The dance marathon at the State Street Auditorium was sponsored by the William Matthews Post No. 1585 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The promoter was Al Painter, a Portland resident who was quick to note the money making potential of such events during even the grimmest years of the Great Depression. By 1931, Painter had staged a number of financially successful (if controversial) dance marathons between Portland and the Canadian border.
Dance marathons were popular with out-of-work Depression-era audiences who paid between 10 and 25 cents to watch the spectacle for as long as they liked. The contestants danced or shuffled along around the clock, eating 12 times in 24 hours and resting 15 minutes each hour. Competitors were eliminated if they failed to return to the dance floor following a rest period, if their knees buckled and hit the floor, or if they fell down during elimination events: sprints, derbies, and grinds. These elimination events grew increasingly brutal as the contest wore on.
The 1931 Bellingham event was advertised as the “First 100% Amateur Marathon on the Pacific Coast” (Bellingham Evening Herald, January 13, 1931). All-amateur contests were uncommon and amateurs seldom won. Professional marathon contestants usually predominated in any given event.
The contest was broadcast over the radio four times daily, allowing even fans who couldn’t make it to the venue to root for their favorite teams. Dance marathons such as the Bellingham show were advertised heavily on the then-new medium of radio.
Only a week into the contest, the Bellingham City Council began drafting an ordinance to prohibit dance marathons. Painter rebuffed claims that the ordinance would force the contest out of business: “It was understood Tuesday afternoon that the management of the walkathon was considering moving the contest from the State Street Auditorium to some other community, Ferndale, Lake Samish or Sedro-Woolley being considered although no definite decision has been made” (Bellingham Evening Herald, January 20, 1931).
On January 26, 1931, the Bellingham City Council passed Ordinance 5204 prohibiting continuous performances and thus by extension dance marathons. The Ordinance was slated to go into effect at midnight on January 28. Painter left Bellingham for Seattle, leaving E. A. Kilander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in charge of closing down the show. The contestants danced on, desperately attempting to raise money for their promised prize. Some of Painter’s paid staff (probably emcee, trainers, and floor judges) took pity on the contestants and continued to execute their duties without pay. They felt sorry for the contestants “who it appears may have nothing for their efforts except bunions when the show finally closes” (Bellingham Evening Herald, January 27, 1931).
Deciding that it would be unwise to flaunt the ban and push city officials to close the marathon by force, “the seven remaining contestants in the Walkathon left the floor of the State Street Auditorium at midnight Tuesday, thus bringing to a close what appears to be the last event of its kind that will be staged in Bellingham” (Bellingham Evening Herald, January 28, 1931).
This prediction was to prove premature. Despite Ordinance 5204, the Veterans of Foreign Wars sponsored yet another dance marathon in Bellingham in July and August 1935.