[–] Elizabelch [OP] 2 points (+2|-0)

Original article link: https://www.sfgate.com/sfhistory/article/Dance-marathons-were-a-seedy-exploitative-Bay-16070209.php


Dance marathons were a seedy, exploitative Bay Area craze that SF's women helped stop

Despite its libertine reputation, San Francisco was among the first to crack down on a degrading, sometimes-deadly craze that was sweeping much of a starved nation during the Great Depression: competitive endurance dancing.

Dance marathons, also called walkathons to avoid legal and moral scrutiny, were essentially the Netflix dating show of that era. As an emcee entertained the audience with dancers’ biographies over live music, the couples danced, stumbled and dragged each other for weeks on almost no sleep in the pursuit of money and glory.

In San Francisco, at least two contestants reportedly died due to natural and unnatural causes near the dance floor. Many more merely passed out. Some dancers married for prizes during the competitions, occasionally getting jailed for bigamy. Few dancers who weren’t properly connected to the promoter ever won.

A Bay Area alliance of women’s and religious groups, lawmakers and newspapers formed to help cut the music on a trend one local woman called “unmoral, disgusting and conducive to delinquency and crime.”

Though the dance marathon era has been extinct for almost 90 years, depictions of sleepy ballroom contestants live on in pop culture. Examples include episodes of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “The Muppet Show,” as well as the 1969 film “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”

There are news reports of dance marathons in San Francisco from the sport’s earliest days. In March 1910, the San Francisco Police Department broke up a marathon at the Dreamland Rink after it had gone almost 15 hours, with $250 at stake. There were five couples still dancing with two bands playing waltz and two-step music, and several doctors working. Dancers’ friends were also on hand to feed them during breaks.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, after police had ordered dancers to stop, “several of them still continued to dance and had to be led to the dressing rooms, the supposition being that they had become temporarily unbalanced because of the strain which they had been under.”

Opposition to the marathons formed immediately. When many of the same San Francisco dancers competed in San Jose, they were met by protesters including local ministers and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Marathon dancing was banned in San Francisco later that year. In 1923, San Francisco police Chief Daniel O’Brien told the Chronicle an anti-dance marathon ordinance was passed in 1910 after one person died and several others collapsed during an event.

Violating the ordinance meant a $100 fine or 30 days in jail, whether the marathon happened in public or private.

"No one, no matter how thin, will be permitted to break a world's record to syncopated music in this city while that ordinance stands," O’Brien said. Oakland police Chief James Drew held a similar line in the same article, calling marathon dances “worse than a six-day bicycle race.”

Marathon dancing gained further infamy in 1923, when 27-year-old Homer Morehouse collapsed and died as he walked to his seat, having just danced 87 hours in New York. A Chronicle editorial, headlined “The Dance of Death,” reacted in horror: “Such utterly useless and dreary performances are a disgrace to any community which permits them.” Sacramento enacted its own dance marathon ban that same month, and it appeared the sport was dead. Until it arose again in 1929 with the onset of the Great Depression under a new label: the walkathon.

The new name was a legal two-step around the ubiquitous marathon dance bans, as well as a marketing ploy. Two unmarried people walking around a ballroom sounded more wholesome than the up-close lugging and clutching that accompanied a dance endurance challenge.

But dancing to music was still part of the show. In his 2007 article, Donald Hausler of the Emeryville Historical Society found that walkathons held in Emeryville during the early 1930s employed about 50 people, including an orchestra director and musicians, plus four nurses and a dental unit.

It didn’t matter that people in places like Modesto were being arrested after eight days of dancing in up to 104 degree heat. Or that at the same marathon 20-year-old Esta Miller reportedly went “wildly hysterical” due to heat exhaustion and was hospitalized after dancing 72 hours. Paying audiences could not, or would not, look away.

“The dance marathon on one level served as a metaphor for the Depression-era struggle for survival, a reality performance that reflected larger societal issues,” Hausler wrote. While wealthier and more educated Bay Area residents sneered at the competitions, they became a popular escapist draw. The American Legion sponsored a January 1931 walkathon at the Golden Gate Ballroom in the Tenderloin that went at least 600 hours with 14 couples out of the 33 who had started weeks earlier. Other walkathons followed at the venue.

Emeryville’s walkathons happened at the former Fisher auto parts plant that closed with the Depression and reopened as an auditorium. The format and rules, according to a 1933 official program Hausler found, were typical for walkathons of the era.

