On January 26, 1931, Bellingham City Council passes Ordinance No. 5204 prohibiting “continuous performance,” i.e. dance marathons. A dance marathon being staged concurrently at the State Street Auditorium prompts the Council's emergency measure. Dance marathons (often called Walkathons) are human endurance contests in which couples dance almost non-stop for hundreds of hours (as long as a month or two), competing for prize money.
Dance marathons were spectator events and performative endurance contests. Audiences paid 10 cents to 25 cents to watch contestants shuffle, sleep on their feet, dance, and entertain 24 hours a day. Contestants could rest 12 minutes out of every hour, and were fed 12 times each day. They were subjected to elimination events that grew increasingly sadistic as the marathon wore on.
Post No. 1585 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars hosted the State Street Auditorium walkathon as a fundraiser. Within a week, the Bellingham City Council was hammering out details of an emergency ordinance designed to stop the contest and prohibit such events from occurring in Bellingham in the future.
The contests drew audiences of Depression-era jobless fans with little money but a great deal of time to fill, but polite society tended to frown upon them. In Bellingham, as in many other cities where dance marathons were staged, citizens objected on religious, moral, health, and public safety grounds. Churches and women's groups objected on moral grounds (the contestants' full-body hugging dance positions as they dragged one another around the floor for hours were a far cry from social dance positions) and for humanitarian reasons (the rigors of a dance endurance contest were felt to degrade the human spirit and morals of the contestants, and by extension of the community). Police officers felt that the marathons attracted a criminal element to their towns, or at the very least that marathon promoters were only interested in short-term gain at the expense of the community.
The City Council voted unanimously to pass the ordinance. The Bellingham Evening Herald reported, “The vote on the ordinance was called for by Mayor John A. Kellogg only after several bitter debates on the matter, in which a crowd of 250 citizens that jammed the council chambers clearly demonstrated that they were in sympathy with the present walkathon” (January 20, 1931).
Will J. Griswold, the attorney representing the Veterans of Foreign Wars, charged that the movie theater owners, not the general public, were the force behind the demand to ban dance marathons. The State Street contest, he conjectured, was “getting their gravy” in other words siphoning off their profits. “Councilman E.C. Harshman stated that as a member of the police committee he had visited the contest and what he had seen had convinced him that the city did not want this type of entertainment” (Bellingham Evening Herald, January 20, 1931).
The ordinance prohibited continuous performances within the city limits and declared an emergency. It required, in part, that future contests “close to all participants and all other persons at twelve o’clock midnight and remain closed until after seven o’clock A.M. of each and every day of its operation.”
Violating ordinance No. 5204 was punishable by a fine of up to $300, ninety days in jail, or both.
In declaring a public emergency the ordinance stated: “the health and physical welfare of untrained youths is being jeopardized under the guise and use of the words ‘endurance’ and ‘stamina.’”