Madura’s Danceland – Part III: Danceland from the War Years On
Tex Beneke, Russ Morgan, Vaughn Monroe, Gene Krupa, Jim McHugh and Phil Levant were just some of the big band’s “bigger” names that played at Danceland during its heyday. From 1937 to 1942 Danceland featured more name bands than at any other time. The house attendance record was set in 1949 by the Glen Miller band under the direction of Tex Beneke. The house numbered 3300 dancers.
And they danced on that wonderful floor which was spring cushioned. And every night, Mickey and his father would religiously scrape off the gum and put the cleaner on.
“They would grind a big stick of paraffin with the dance wax and put it through a meat grinder,” explained Henrietta Madura. “If you just used dance wax, the floor would be too slippery.”
Then came the War. Danceland cancelled its famous Tuesday (ladies’ night) dances. Not only were many of their partners off serving their country, but those remaining had to deal with gas and tire rationing and forced curfews.
Mickey returned from the service in 1946 but the times were changing. Mike told his son Mickey that he’d need to get an additional job because he couldn’t pay him as much as he did before the war, so Mickey took a turn as a milkman and later as a postman. And now a new era of music was introduced….rock & roll.
“Kids weren’t interested in the nice music that we had,” Henrietta remembers. “They wanted rock and roll. And these bands had all these funny names and the kids…..why, they weren’t dancing as couples, they danced in bunches.”
Mike Madura Sr. passed away in 1956.
Ironically his daughter Evelyn pointed out, “And I never saw him dance.”
“Things were getting bad toward the end of the 1960’s,” Henrietta said. “But if you wanted to keep the place open, you had to keep up with the times.”
To compensate, Mickey rented out Danceland to a man from South Chicago. (“My father-in-law would never have agreed to that,” Henrietta said.) St. Catherine nurses and Amoco would hold big dances for the evening there as well.
But on Sunday nights there was still a crowd, but now a much younger crowd. Jim Lounsberry, who hosted a popular television dance program in Chicago, came out as an emcee.
“We were really lucky to have him because he was a big draw with the kids,” Henrietta said. “He would judge for best dancers and give away prizes.”
But New Year’s Eve dances were always the best no matter what year it was.
“One time we had two bands on the stand, one for older people and a rock and roll band for the younger people. Then the older people started having a heck of a good time dancing to the kids’ music. They really enjoyed it,” she said. “And everybody stayed until the very end because nobody wanted to go home.”
Then one Sunday morning while shaving, Mickey heard a gigantic clap of thunder and commented to his wife that lightning must have hit something big near by. They went on their way to mass at Sacred Heart.
But Mickey had been right. The lightning hit the electrical works inside Danceland. The place burned for a while before anyone noticed. Margaret from Geneva House next door was the first to call the fire department. A family member came up to Mickey at church and told him that his beloved Danceland was ablaze.
“He just went out of church and didn’t come back,” said Henrietta. “When I got there, people were swarming all around the place. I walked through the crowd and I could not find him. I had a feeling that he was in the building, trying to save something and I was really scared. Then I found him in the backroom off the alley, talking to people.”
“I was really worried about him,” she sighed. “His whole life was wrapped around Danceland.”
Henrietta said the family started taking what was left in the building to their homes. Danceland did not burn to the ground but the damage was so intense there was no hope for its being rebuilt. Insurance coverage was only $15,000, not even enough to have the debris removed.
“It was hard to get the insurance because everything was wood,” she remembered. “It’s one of the reasons the music sounded so good there acoustically but it’s another reason it all burned down so quickly.”
Henrietta said her saddest memory of the demolition of Danceland was of two grand pianos which had sat on the two stages.
“When the company came to clean up what was left, they raised those two grand pianos and lifted them up and threw them into the garbage. They were so beautiful and wonderful and I think that hurt me the most,” she said sadly.
Mickey Madura passed away in 1984.
His daughter Dr. Patrice Madura Ward-Steinman, who has a doctorate in music, will continue the Madura history begun by her grandfather. She is now writing a book on Madura’s Danceland and the big bands of that era.
Danceland….young Mike Madura’s dream became such an important part of so many lives throughout the years.
“He was a man who took chances,” remembered his daughter Evelyn. “And it was sad when business went down because Danceland was his love.”
I regret that I was never inside Danceland. Talking to Evelyn and Henrietta about Danceland, about Mike and his wife Julia and their son Mickey, and what dancing meant to people in that era has been a wonderful experience which I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing through this three part series. So in the end, Danceland was really the beginning of so many couple’s lifetimes together.
But here’s the image I’ll always retain. It’s what Henrietta told me was her favorite memory at Danceland.
“When the dance was over for the night and everybody left, my husband would put on some nice records and we’d go out on the floor, just the two of us and dance,” she said, smiling.
And I like to envision Danceland with just the blue lights on and the two of them gliding around effortlessly on that wonderful, wonderful floor.