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On Friday October 28, 2016 the Ballroom was gutted by a fire. The building was having work done on the roof where the fire was suspected of starting. Due to water pressure issues the fire department had to wait on tanker trucks, which caused a delay in getting the fire under control.
Founded in 1921 by John Verderbar, an industrious Austrian immigrant. Verderbar purchased 5 acres (20,000 m2) along wooded Archer Ave. He planned to build a peaceful weekend home.
His son, Rudy Verderbar, was one of the throngs of young people who danced at the nearly 400 ballrooms and dance halls that thrived in the Chicago area during the mid-to-late 1910s. After dancing in an outdoor pavilion in Michigan, Rudy waged a relentless campaign to scrap the idea of a summer home and build an outdoor dance pavilion. After some research, his father agreed, and in 1921, the all wooden Oh Henry Park was built. It proved so popular, in 1923, the open-air pavilion was enlarged and a new 10-cents-a-dance policy was implemented. The ballroom was supposedly named after the Oh Henry candy bar, manufactured in Chicago by the Williamson Candy Company, who paid Verderbar for the naming rights.
In 1930, the pavilion was destroyed in a devastating fire. Verderbar quickly assembled a team of 200 carpenters to construct an enormous outdoor dance floor in time for the next Saturday night. The remaining ten weeks of Oh Henry’s 1930 dance season drew even bigger crowds due to massive publicity touting the romantic aspects of "dancing under the stars."
On May 3, 1931, more than 1,700 invited guests and dignitaries danced the first dances in the new Oh Henry Ballroom. It had been built at the then-staggering Great Depression-era cost of $100,000.
As Big Band fever spread throughout 1940s America, the Oh Henry Ballroom, now with air conditioning, became a major force in the Midwest’s entertainment industry. Even during the Second World War, typical weekly attendance was about 10,000 dancers. The ballroom’s popularity was reason for Chicago bus lines to be rerouted to provide direct service to and from the ballroom.
Willowbrook Ballroom attracted some of the most popular bands of their times including Ozzie Nelson and his orchestra in the 1930s with lead singer Harriet Hilliard. The 1940s orchestras of Harry James, Les Brown and Count Basie played the ballroom, and singers Frank Sinatra, Doris Day And Helen O'Connell graced the stage, later so did Wayne King, Guy Lombardo, Sammy Kaye, Jimmy Dorsey, Bob Crosby, Dick Jurgens, Glenn Miller Orchestra and Gene Krupa.
In 1955, as ballrooms across the country scaled down or closed, the Verderbars set out on a course to further expand their operations. A 20,000-foot (6,100 m) addition installed new kitchens, a restaurant and a private room for parties and banquets.
In 1959 the entire Oh Henry complex was renamed Willowbrook Ballroom. The 1960s were bringing record crowds to the ballroom, but toward the end of that decade, the public’s taste in entertainment underwent a radical change and fewer people took up ballroom dancing.
Willowbrook Ballroom survived by having contemporary bands share the stage on the same evening with the top ballroom bands.
As popular music changed, the entertainers on Willowbrook’s stage also changed, particularly on Friday night. Chubby Checker played the ballroom as did The Cryan' Shames, The Association, The Buckinghams, Otis Day and the Knights, The Village People, and Martha Reeves. Songwriter James Holvay first saw Carl Bonafede at the age of 14 when Carl was singing at The Willowbrook Ballroom as a front man for the Gem-Tones. It was one of Jim Lounsbury's local record hops.
In 2000 The Willowbrook Ballroom was profiled as one of America's "Glorious, Historic, Legendary, Treasured Ballroom Dance Floors" in Amateur Dancers magazine. Criteria for being profiled as an Amateur Dancers magazine's "Finest Floor" is:
- A minimum of 3,500 square feet (330 m2) of danceable wood flooring, sprung preferred.
- Sufficient room for 300 or more dancers.
- Adequate sound and heating/cooling system.
- Currently operating with a 25-year history or more.
On October 28, 2016 the Willowbrook Ballroom was again destroyed by a massive, multi-alarm fire.
- O'Hara, Chicago Sun-Times.
- Chicago Tribune.
- Bierig, Joel (2016). The Screaming Wildman. Chicago IL: Chi-Town Music History. p. 216. ISBN 9781539420965.
- Bonnie., Classen, (2011). Willowbrook Ballroom. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Pub. ISBN 9780738583990. OCLC 729341460.
- Meyer, Amateur Dancers
- Nolan, Mike. "Foundation plans to rebuild famed Willowbrook Ballroom". Daily Southtown. Retrieved 2018-10-23.
- O'Hara, Delia, "Seeing is believing - Willowbrook Ballroom will be forever linked to the ghost called 'Resurrection Mary'", Chicago Sun-Times, October 26, 2003.
- Stanley, Charles, "Old Family Ballroom Far from Seeing Its Last Dance", Chicago Tribune, December 27, 1996.
- Meyer, Amdan, "Millennium Maple - Glorious, Historic, Legendary, Treasured Ballroom Dance Floors", Amateur Dancers, Jan/Feb 2000, Issue#123