There were 28 male-female couples in each event, all of whom had to wear slacks and numbers. They had to dance or move without stopping or taking a knee for 45 minutes straight, at which point they got 15 minutes to rest before starting again.

Dancers could sleep for no more than 11 minutes per hour in designated male or female areas before an air horn woke them up. Sometimes, one dancer slept while their partner dragged them around the floor with their hands bound.

Aside from prize money, perhaps the biggest enticement at a time of food scarcity was the promised 12 meals a day while competing. Even then, teams had to keep dancing as they ate from a chest-high table.

A traveling emcee named Rookie Lewis entertained the crowds and radio audiences by telling them personal stories about the dancers, which helped fans pick their favorites as the hours and days went by. What Lewis didn’t tell them was that each competition included ringer couples nicknamed “horses” who had a distinct endurance advantage over the amateurs and had relationships with the promoters and judges.

While the odds were stacked against most dancers, they could also make some money by selling postcards of them posing together to their fans.

The couples were promoted in a romantic light to enhance their appeal, with on-floor weddings to bring in more crowds and contestants. But sometimes that romance was fast-forwarded after dancers were talked into it by publicity-hungry organizers.

In the Bay Area, there were at least two Chronicle accounts of men being arrested on bigamy charges after marrying during walkathons when their legal wives found out. One was a San Francisco walkathon janitor who was enticed by the event’s management to marry a dance partner he’d recently met for $75 and free wedding outfits.

The other man, whose wife lived in San Francisco and heard his walkathon wedding on the radio, was arrested as he left an El Cerrito auditorium having just gone 550 hours with his partner. A physician urged authorities not to let Robert Cowan Reid fall asleep out of concern for his health, and deputies took turns shaking him.

Police Capt. Charles Skelly, in voicing the department’s opposition to walkathons, said another man was killed at a Mission District walkathon in 1932 when his jealous wife shot him.

To keep things fresh as the dance-offs went days long, promoters added sideshows such as “zombie treadmills,” covered in Frank Calabria’s book “Dance of the Sleepwalkers.” This involved tying exhausted couples together and blindfolding them as they raced each other for sheer spectacle.

By 1933, the human degradation came to be too much for many San Franciscans. Opposition turned into action, especially from the city’s women’s organizations. A women’s committee attended a walkathon in the Tenderloin for research and walked away disgusted. One of the women, only referred to in the Chronicle as “Mrs. Thomas R. Best,” called it a “highly immoral exhibition,” especially during a midnight derby segment when dancers had to race each other.

"One after another fainted," she said, "and it was not just for a few minutes, for some of them were unconscious for half an hour."

Women’s groups and the Parent-Teacher Association appealed directly to San Francisco supervisors and Mayor Angelo Rossi in July 1933 to extend the dance marathon ban to walkathons. They opposed a compromise ordinance that would give police full power to approve or deny a walkathon permit.

The women’s groups and pro-walkathon factions argued for four hours at a Board of Supervisors meeting that same month. The women made their appeal on moral and legal grounds, calling it “an issue between organized womanhood and the sporting element.” The San Francisco Labor Council warned that eliminating walkathons would cost 100 local people their jobs. An attorney for walkathon promoter Mike Fisher took a more populist approach, saying, “Everyone does not care for opera or symphony concerts.”

For all the loud political clashes, it appears San Francisco’s dance marathons were simply ignored to death by the local public and press. By September 1933, a San Francisco women’s club leader said, “The walkathon seems to be gone because of lack of patronage, but if it crops up again I think we should go again before the Board of Supervisors and oppose it.”

The final Emeryville walkathon broadcast at the Park Avenue Auditorium was May 18, 1935, the same year California passed what the Associated Press called a ban on "marathons, walkathons, speedathons, endurathons or any other kind of 'thon' involving mental and physical endurance contests."

During the last days of walkathons in April 1935, Chronicle columnist Neil Hitt attended one in Emeryville and gave a tongue-in-cheek defense of dancing for money in the Depression: “While this form of endeavor may seem a trifle stupid to some people, it strikes me that it is far smarter than tramping around all day to employment agencies, which have no trained nurse on hand and expect you to die in the open.”

[–] KBash 1 points (+1|-0)

This reminds me of the classic American noir short story “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”

Brutal, and absolutely magnificent.

[–] Elizabelch [OP] 0 points (+0|-0)

I've never read the story and now I want to, but I've seen the movie and it too is brutal and magnificent. Remembering the movie was what made me want to post the news story. When I think of how I felt watching the movie, it was like watching an episode of "Black Mirror" that pointed the mirror toward the near past instead of the near future.