Ravinia: Then and Now

Concertgoers entering Ravinia Park, c. 1904. (Photo: Highland Park Historical Society)

Originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2021 Gazette
By Helen Weaver

Ravinia Park has changed since its opening in August 1904 as “the most beautiful and complete amusement place in the west,” but the Ravinia of then and the Ravinia of now still have much in common.

A.C. Frost, president of the Chicago & Milwaukee Electric Railway, seeing potential in the farm-land along his newly laid tracks, bought the Daggitt farm north of Glencoe and established Ravinia Park. He created trails and lawns among the groves and “spared no expense in the addition of amusement and entertainment features.” These features included a theater, a casino (dining and dancing), a sports stadium, a Traver Circle Swing, a toboggan slide, and a skating pond. The theater and ornamental gateways are still in use today. The original pavilion, constructed in 1905, was destroyed by fire in 1949 and replaced the following year. Designed as a year-round resort, Ravinia offered “only the highest-class theatrical performances” and “no intoxicating liquors permitted on the grounds.” Then, as now, visitors were encouraged to take the train to and from the park.

In words that could be from 2022, a 1905 Chicago Tribune writer asked: “If you care anything for good music and derive any pleasure from being amid beautiful out-of-doors surrounds, make a journey to Ravinia Park.” As reported in the Tribune’s society page, early Winnetkans including the Thornes, the Hoyts, and Mrs. Augustus Peabody listened as Walter Damrosch conducted the New York Symphony in 1907.

The 1907 Bankers’ Panic led to the failure of Mr. Frost’s enterprise and both the railroad and Ravinia Park were put into receivership. In 1911, a group of wealthy concerned citizens, led by businessman Louis Eckstein, formed the Ravinia Company and bought the park. The Ravinia of today owes much of its ability to stay solvent to the activities of the Women’s Board who have raised over $27 million since 1962. The same was true for the Ravinia of 1911. The Ravinia Club, made up of hundreds of women from the north suburbs, created children’s programs, held benefit teas and dances, and spread word of the fun to be had at the park. Many Winnetkans served on committees of the Ravinia Company and Club during those years including Rudolph Matz, Landon Hoyt, Douglas Smith, Carrie Prouty, Jessie Willard Bolte, and Alice H. Wood.

The all-male Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia Park, 1918. (Photo: Highland Park Historical Society)

By 1914, Ravinia had devoted its programs to opera, and its reputation as the “summer opera capital” spread worldwide. Thousands attended and the Company stayed afloat until the Great Depression. The park remained closed for four seasons and in 1936, after the death of Louis Eckstein, a new group of concerned citizens, chaired by Winnetkan Willoughby G. Walling, formed the Ravinia Festival Association and hosted a five week series of 20 concerts by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Today’s Ravinia still hosts the Chicago Symphony, but has added popular music performances plus drama, ballet, and educational events that take place throughout the year.

To increase ticket sales, the Association formed a Coupon Sales Committee, made up of dozens of North Shore women who pre-sold bundles of tickets at a discounted rate. In 1946, under the leadership of Winnetkan Mrs. Ernst Von Ammon, the committee sold close to $70,000 of tickets before the season opened.

In 1962, seven women trustees of the Association formed the nucleus of the first Women’s Board. Then and now, many Winnetka men and women have served or still serve on the Women’s Board or as trustees. Two of the most influential are Sandra K. Crown, who served as Women’s Board Chairman from 1972-1975, and Jeannie James. A life trustee, “Sandy” started the Friendship Booth, the precursor of the Ravinia Festival Shop. Jeannie was part of the early 1990s outreach committee that became “Reach Teach Play,” a modern representation of the Ravinia Club’s early children’s programs created “especially for families of modest means.”

Ravinia today is an enormous professionally run organization with over 80 staff and hundreds of volunteers on three boards (trustees, women’s, and associates) all working together to bring up to 140 different events to the North Shore every summer. In addition to the CSO, today’s performers range from Yo Yo Ma to John Legend to Trombone Shorty’s Voodoo Threauxdown.

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