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Willowbrook Ballroom fire rekindles old memories

As he carefully stepped along the gravel shoulder of Archer Avenue on Monday morning near the iconic Willowbrook Ballroom, Greg Sikorsky had a sad look on his face.

“It’s a shame,” the Countryside man said. ÒIt’s been an institution for so long, and then to have it burn down.”

On Friday, fire swept through the building that cost $100,000 to build back in 1930. The current ballroom opened its doors in 1931. But on Friday, the venerable institution that had survived for decades had little chance when a fire started on the roof and quickly spread.

On Monday, all was left was the red-and-white marquee sign, and the exterior brick walls black with soot from the flames. A brick chimney stood tall on the north side of the building.{{more}}

As Sikorsky walked along the roadway, an employee of a Naperville fence company was busy securing a tall fence around the building. An employee of Morrison Security said they wanted to make sure Ònobody got in here on Halloween night because of Resurrection Mary.”

He referred to the ghost long-rumored to frequent the ballroom. Now, Mary is joined by the memories of countless people who visited through the decades.

There were dances, wedding receptions and funeral luncheons. There were club meetings, romantic New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day dinners, and the Girl Scout’s Susie Snowflake daddy-daughter dances each winter. There was the big band sound of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Count Basie. And there was the rock ‘n’ roll of the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and The Guess Who.

If you wanted to learn how to dance, the ballroom offered lessons. The ballroom’s web site features a calendar booked solid for months.

ÒA lot of people came here to dance, have a good time, and have wedding receptions here. It’s just a shame. I don’t know if the owner will re-build,” Sikorsky said.

Attempts to reach the owner were not successful. Some want it rebuilt. A wooden cross erected near the marquee read ÒRIP Resurrection Mary” and ÒPlease rebuild Willowbrook Ballroom.” Since the fire, curious motorists slowed as they drove past, as if paying their last respects.

The end started at approximately 2 p.m. Friday when a roof fire was reported at the ballroom, 8900 Archer, according to a release from the Tri-State Fire Protection District.

Upon arrival, firefighters found employees had fled the building and initial firefighting was started, Fire Chief Daniel P. Niemeyer said.

Within a few minutes, fire broke through the roof of the structure above the main ballroom. The building’s outdated bowstring truss construction prevented any interior firefighting operations, he said. Roofs built with that construction – which is no longer recommended – tend to collapse, he said, and he didn’t want to endanger firefighters inside.

The roof did indeed collapse. The fire’s intense heat was felt a block away. The huge pillar of smoke could be seen for miles.

The fire extinguishing efforts required a constant water supply to douse the fire in multiple directions. Firefighters used three separate water sources due to the size of the structure and the danger to a neighboring residence and restaurant, Niemeyer said.

Greco’s Restaurant, which is just east of the ballroom, would have been lost but for the Òexceptional” efforts of firefighters who kept the fire from spreading by directing water at all four corners of the ballroom and on Greco’s itself, Niemeyer said.

ÒWe put a lot of effort into saving that,” he said.

Ed Hageline, a chef at Greco’s, said he smelled smoke around 2 p.m. and Òthought someone was burning leaves.” Then he looked out a window.

ÒThis is devastating. I’ve worked next door for 25 years. I’ve gone dancing in the ballroom. We relied on each other. They helped us out and we helped them out if one ran out of supplies. My grandparents used to dance here. It’s a landmark that’s destroyed, utterly destroyed,” Hageline said.

A large pile of roofing materials still sat near the ballroom marquee on Monday, and there may be a connection to the fire, officials said.

ÒMy understanding is they were doing work on the roof Friday. We’re ruling out other possibilities at this point in time. Our investigation has included parties that were present on the property before, during and after the fire started. The insurance companies have their private investigator out there,” Niemeyer said.

ÒThat word has never been used,” he said when asked if arson was suspected. ÒWe don’t have a final determination (for the cause).”

The good news is no injuries were reported, he said. But firefighters had some problems with the water supply, he said.

ÒDue to the volume of fire and the immense size of the structure, the water system couldn’t keep up with the volume (of water) needed. We tapped into three separate water mains to provide water,” he said.

