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Dance Marathon/Walkathon closes in unincorporated King County north of Seattle after 1,176 hours on August 28, 1935.
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On August 28, 1935, a dance marathon/walkathon closes at the Everstate Pavilion in unincorporated King County (in the present-day North Park neighborhood of Seattle, just north of Greenwood) after 1,176 hours, that is, after 49 days or a month and a half of nearly continuous dancing. Dance marathons were Depression-era human endurance contests in which couples danced almost non-stop for hundreds of hours (as long as a month or two), competing for prize money.
Dance marathons were popular in the 1920s and 1930s, attracting both hopeful amateurs and experienced professional contestants. Also called walkathons, the events gave audiences the chance to watch for unlimited hours as marathoners danced, shuffled, and slept on their feet, trying to outlast one another and win prize money.
Dancing For Their Supper
Contestants danced around the clock, with 15 minutes each hour allotted for supine rest. They were fed 12 meals a day (eggs, oatmeal, toast, milk), a powerful inducement to many hungry, destitute people who entered the competitions. Vaudeville-style entertainment, along with increasingly brutal elimination events, filled the evening hours.
The contest was held at the Everstate Pavilion, 12054 Fremont Avenue. The promoter was George C. Cobb Amusement Company. Cobb and his regular stable of staff and contestants were mounting dance marathons throughout the Pacific Northwest at the time.
The event was of necessity held outside of Seattle city limits: A 1928 Seattle City Council ordinance prohibited dance marathons within the borders of Seattle.
The event opened on July 6, 1935, with 16 couples. On the staff were “Kid Chissell, head trainer, with Lloyd (Tiny) Ford assisting, both boys being former boxers and having worked in several Hollywood productions” (The Billboard, August 17, 1935). Tiny Ford’s next job after the marathon was in the chorus of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie Follow The Fleet. In later years, Chissell utilized his experiences with Cobb to serve as technical advisor for the 1969 film version of Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Professional dance marathoners, able to endure grueling weeks on their feet, were known as horses.
A special feature of the event was a 1,250-lap derby race between professional contestant Johnny Russo and John Volkas, “winner of the 52-mile heel-and-toe derby around Lake Washington, held recently in Seattle” (The Billboard, August 17, 1935).
By August 24, the dancers had been on their feet for 1,070 hours (almost 45 days). A special "heat judge," Ed Golden, was brought in to ride herd on the contestants and work the crowd into a frenzy. Dance marathon historian Frank M. Calabria reports that “show emcees worked closely with the floor judges and professional contestants … in ‘working heat,’ or playing the crowd to arouse strong emotional response” (Calabria, p. 25).
As the marathon wore on, Cobb added ever-longer and more challenging elimination events designed to wear contestants down and thin the field. These brutal races, in which the exhausted contestants were sometimes blindfolded or chained together, always drew enormous crowds of spectators.
Even Less Rest After Weeks of No Rest
Cobb ended his event with “four days of nonstop, including derbies, sprints, etc.” (The Billboard, September 7, 1935). Non-stop competition meant that the contestants were denied even their short hourly rest breaks, as well as the services of trainers, doctors, and nurses.
Johnny Russo and Rose Anderson placed first, followed by Dick Joseph and Maimie Aho. “Altho (sic) the show did not make money it is reported that George Cobb paid all bills and prize money in full” (The Billboard, September 7, 1935).
Carol Martin, Dance Marathons: Performing American Culture In The 1920s and 1930s (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994); Frank Calabria, Dance of the Sleepwalkers: The Dance Marathon Fad (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993); Horace McCoy, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1935); June Havoc, Marathon ’33 (New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc, 1969); June Havoc, Early Havoc (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1960); Anita O’Day with George Eells, High Times, Hard Times (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1981); Richard S. Kaplan, “An Appeal To Reason,” The Billboard, June 29, 1935, p. 31; Richard P. Kaplan, “Are Walkathons Lawful?,” Ibid., February 2, 1935, p.26; Leo A. Seltzer, “What Future -- Walkathons?,” Ibid., December 29, 1934, p. 220; “Seven and Two Still On Seattle Grind,” Ibid., July 27, 1935, p. 31; “Cobb Seattle Show Down to Five and 1,” Ibid., August 17, 1935, p. 26; “Cobb Walk Passes 1000,” Ibid., August 31, 1935, p. 31; “Russo-Anderson Cop Seattle First Prize,” Ibid., September 7, 1935, p. 26; “Contestant Notes,” Ibid., January 25, 1936, p. 31; Seattle City Council Ordinance No. 55985, “An Ordinance defining relating to and regulating endurance contests, repealing ordinances in conflict, and declaring an emergency,” approved September 5, 1928.
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Dance marathoners Beatrice Viesco and Eric Levy, ca. 1935
Courtesy Paula Becker
Seattle Dance Marathon, (l. to r.) Gladys Lenz with A. M. Saby; Vonnie Stotko dozing on Arnold Ehling, August 2, 1928
Courtesy Seattle Post-Intelligencer