On August 11, 1928, a dance marathon at the Seattle Armory closes after 19 days. It proves to be the only dance marathon ever held within Seattle city limits. 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.
Local Hopefuls Abound
Dance marathons became popular during the 1920s as part of a national fad for setting human endurance records. Although by the 1930s the events would evolve into largely performative events won almost exclusively by professional contestants, Seattle’s 1928 contest attracted local hopefuls with one eye on the prize money and the other on setting a new world record.
The event was produced under the auspices of the University Post of the American Legion. Contestants included Otto Johnson and Marie Pearson, who held the world record of 321 hours and 30 minutes, and Mr. and Mrs. A. M. Saby, who held the 249-hour record for married couples (Seattle P-I, July 23, 1928). Both couples were from Minneapolis, where the records had recently been set. Most of the contestants, however, were local.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that two nurses would be on duty night and day "in constant watch over the dancers" and that doctors would examine the dancers "frequently." Besides this William Raths, director of a Bellingham physical culture school, would "direct a corps of trainers and rubbers” (Seattle P-I, July 21, 1928).
The Armory, a hulking crenellated fortress on Western Avenue between Virginia and Seneca streets, was decorated to resemble “an Oriental Garden.”
A Long, Long Trail
The dancers were required to stay on their feet 24 hours per day, with 15 minutes rest each hour. They were fed as they danced. Professional vaudevillians entertained the audience at 9:30 and 12:30 each evening.
The contest began at 8 pm on July 23, 1928, when the orchestra struck up "There’s a Long, Long Trail a Winding.”
Four days into the marathon, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was reporting “Girl Sleeps As Marathon Music Plays: Nimble-Footed Partner Carries Her Through Fox Trot For Three Hours Last Night” (July 27, 1928). The novelty of the event (it was Seattle’s first and, as events transpired, only dance marathon staged within the city limits) meant copious coverage of the curiosity in the Seattle newspapers.
From midnight until noon the orchestra was absent and the dancers made do with phonograph records. By day five they were demanding a new bunch of records. “They knew by heart what Johnny told his sweetie, and why she wanted to go back to Alabam’, and what she did -- and they didn’t care” (Seattle P-I, July 28, 1928).
On July 30, 1928, Reverend W. A. Major of the Mount Baker Presbyterian Church preached a Sunday sermon for the marathoners, a rare occurrence in the annals of the fad. Usually churches were the first to raise a moral outcry when a dance marathon came to town. “The music stopped during the services but the weary listeners kept their feet in motion and swayed relentlessly back and forth in accord with the rules of the contest, which provide they cannot stand still” (Seattle P-I, July 30, 1928).
Men Giggle, Women Weep
Some Seattle contestants went “squirrelly,” marathon-speak for psychosis induced by lack of sleep. One contestant, an E. H. Martineau of Seattle, "suddenly smacked his partner in the jaw … leaped over the rail of the dance floor and was caught as he dashed into the street” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 30, 1928). “Hysterical giggling has seized the contestants in the dance marathon at the Armory. It is the men who giggle. The women weep” (Seattle P-I, August 4, 1928).
By August 6, what had started as a lark had become seamy. Seattleites watched, addicted to the spectacle. “A hollow-eyes girl … sagged against her tottering partner and began laughing on an eerie, false note. A queer laughter that made the spectators shift uneasily in their seats. Her partner quieted her and they dragged on. The phonograph went on to play a grisly confection in waltz time” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 6, 1928).
An audience member said on August 8: “ ‘I’m all for them. Pore (sic) things, they must be tired. But it is swell to see them pep up in the evenings. They have to dance then, you bet,’ and her eyes shown avidly” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 8, 1928).
By August 11, it was over. The couple that finished first won $1000 prize money. On August 22, 1928, however, the Armory marathon was on page one again. Gladys Lenz, the dancer whose partner had punched her when he went "squirrelly," had attempted suicide.
Lenz’s fifth place finish had won her only $50, not enough to reclaim her child in Yakima from her ex-husband. “Leaving the marathon a physical and mental wreck, she wrote to her former husband in Yakima and asked him to send the boy. She got no reply, she said. In black despair, she turned on the gas” (Seattle P-I, August 22, 1928).
Lenz’s suicide attempt, coupled with the distasteful manner in which the marathon had played out, galvanized Seattle’s City Council. The Council quickly moved to ban dance marathons within city limits.