Tanker trucks from far-flung communities – ÒPlaces I didn’t even know the names of,” Niemeyer said – were filled with water and brought to the scene. Tanker trucks at one time were lined up a few blocks. ÒWe had to take that step because of the sheer size of the structure,” he said. Each tanker carried up to 2,500 gallons of water which was dumped into a pool near the building and pumped onto the fire.

The ballroom building was not equipped with sprinklers.

ÒWe always recommend commercial, residential of any sort to have sprinklers,” Niemeyer said. ÒThis was the largest fire loss in the history of our district, but the efforts of our people kept them safe and kept the local businesses from suffering the same fate.”

Friday afternoon, as firefighters atop towering ladders showered the blaze with water, curious onlookers gathered along Archer. Each seemed to have a special memory.

ÒWe had our first date there in 1967,” said Dan Durkovic, who stood with wife Clarise in the parking lot of The Irish Legend as they watched the firefighters across the street.

Maybe it was the ballroom working its magic? They fell in love and got married three months later.

Clarise said she and Dan Òhad a lot of fun” dancing and attending Lions Club parties there. They even saw the ’70s disco band, The Village People, there. ÒThey signed an album for our son. It was a fun show.”

The marquee promoted an Elvis show on Nov. 11. Promoter Joe Sparks said he had sold 500 tickets to the show Òand we expected to sell 100 more.” The show, starring Cody Ray Slaughter of the Tony Award-winning ÒMillion Dollar Quartet,” has been moved to Chateau Del Mar at the Hickory Hills Country Club on Nov. 11.

The other side of the marquee read ÒBest Wishes Vicci + Dan,” a nod to a couple whose wedding reception was scheduled the evening of Oct. 28.

“We were supposed to have our reception there last night. Such a shame,” read a comment Saturday on the Desplaines Valley News website from Victoria Ferro.

Oak Lawn resident Eddy Bernotas, who works at nearby Dead Serious Tattoos, attended his Lockport Township High School prom there. Now 35, he said he and his girlfriend took swing dance lessons at the ballroom.

ÒI was planning on bringing my son there for a swing dance and costume party there on Sunday (Oct. 30). It was a beautiful place. I hope it can be restored,” Bernotas said. ÒThink of all the bands who played there, Resurrection Mary, the mob history. It’s a nice place with good, cheap drinks, too..”

Billy Curtin, 14, of Mount Greenwood, saw the smoke from 87th and Western after classes let out at St. Rita High School. He called his father, a Chicago firefighter also named Bill, and they raced to the ballroom.

ÒWe don’t usually get fires this big. I thought it was an oil tanker in Romeoville from where we were,” the elder Curtin said. ÒIt’s such a shame. All the history. My mom and dad came out here to dance.”

Bridgeview, La Grange, Lyons, Hodgkins, Western Springs, Lemont, East Joliet, Channahon, Manhattan, Troy, Wilmington and Lemont were among the fire protection districts and departments that responded.

The original ballroom built in 1921 was destroyed by fire in 1930.The building that burned down Friday was built to replace it. There’s no word as of Tuesday on the future of the ballroom site.

Willow Springs will support whatever the owners decide to do, Mayor Alan Nowaczyk said Monday.

ÒI did urge them to consider rebuilding. The village will do everything in its power to assist them. Keep in mind, the square footage is 53,000 square feet when you take into account the lower level, which had a varied array of rooms,” he said.

A rebuild won’t replace memories.

ÒThe bricks, mortar, wood moldings and draperies could be replicated. But the magic of the bandstand and the dance floor generations danced on? How can you replace that? My wife and I seldom missed a New Year’s Eve there. When we were there, I’d picture all the people going back to the 1930s, the happiest event of their week was going to dance at the Willowbrook Ballroom,” Nowaczyk said.

ÒYou felt like you were walking back to the 1940s. If filmmakers needed that look, they’d be sent there. It was wonderfully clean and preserved. It had a special feeling when you walked in. I loved going there,” the mayor said.

On Aug. 10, co-owner Birute Jodwalis posted this now-ironic message on Facebook: ÒOn behalf of all of us at the Willowbrook Ballroom, I would like to thank you for attending our 95th Anniversary celebration. Your support helped make our celebration truly special. We are looking forward to many more years!”

(Editor’s Note: More news coverage and photos in the print edition of the Southwest News-Herald, available on local newsstands. Or better yet, call 708-496-0265 during weekday business hours and order convenient home delivery for about 50 cents a week.)

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