It was a time when men wore brimmed hats and women wore white gloves.
They’d step out on the weekends all dressed up and dance to the sounds of Harry James, Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Glenn Miller and the Dorsey Brothers.
And they’d do it at the Melody Mill in North Riverside.
Once located where the North Riverside Village Commons complex now stands, all that’s left of Melody Mill are faded photographs, unforgettable memories and a rusted sign. The North Riverside Historical Society now wants to restore the sign that was ingloriously relegated to a place behind the Public Works building.
On Saturday, the society is hosting “Melody Mills Memories,” a gala fundraiser to restore the sign that marked a destination for the Chicago area.
Society member and professional musician Bud Bureau said he’s been fixated on bringing the sign back to its past neon glory since he attended an event of the Association of Professional Orchestra Leaders in 2006.
“A lot of these guys were up there in years,” said Bureau, 60. “Right before the dinner, the old guys were talking about the years of the big band shows in the suburbs. They started talking about the Melody Mill and how much they enjoyed playing there.”
Bureau, a guitarist and vocalist who lives in North Riverside, said he’d often take his then-young children to the playground in the Commons and would see the sign behind the Public Works building exposed to the weather and suffering a long, rusting death.
“I did a little research to see if it was as famous as these musicians I talked to said,” he added.
He then started taking up preserving the sign with his friend, the late Riverside Township Supervisor Gary Wilt, as well as former ViIlage President Richard Scheck.
“The village president said, ‘That’s why we kept the sign. We knew it was important,’” Bureau said.
From 1930 to 1984, “The Mill” was the place to be and be seen. Big bands — the rock stars of the era — would take the stage and play while those crazy kids, some now great-grandparents, would dance to the hot tunes of the day.
At the helm of the rollicking dance hall was Benjamin Lejcar Sr., and his wife, Elsie.
The Mill had its last dance in 1984.
Cheryl Trejo of Lombard, daughter of Benjamin Lejcar Jr., was the youngest of the Lejcar family and like her siblings, was required to work at Melody Mill during the summers. She was in her 20s at the time in the ’70s, and what she saw on the dance floor was — well, let’s just say not all that hip to someone her age.
By that time, her father and uncle had assumed responsibility for the business.
“I could not relate; it was a whole different generation,” said Trejo, who was born in ’50s. “I did not see the beauty of it then. In hindsight, it was a great experience. The greater appreciation came later.”
Still, at that age, Trejo said the place was something to behold.
Guests would enter under a long canopy with a ticket booth on left, a doorman and ticket taker on the right, and a grand, carpeted staircase leading to the main ballroom.
“When you hit the top stair, you would see this massive, beautiful shiny wood dance floor, then the stage that held a 13-piece or more orchestra. It was a grand entrance to a grand ballroom,” Trejo said.
There was seating on each side of the stage, a soda fountain that served ice cream, milkshakes, coffee and soft drinks. Downstairs, there was a cocktail lounge and smaller dance floor where a quartet would play more “contemporary” tunes.
In an age of The Beatles and Rolling Stones, seeing the action on the dance floor was a look into the past.
“Everybody was old to you as a teenager,” Trejo sad. “The serious dancers who we saw week after week, especially the competition dancers, were very serious about their craft. They were quite interesting. My favorite dance was the quick step. It was like little ponies floating across the floor. In the ’70s, it was different.”
People also were more formal, she added, and women would wear gowns while men dressed in suitcoats, shirts and ties.
“It was like a dress code,” Trejo said. “My grandfather said, ‘you had to have suitcoat.’ If it got too hot, my grandfather would let them take their coats off. I can’t remember any women wearing pants. Their hair was always bee-hivey; they were the generation that went to the beauty shop every week.”
Trejo’s older sister, Melody Lejcar, worked every Friday night as a waitress during the ’50s and ’60s. “It was interesting,” she said. “I was a teenager. I didn’t appreciate the music and the dancing. But I look back and it was wonderful. Now I look back, and (the dancers) weren’t so old. You met a lot of interesting people. You got to know your regular customers.”
Lejcar said she was pleased someone has taken the effort to preserve the sign.
“That would be wonderful,” she added. “It would be an honor that they think so much of the ballroom.”