On December 22, 1936, a dance marathon/walkathon opens in Vancouver. 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 popular during the 1920s and 1930s. The events combined vaudeville-style singing and comedy skits with elimination sprints, grinds, and derbies. These elimination events became increasingly brutal as the event wore on. Contestants, a mixture of local amateurs and the many professionals who worked the dance marathon circuit, were required to remain on their feet 24 hours per day with 15 minutes rest time each hour. They were served 12 meals per day, and they ate these at a chest-high table, still shuffling from foot to foot.
The promoter of the Vancouver marathon was Portland resident Al Painter. Painter had been active in the dance marathon business since the early 1930s, producing events in Oregon and Washington. He is credited as the first promoter to have introduced vaudeville into dance marathon performance, thus seasoning the events and relieving spectators of the sometimes-uneventful hours of nonstop shuffling. Song, dance routines, and especially comedy sketches were surefire ways to boost attendance. Patrons paid 10 cents during the day and 25 cents at night and could stay as long as they chose -- a bargain during the lean years of the Great Depression.
Painter’s Vancouver marathon was titled a “Transcontinental Derby Show.” It took place at the then-brand-new Vancouver Sport Palace. “Bill Darby’s Continentals are furnishing the music and Mickey Thayer is handling the broadcasting over KWJJ” (The Billboard, January 2, 1937).
Civic leaders and polite society often frowned upon dance marathons. In order to foster community support, promoters usually arranged local sponsorship if they possibly could. Painter’s Vancouver marathon took place “under the auspices of the American Legion 40 and 8, Voiture no.99” (The Billboard, January 2, 1937).
The winter weather in Vancouver was unusually harsh during the marathon, and on February 5, 1937, the Clark County Sun reported, “Sunday Snow Storm Heaviest In History.” The town was also suffering an influenza epidemic at the time, which surely reduced numbers among audience and participants alike. Painter’s marathon appears to have received no coverage in the local press, indicating perhaps a boycott by the Clark County Sun or perhaps a lack of advertising funds on Painter’s part. Dance marathons relied heavily on radio coverage, which left a scant historical trail.
The outcome of the marathon remains unclear. What is certain, however, is that the event was one of the last or possibly the last dance marathon staged in Washington prior to the March 11, 1937 enactment of a state law prohibiting such events.