Remembering the moonlight

Fifty years of memories at North Riverside's ballroom

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By CHRIS STACH

Some people called it "Melody Mill." Others called it by its full formal name, "The Melody Mill Ballroom." People who knew it really well called it "The Mill." And then there were the people who called it just a "dance hall."

Whatever its name, the "recreation building," as it was also known back in 1930, has remained in people's hearts and minds to this day, 25 years after it closed its doors, forever, in 1984.

The Melody Mill opened in North Riverside, on the site of a former picnic grove, during the Depression, around mid-November 1930. Local papers did not advertise the opening. But the familiar windmill on top could be seen from 22nd Street, before it became Cermak Road.

Contractors for the ballroom, according to a Dec. 11, 1930 article in the Riverside News, were Anton Bezchleba, and Joseph Skaykes, a Chicago businessman. They were also listed as being the owners.

In early 1984, 53 years later, Benjamin Lejcar Sr. was telling everyone that he and his wife, Elsie, were the original owners of Melody Mill, and that he built it. In the 1930 article, Lejcar's name isn't mentioned anywhere. Was his claim valid? Here are the facts.

The Riverside News reported that early Monday morning, Dec. 8, 1930, a "fire of incendiary origin caused an estimated damage of $35,000 to the Melody Mill dance hall" at 2401 DesPlaines Ave. About 20 cans of Ethyl gasoline, about 100 gallons, were poured throughout the building by "incendiarists," and fire companies from Riverside, Berwyn, Forest Park, and Cicero were summoned.

After the fire was out, a third of the roof and a third of the 15,000 square foot dance floor had been burned away. Both the roller rink and the miniature golf course in the basement were ruined by water damage. All hopes of being open for the lucrative Christmas and New Year's Eve parties were gone.

The owners stated that they were going to begin repairs at once. They may have, but since this was the Depression, the $35,000 cost may have been too much to bear.

According to the book That Toddlin' Town: Chicago's White Dance Bands and Orchestras, 1900-1950, by Charles A. Sengstock, the Melody Mill "opened on New Year's Eve, 1931, with a popular local band led by Jack Russell."

Did it take a year to repair the fire damage? Maybe so. That Toddlin' Town also added that "Ben Lejcar and his family had gotten into the ballroom business almost by accident. A [housing] contractor, he took over the building when the owner defaulted to builders in 1931."

This would seem to indicate that Lejcar may have been one of the original contractors, and might have been (with his wife) a part owner of the building in 1930. Whether he had the original idea for the ballroom is open to further speculation.

What is certain is that he got the Melody Mill open again, and was making money from it as of New Year's Eve, 1931. The old mini-golf course was gone, part of the repaired, expanded roller skating rink, that lasted until 1946.

A family business

On evenings in the 1930s, as many as 3,000 dancers, dressed in their best, were stepping to the tunes cranked out at the Melody Mill. They came by car, by foot, and by streetcar, that stopped at the corner of 26th Street and DesPlaines.

By the 1970s and 1980s, attendance had declined to around 500 a night, but 5,700 showed up for the Mill's last New Year's Eve party, on Dec. 31, 1983.

 The Melody Mill was a family-run business, with Ben's wife, Elsie, working, too. In later years, Ben gave much of the credit to his wife for the success of the ballroom. Also helping for decades were sons Ben Lejcar Jr., and Clarence Lejcar. Even in 1984, Ben Sr.'s grandson, William Lejcar, was acting as bartender. 

The admission price to Melody Mill, in the early years, was something that even Ben Sr. could not recall with perfect clarity. Maybe it was 10 cents, or maybe 15 cents. Still not a bad deal for the Depression, and an evening's dancing with your sweetheart. Many nights, the ladies could get in free, too, by using special passes.

On Sunday evening, Jan 31, 1932, Kenny's Red Peppers Orchestra was playing, and it cost ladies 75 cents to get in, and "gentlemen," a dollar. Courtesy Tickets could reduce the price to 75 cents for the "gentlemen."  After paying your way in, an evening of music and dancing were yours to enjoy, from 8:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.

Ben Sr.'s foggy memory wasn't unique. In a 1984 Sun-Times article, John Storcel of North Riverside confessed that he couldn't remember whether the price was 50 cents or 75 cents to get in, back in 1938, when he "first started twirling around on the Melody Mill dance floor."

Eleven years later, on Sept. 30, 1949, a special ticket and 50 cents would admit one person, of either sex, "before 9 p.m., on any Wednesday, Friday, or Sunday evening." (The ballroom was open on Saturdays nights, too.)

Ghost stories

Dave Hoekstra, in the Feb. 24, 1984 Sun-Times, reported about an early appearance of the Famous Ghost of the Melody Mill.

According to Hoekstra, Ben Sr. told him that "Legend has it, that in the fall of 1934, a gent named Wally met a young blond woman in a snow-white gown at the Melody Mill. After a night of dancing to Buddy Stone and His All-Star Band, they were on their way home when the woman asked to be dropped off near Woodlawn Cemetery, just north of Melody Mill.

