Franz Benteler owned a 1701 Stradivarius, and he played for five U.S. presidents — but Aggie DeBartolo made him forget all about his violin.
“Benteler said, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve got a chance to dance with Aggie’ — and he flings this instrument over to my father at the Daley Plaza. He takes off dancing with my mother,” said her son Bill.
Mrs. DeBartolo and her husband Tom were two of Chicago’s finest ballroom dancers. They performed at the Chicago Theatre, the old Edgewater Beach Hotel and glamorous country clubs and ballrooms including the Aragon on the North Side, the Melody Mill in North Riverside and the Willowbrook in Willow Springs. They also taught dance on cruise ships, at night schools and under the Picasso at Daley Plaza.
In her basement, there were 10 sewing machines she used to make the flouncy, flippy, flirty, feathered dresses that made her seem to float across the floor.
A longtime resident of Park Ridge, Mrs. DeBartolo died in hospice care last month at 93. She had dementia, according to her daughter Joan Miller.
The DeBartolos won two major competitions that whirled them into professional dance.
In 1950, they came in first place in the amateur dance competition at Chicago’s Harvest Moon Festival — a hugely popular gathering in the days before many people had TVs to keep them indoors.
Two years later, at the old Chicago Stadium, in front of an audience of 22,500 that included Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Nat King Cole, they won Harvest Moon’s professional category, according to their son, landing them a three-month contract to perform at the Chicago Theatre that was extended to six months.
The couple met in 1941 at the Aragon.
“That was as glamorous as anything could ever be,” Mrs. DeBartolo recalled in a WTTW-TV documentary, “Remembering Chicago.”
Decades before it hosted rock concerts, EDM music and boxing matches, the Aragon was a place of big-band enchantment. With its Moorish architecture and ceiling lights that twinkled like stars, it would be filled with girls-next-door who twirled in frocks that transformed them into sirens.
“The street[car] line would end at Broadway and Lawrence, and all these dancers would come out, especially the women, with their little suitcases. They looked like bobby-soxers,” Tom DeBartolo told WTTW. “They made the change here in the ballroom to dance, and there was just an extreme transformation.”
“Once you walked up the stairs and into this beautiful ballroom,” Mrs. DeBartolo said, “it was just magic.”
She was a Sullivan, the daughter of Irish parents from County Cork. Her husband was a son of Italian immigrants. They were wed in 1943, a time when marriages across white ethnic lines could raise eyebrows among relatives.
Every Sunday, they gathered for a big dinner with the Italian side of the family, their son said. “They would start out speaking English,” he said. “After a few minutes, they started speaking Italian. She knew they were talking about her.”
They were married for 69 years, until Tom DeBartolo’s death in 2012.
They performed throughout the Midwest, including the Festa Italiana in Milwaukee. They did dance instruction for Royal Caribbean cruises, Chevy Chase Country Club in Wheeling and night classes at District 214 in Arlington Heights.
They had a mirrored dance studio at their home for private lessons.
“People stuck with them for 40 years — they took lessons for 40 years,” their son said.
The DeBartolos were offered chances to open a dance school, but “their main goal in life was to have a family,” their son said. “They turned them down until we were all grown and gone from the house.”
Though Mrs. DeBartolo looked the part of the star on the dance floor, “When she was home, she was in jeans and sweatshirts,” their daughter said. “She cooked, she sewed, she did gardening.”
The couple specialized in the tango but also excelled at the waltz, fox trot, rhumba and cha-cha. People gasped when Mrs. DeBartolo’s husband did “Dirty Dancing”-style lifts, whisking her aloft as if she weighed nothing.
Sometimes, bandleaders brought them to recording studios to help them pick musical numbers and sound out the proper tempo for a dance.
In her later years, Mrs. DeBartolo loved to watch “Dancing with the Stars.”
And she kept in shape. “When she was 40, she looked 20,” her son said. “When she was 70, she looked 45.”
Mrs. DeBartolo is also survived by her son Terry, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. No services are planned.