo captures mostly older dancers on the floor of the Aragon Ballroom on West 25th Street in Cleveland. Many had begun dancing there in the 1930s. A number had met their spouses there. Some celebrated golden wedding anniversaries there. Image courtesy of the Meyers Family Collection
A Dance Hall in Need of Restoration This 2014 photograph shows the condition of the Aragon Ballroom building in that year, more than two decades after the ballroom had finally closed. The City of Cleveland actively worked with the owner in the years that followed the taking of this photograph, and the building has since been restored. Image courtesy of Google Maps
The Restored Ballroom Photo of the restored Aragon Ballroom in 2021 Source: Google Maps

Location

Metadata

Jim Dubelko, “Aragon Ballroom,” Cleveland Historical, accessed June 29, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/668.