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Dance Marathon/Walkathon closes in Wenatchee after 1,492 hours on November 22, 1935.

HistoryLink.org Essay 5544 : Printer-Friendly Format

On November 22, 1935, a dance marathon/walkathon closes in Wenatchee after 1,492 hours (more than 62 days, or two months).  The winners are professional dance marathon contestants Kid Chissell and Billie Boyd. Dance marathons 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.

Depression-era Entertainment

Dance marathons were popular during the 1920s, and during the 1930s they became entrenched in American society. Always slightly seedy, usually relegated to the fringes of large cities or to small towns where they were a big event, the marathons attracted an audience with little money and much time to fill. Although some hopeful amateurs entered dance marathons, the majority of contestants were seasoned professionals. Known within the marathon community as "horses," these contestants could pace themselves to last the grueling weeks of competition and could often sing or clown to entertain the crowds at night. Dance marathon contestants were fed 12 times a day, a powerful inducement for some who entered the contests. For as long as the event went on (usually weeks and sometimes months) dancers had free food and a roof over their heads -- far from guaranteed in regular life during the 1930s.

Contestants were required to remain in motion 24 hours a day, with 15 minutes rest time per hour.

The Wenatchee marathon was produced by George C. Cobb. It was held in the Triangle Gardens ballroom, which had a seating capacity of 1,500. Bill Reed’s Orchestra (a dance marathon band) entertained crowds during the evening hours when contestants were required to dance full-out. Art Lumley, "midnight pianist" (The Billboard, October 5, 1935) kept the dancers going through the wee hours.

The Last Straw

Wenatchee’s rainy weather in October proved difficult for the marathoners and for George Cobb’s staff. "The climatic conditions here seem to be more severe on contestants than in most other sections of the country, even affecting some of the toughest horses in the game" (The Billboard, October 12, 1935). Considering the grueling hours the contestants endured while shuffling around the dance floor, perhaps the gloomy rain was the last straw. Emcee Kenny Price suffered a nervous breakdown as the show wore on and was replaced by Lewis Brock (The Billboard, December 7, 1935). Wenatchee audiences responded with wild enthusiasm to the derby, sprint, and treadmill elimination events to which contestants were subjected each evening. The final elimination event of the marathon was a three-hour-and-twenty-minute nonstop derby race. It was from this event that Kid Chissell and Billie Boyd emerged victorious. Kid Chissell went on to serve as technical advisor for the 1969 dance marathon film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Calabria, p.204).

"Following the victory ball and the presentation of prize ceremonies, George Cobb announced that due to popular demand he was starting a "super" at the same spot, Triangle Gardens, the next day" (Calabria, p.204).  A "super" was a fast, brutal dance marathon emphasizing rigorous elimination events with little or no time for contestants to recuperate in between.

Sources:
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; “Cobb Wenatchee Show Under Way,” Ibid.,, October 5, 1935, p. 27; “Nine and One Going In Wenatchee Walk,” Ibid.,, October 12, 1935, p. 28; “Wenatchee Over 900,” Ibid., November 16, 1935, p. 27; “Wenatchee Walkie Still Non-Stop,” Ibid.,, November 30, 1935, p. 37; “Boyd-Chissell Win Wenatchee Walkie,” Ibid., December 7, 1935, p. 27.


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Dance marathon contestants, ca. 1925
Courtesy Library of Congress


Walkathon (dance marathon) season pass, ca. 1935
Courtesy Paula Becker


 
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