"A week later, when Wally went to pick up the woman at her home her mother told her that her daughter had been dead for three years. Over the years, there have been periodic sightings of a blond woman, in a white gown, wandering along highways near the cemetery."

Since that time, this apparition has, so it is said, been seen by other people. But is it the same woman? "Haunted Chicago," at prairieghosts.com, calls her the "Flapper ghost, a Jewish girl, with bobbed hair and a dress right out of the Roaring 20s."

What? Did this woman ghost become a girl ghost, and change her clothes? This "fetching phantom" was apparently appearing in 1933, a year earlier than Lejcar's blond spirit.

Maybe they are different wandering waifs. Both of them liked to dance, and to be taken to cemeteries afterwards, although the "Phantom Flapper" apparently had a different address: The Waldheim Cemetery, at 1800 S. Harlem Ave. Practically next door to Woodlawn.

Home to the big bands

Over the years, many big name dance bands played at the Melody Mill. Among them were Benny Goodman, Sammy Kaye, Tommy Dorsey, Stan Kenton, and Les Brown and His Band of Renown.

Tiny Hill's Orchestra was, more or less, the official dance band of the Melody Mill, playing for many long engagements.

On March 11, 1941, Hill recorded the "house tune" for the ballroom, titled "Moonlight on Melody Mill," a fox trot, with Bobby Freeman doing the vocal on the OKEH label, number 6212.

Who wrote the song? Things get a little bit sticky again. Ben Sr. declared that he wrote it for his wife. According to big band buff Fred Smith of North Riverside, "The composer of that song is credited to, simply, 'Cramer,' although there is no Cramer name in ASCAP." Another Melody Mill mystery.

The 63-word song is typical to the time, and was a definite boost for the ballroom, telling how "Sweethearts fall in love/With the same old thrill/When it's moonlight/On Melody Mill."

The end draws nigh

But all good things, sooner or later, come to an end. Grandson William Lejcar revealed in 1984 that, when asked, "I told them to close (the ballroom) in 1963."

So, in 1964, Ben Sr. turned the ballroom over to his wife, Elsie, and Ben Jr.

Feet continued to fly over the dance floor, until, at last, the Mill was scheduled to close on April 4, 1984. But the Village of North Riverside delayed that. The final night of dance at the Mill would be on Sunday, April 29.

The village had already bought four parcels of land around the Mill, to be used to create the Village Commons. (The old Melody Mill Ballroom sign is still aging away into rust in the Public Works yard.)

Meanwhile, petitions were presented to village officials. Two architectural firms had determined that it would cost about $2 million to bring the old building up to code. The Lejcars didn't have that kind of money. So that was it.

Not one, but two bands were booked for that night: Freddy Mills', and Buddy Pressner's. Also, "Moonlight on Melody Mill" records were being given away free.

The historic event was set to begin at 3 p.m., and end by 11 p.m. Historic prices, from the 1930s, were not in effect. The cost was $7.50 per person.

It was a day for dreaming of dances gone by. Then, the fatal time came, around 10:30 p.m., after the beer ran out. The bands played the saddest song ever written, "Auld Lang Syne." Hot tears, falling from cheek to cheek, splashed onto the cold floor beneath feet that didn't want to stop dancing.

Benjamin Lejcar, Sr. made the last announcement. "I wish to thank you for all these years you have supported the Melody."

And, to this day, those dancers are still supporting the Melody Mill with their memories.

Reader Comments

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Elizabeth Rider  

Posted: February 12th, 2016 8:53 AM

It's so sad when iconic and cherished things have to pass away. I live in SoCal, where it sometimes seems that things change at the speed of light, but I long for some of the old places and faces I used to enjoy. I can only imagine how dreamy it must have been to dance at the Melody Mill.

Anthony Seminaro from Chicago, Illinois  

Posted: January 3rd, 2014 7:40 PM

I had many good times at Melody Mill and have great memories. Does anyone know if I can obtain a copy of that record they were giving away?

Ben Edwards  

Posted: May 26th, 2013 4:54 PM

Worked in skate rink at melody mill. meant my wiife at the mill and spent are wedding night there with Eddy Howard in 1950.

Dorothy Cramer Howard from Hilton Head Island, Sc  

Posted: January 3rd, 2013 7:30 PM

My name is Dorothy Cramer Howard. Yes, my Dad Henry Cramer wrote the song "It was Moonlight on Melody Mill". Tiny Hill claimed it for his own. I would sing it sitting at the Piano while he played it. I still know the song word for word. "It was Moonlight on Melody Mill, and all the stars were in the sky." My sisters, Diane Freeman, and Darlene Hasselbacher have the original sheet music. They did try to steel it from him. What a shame. He was such a great man. We have some more music by him..

Diane Freeman from Peoria, Arizona  

Posted: January 2nd, 2013 12:10 PM

I know who wrote the song "Moonlight on Melody Mill", it was my father, Henry G. Cramer. My two sisters and I grew up in Peoria, Illinois where Dad worked at Hiram Walker Distillery by day and moonlighted as a musician and songwriter at night. I have a copy of the original sheet music in electronic format and how I wish that I had the original. Dad passed away in 1978 and we all still miss him. He was a very talented man.

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