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Lambert: Electric Park — A Decade of Disappointment

Part three in a series on what became of the riverfront hotspot after its heyday ended.

The Inquiry

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)

The Facts

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. 

Hopeful Anticipation

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.

Headline Performers 

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

Droncz87 August 09, 2012 at 05:38 PM
I love these!
Ed Arter August 09, 2012 at 06:14 PM
So do I. I would like to see ML's comments on a WEEKLY basis.
Miguel Sanchez August 09, 2012 at 07:14 PM
Me too. Not only are they interesting but serve to build a sense of pride in Plainfield the town. Based on many posted comments, Plainfield pride can use a boost.
Tim August 09, 2012 at 08:51 PM
Yes, when you cherry pick stories, any town can look good. It explains why Mr. Lambert decided to stop short his story on the KKK, as if this was something that only happened in the long ago past. Requests were made that he continue the story up into the 1980's and 1990's. When a black families house was burned, burning crosses were placed in lawns, and the FBI came into investigate the incidents at the plainfield post office conducted by the KKK in the 1990's. Mr. Lambert even said he would continue that story, yet it never materialized. Tell the whole history, or don't bother.
Michael Lambert August 09, 2012 at 09:21 PM
@ Tim: I appreciate your comments. Am truly sorry that I have disappointed you & you believe that I have done "cherry picking" history. In my columns, I try to present history that I can verify, telling stories to a logical conclusion. As far as the KKK story, I explained that I took it to the second era of the KKK. Every resource I have found or knowledgeable individuals with whom I've spoken note a big difference between the second and third eras. I have not ignored your request about the third era (since 1960), but my research to date is either inconclusive, contradictory or unsubstantiated hearsay. So, as I can put the facts together, I will address your concern. The issue that you seem to have with many stories is the presentation of FACTUAL information, so consider my efforts to be just that: fact-checking. The original story was based on months of research and was not as complete as I would have liked. However, I have never told the entire story in any of my columns due to space limitations in a digital medium. As far as when a third era KKK story will appear, I am currently out more than 8 columns based on requests for stories that came prior to your request about the third era. IF you have substantiated facts about the third era of the KKK, please provide them to me so I can complete another story. Until then, I am continuing my research on a most difficult topic for which I have found few willing interviewees and even fewer reliable sources.
Michael Lambert August 09, 2012 at 09:27 PM
Thanks Ed and Miguel. I enjoy providing the local history. However, based on adminsitrative decisions, "A Town Called Plainfield" will only appear from this point forward on a semi-monthly basis rather than on a weekly basis. Keep reading and, perhaps, a weekly format will be reinstituted in the future.
Olddeegee August 10, 2012 at 03:22 PM
Mr. Lambert should do a story about village idiots. Oh, wait a minute, I think we have a volunteer.
Tim August 10, 2012 at 07:00 PM
I know you lived in the area when this happened Michael, so it is disturbing to watch you pretend that it never happened. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1992-10-20/news/9204040936_1_incidents-post-office-ku-klux-klan "It was a little past 4 p.m. on a Saturday when the 26-year postal employee concluded her first day on the job. Sometime earlier, an anonymous note threatening her with bodily harm was left secretly on the back seat of her unlocked parked car. The note, fashioned from words and phrases clipped from newspapers, said: ``You are not welcome in Plainfield. Get out while you still can. Final.`` after [Anderson`s] departure, a second but earlier incident came to light. But one week after Easley was introduced to the community through the traditional story in the local newspaper, an anonymous letter was sent to the real estate office, threatening Easley with bodily harm if she didn`t leave. Michael, you can also search the police reports for the burned crosses, and attempted arson on black family homes in the Lily Cache subdivision in Plainfield Township, which is about a mile from Frasier Woods.
Baba O'Riley August 10, 2012 at 07:42 PM
Ok. I've lived in Plainfield for forty years. I'm forty three now. I watched the whole change before my eyes, some good some bad. I was in my late teens early twenties during the so called KKK revival or whatever you want to call it. There was no klan. There were however a bunch of wannabes. I knew who these people were. They were idiots then and they grew up and graduated to become morons. As far as my generation goes there never was an organized klan it was still a very small town then and that kind of thing would have been known. Again wannabes. As far as Frasier woods goes that area was used because it was adjacent to rte. 30 which at the time was the only major roadway that connected surrounding areas. By the way Mike keep up the good historical articles. There are those of us who enjoy them here on the Plainfield (bitch) Patch...
Ernie Knight August 10, 2012 at 08:03 PM
Tim, If you really believe that Plainfield is a Klan hotbed, then why do you live here? Step away from the bong.
Ernie Knight August 10, 2012 at 08:11 PM
Hey Tim, Where is the report from the FBI showing it's conclusions, rather than rumor and innuendo?
Ed Arter August 10, 2012 at 08:14 PM
Attn; Patch, If a reader feels that certian posts are inappropriate and deviate from the topic in review, how can they be deleted from a page as one may be tired of the same old complaining individual(s) who chose to turn around a story into a blistering issue far removed from the intent of the base article. What happens when the "Flag as inappropriate" statement at the upper right is clicked.
Baba O'Riley August 10, 2012 at 09:35 PM
Point well taken Ed. I was just defending Mr. Lambert and his well written historical articles. He has been very dedicated to educating people about the history of Plainfield and I found some posts to be out of line. You right. Lets keep to the topics.
Michael Lambert August 10, 2012 at 10:25 PM
@ Tim: For the record, I never said or implied that I "pretend that it (more recent hate crimes attributed to a new era of the KKK) never happened." Because you are an apparent stickler for, and guardian of, accuracy in all things, please re-read my post to you. The cases you have cited are surrounded by hearsay and uncorroborated evidence. Such is the case of many other Plainfield stories that I have heard much of my life. But, a thorough investigation of the facts has often shed a more clear light on the subject. I have promised and remain committed to publishing an article, if and when the facts can be woven into an explanation that represents a historical pattern of events in Plainfield. While distasteful, the incidents you identified aren't supported by any related or common facts and appear to be ugly, individual incidents, unrelated to one another. My column has never been a police blotter or a regurgitation of the everyday legends. If you have more specific information that is contrary to what I have found, please feel free to share those facts with me. Through this column, I have tried to delve into the deeper facts behind the commonly known stories. In my opinion, your incessant dogging of this issue can be likened to one of the reasons that I probed the KKK issue in the first place: the annual sensationalism of the Plainfield KKK stories by a local newspaper (for several decades) didn't appear to do more than repeat old headlines without factual details.
Michael Lambert August 10, 2012 at 10:28 PM
Thanks, Baba. I enjoy the research and writing as much as the appreciative comments. I am somehwat amused that the discussion has returned to the KKK issues when this week's column reveals the "underworld" influences that also permeated our community in the 1930s.

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