This is the third installment describing the 20th-Century history of the Electric Park site in response to a Plainfield Patch reader’s inquiry: “What became of Electric Park after it closed in the 1920s?” (See the first installment , and for part two)
Many attempts were made to revive Electric Park and its brief—but unforgettable—popularity. Nearly all of the efforts were tinged with a bit of notoriety and a few with a bit of outright scandal.
The decade between 1928 and 1937 witnessed the continued decline of Electric Park in spite of the efforts of optimistic—and, possibly, corrupt—entrepreneurs.
Electric Park Nearly Vanishes
During the summer of 1924, Lawrence “Butch” J. Crowley, a reputed Joliet mobster and owner of radio station WWAE, acquired the former Electric Park grounds. Crowley hoped to transform the former auditorium into a Jazz Era ballroom from where dances could be broadcast over radio airwaves.
Crowley also subdivided the east side of the Electric Park grounds. Many of the former camping cottages were purchased and retained as summer homes along the DuPage River.
Through mid-1927, townspeople continued to enjoy the former resort grounds. They hosted family and community picnics. They filled the former grandstands to watch baseball games throughout the summer. But, the shuttered park grounds continued to deteriorate under the ownership of “Butch” Crowley.
Following a suspicious fire that destroyed many of the original park structures in 1928, Crowley likely razed the river footbridge as well as the bandstand and restaurant on the east side of the DuPage River.
The Depression Years
When the economy crashed in October 1929, Crowley’s hope for subdividing most of the Electric Park property fizzled. The WWAE radio station and transmitter had been removed from the former park site.
As the Great Depression dragged on, many of the remaining cottages were enclosed with tar-papered walls that replaced the earlier canvas sidewalls. The marginal structures provided inexpensive housing for many out-of-work families.
The repeal of Prohibition in December 1933 opened up potential new venues for “Butch” Crowley and the former Electric Park site.
However, the once-elegant grounds of Electric Park lay in shambles in the aftermath of a significant flood the following year. The condition of the beloved property—on the outskirts of the village—became an embarrassment to the town fathers and residents.
In 1934, the state highway department demolished the former streetcar platform along Lockport Street. The former eastbound streetcar stop had been constructed within the right-of-way of State Route 22 (Lockport Street) but had fallen into disrepair. The westbound platform had been demolished to make way for a new Standard Oil service station a few years earlier.
In the spring of 1936, rumors of the re-opening of Electric Park started to spread throughout Plainfield. In late May, newspaper confirmed that the former park property had been acquired by a Chicago company under the management of John Comiskey and Arthur Yahneke.
The local newspaper reported, a few weeks later, that “a force of men (were) now working, getting the grounds (in order and improved).” The newspaper opined that “we hope to see (Electric Park) brought back to where it was. It means much to to have it in operation.”
Within months, local anticipation turned to frustration. The Enterprise editor, Maurice Utt, summed up the local sentiment: “Yes, we have Electric Park. It isn’t what it used to be. It used to have something to entertain everybody. Today, it has a bar and the dancing pavilion. It caters to the lower element instead of the better class. Of course, it is outside the city limits, but the moral influence we can exert means much. We want this institution, but we want it to entertain all. Mixing beer and dancing is just like mixing alcohol and the automobile.”
In early August 1936, the “dancing pavilion” housed in the former auditorium was raided by the State’s Attorney. To avoid complying with the liquor laws of the era and to avoid the $500 annual liquor license fee, the Electric Park dance hall managers provided free beer to their patrons.
The State’s Attorney, William R. McCabe witnessed that “when the music ceased, the dancers congregated around tables along the wall of the dance hall, drinking beer from convenient kegs.”
Despite arguing that no laws were broken because the beer had not been sold to patrons, manager Comiskey was arrested, and the crowd of 100 couples was dispersed. Many of the patrons refused to leave until their admission was refunded. Within days, the dance club was back in business.
During the financial straits of the mid-1930s, numerous well-known musicians were dropped by their record producers. To survive the hard times, many musical acts began touring the country, playing at small dance clubs. Among the touring performers who reportedly appeared at the Electric Park dance hall during this time was Duke Ellington and his orchestra.
After her famous appearance at Chicago’s 1933 World Fair, erotic dancer Sally Rand began to tour the country. Notoriously, Miss Rand had been arrested four times in a single day for indecent exposure. In 1936, the famed burlesque dancer, known for her ostrich feather fan dance as well as her bubble balloon dance, reportedly performed at the Electric Park dance hall.
In an attempt to improve public relations, the operators of the Electric Park dance hall sought more wholesome and well-known performers.
One of the first star attractions was the September 1936 engagement of the 16 piece Rita Rio Orchestra. The all-girl band had played with many national celebrities of the era, including Eddie Cantor.
The Plainfield performance drew 500 couples—less than half of the anticipated crowd—to the “million dollar ballroom floor.” Regardless, Maurice Utt of The Enterprise approved of the orchestra, noting that “they are high class entertainers” that furnished “rhythmic music for dancing.”
Destined to Fail
The promise of an Electric Park revival seemed doomed.
Continual run-ins with liquor agents over the dispensing of beer on the premises frustrated the dance hall management and agitated Plainfield and Will County authorities equally.
Repeated burglaries proved costly to the dance hall management. The week prior to the Rita Rio Orchestra performance, the Electric Park dance hall was burglarized. At the time, thieves fled with nearly $150 of liquor and more than $30 worth of cigarettes. It was not the only burglary of the secluded club.
Headline acts failed to draw anticipated crowds. Lackluster receipts chipped away at the dance hall’s slim profits.
On Aug. 25, 1936, a concert by Joliet’s WPA Band drew no attendees. Heavy rains fell for several days before the concert.The public falsely believed that the concert was planned as an open air event. Based on its contract, the 25-piece band took to the stage and played their full concert to an empty ballroom.
But, most significantly, the weary public—fatigued by seven years of the unending economic distress of the Great Depression—was increasingly less able to afford an evening of entertainment “out on the town.”
End of An Era
Officially, “Butch” Crowley had little to do with the management of the Electric Park dance hall. Crowley claimed to be a landlord, simply trying to make a living off of his Plainfield land investment. In fact, his proclaimed occupation was that of “automobile dealer” and “chauffer.”
On October 5, 1936, “Butch” Crowley was ambushed as he drove home to Joliet from Plainfield. Crowley, age 48, was shot twice but was expected to recover from his wounds. However, he died three days later in a Joliet hospital.
As speculated by The Enterprise, Crowley’s death was attributed to his past racketeering activities and his involvement with slot machines at the time of his demise. Believing that Crowley would recover, the edition of The Enterprise issued on the day of Crowley’s death stated: “It was largely through his mismanagement that Eltctric (sic) Park is where it is today, when it formerly was one of the best known amusement parks in the country.”
Within months of Crowley’s death, the Electric Park dance hall closed for good. Once again, Electric Park sat dark and abandoned.
Next time: Electric Park: From Roller Rink to Rock-n-Roll
Have a question about Plainfield’s history? Send your inquiries to Michael Lambert via Plainfield Patch.
© 2012 Michael A. Lambert. All Rights Reserved