Western Springs

Fire destroys Willowbrook Ballroom

By CHUCK FIELDMAN, Pioneer Press - Ocotber 28, 2016

The Willowbrook Ballroom, at 8900 Archer Ave. in Willow Springs, sustained heavy damage in a fire on Oct. 28, 2016. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)

The nearly century-old Willowbrook Ballroom, a legendary dance hall and a scene for one of the Chicago area's most enduring ghost stories, was gutted by fire Friday afternoon.

"The loss of this historical building is a loss to the community," said Willow Springs Fire Chief Daniel Niemeyer. "A thorough investigation of the cause of this fire has begun and will be ongoing."

The fire call came in at 2:13 p.m. Friday. An employee at Willow Springs Police Department said workers were on the roof of the building at 8900 Archer Avenue in Willow Springs, when it caught fire.

The ballroom, which still offers dancing to a live orchestra, had its heyday in the big band era when performers like Count Basie, Guy Lombardo and Artie Shaw captivated big crowds. The ballroom's "wall of fame" also includes shots of the Guess Who, the Village People and the Chippendales dancers.

Willowbrook Ballroom co-owner Gediminas Jodwalis said Friday afternoon he did not have an immediate comment on the fire. He and his wife, Birute, have owned the ballroom for 19 years.

Niemeyer said the facility had been evacuated by the time firefighters arrived, and there was smoke coming through the roof. Within minutes of firefighters' arrival, the fire broke through the roof of the structure above the main ballroom, Niemeyer said.

Efforts to extinguish the fire were hampered by poor water supply and access issues. The department had put out a call for tanker trucks to help battle the blaze.

Marsha Norskog, of Tinley Park, who started attending high school dances there in the 1960s, said she was in disbelief and saddened by the fire. The 69-year-old Norskog, who grew up in nearby Hickory Hills, said she keeps a photo of her parents seated at a table in the ballroom in the 1940s.

"It goes back so far, there's just so many memories," Norskog said. "It's really hard to believe that the whole building is gone. It's just always been there."

The ballroom's origins date to 1921, when John Verderbar built an outdoor dance hall and named it Oh Henry Park after its candy bar sponsor. In 1930, it burned to the ground and was rebuilt for a "staggering" $100,000 as the Oh Henry Ballroom. The investment, though steep by Great Depression standards, seemed smart, given the enormous popularity of dance. In the 1950s, extra dining and dancing rooms were added, including the Willowbrook Room restaurant.

Back then, Birute Jodwalis said earlier this month, there was dancing every day and it was not unusual for the place to sell 1,000 tickets, nearly meeting its 1,100 capacity on any given night.

Though the Willowbrook has seen its share of legends, from Otis Day and Gary Lewis to the longtime patron who celebrated his 94th birthday there last year, the one that resurfaces every October is the story of Resurrection Mary, or Anna Norkus.

There are actually two versions: In one, a young woman who'd been dancing at the Willowbrook has an argument with her boyfriend and decides to walk home. On her way back to Chicago, she is hit by a car and killed. In the other version, the girl leaves the Willowbrook after an evening of dancing but is killed when the car she is riding in, being driven by her father, is hit by another car.

Both versions end with the girl being buried at Resurrection Cemetery in Justice, hence the nickname.

In Jodwalis' office hangs a copy of Anna Norkus' funeral certificate. Anna is believed by some to be the girl in the story.

According to the certificate, the 12-year-old died on July 20, 1927 near 66th and Harlem.

"So there's proof that there was a young lady and that she did die," Jodwalis said. "The legend is she came here to dance a lot."

Daily Southtown columnist Donna Vickroy and freelance reporter Wendy Pacholski contributed.


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