On September 28, 1935, the Hollywood Amusement Company opens a dance marathon/walkathon in Yakima at the Playland Park Arena. Dance marathons were 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.
No Rest For the Weary
Dance marathons were an American phenomena of the 1920s and 1930s. The contests, in which teams of dancers remained in motion around the clock with just 15 minutes each hour allotted for rest, were popular with Depression-era audiences who had time on their hands but little money. As was customary in dance marathons, the Yakima contestants were composed of seasoned professional marathoners and a smattering of local hopefuls.
Twenty-five cents bought a ringside seat to what most audiences thought was true human drama, hope, and misery. In actuality the contests were nearly always somewhat rigged, and hopeful amateurs rarely if ever lasted the distance. The professional marathoners who usually won were known admiringly as "horses" because of their strength and ability to endure the rigors of the contest.
The Yakima show, like most dance marathons, consisted of a daytime "walking show" in which contestants shuffled around the arena, sleeping on each other's shoulders as often as possible. Care was taken to ensure that the sleeping ("lugging") partner’s knees did not buckle: Knees on the ground brought instant disqualification.
Playland Arena had a seating capacity of 2,000. The contestants performed full-out during the evening hours, dancing to the music of Mickey’s Syncopators. Radio KIT broadcast from the marathon daily. Each night the increasingly exhausted marathoners were put through derby races and treadmills, during which contestants were often chained or tied together.
“Very little heat (excessive cruelty and pressure designed to work the audience into an emotional frenzy) is being used by Head Floor Judge Fred Carter,” reported the entertainment trade publication, The Billboard, of the Yakima show, “as derbies and treadmills produce plenty of enthusiasm among the audience” (November 23, 1935).
Will You Marry Me, Again?
Another dance marathon staple was a public wedding. Professional marathoners, who invariably knew each other before the show started, usually pretended (for the benefit of the audience) to meet, court, and fall in love during the marathon. Public weddings, with the audience as congregation and fellow contestants as attendants, elicited gifts from local merchants for the happy couple and standing room only crowds. Some marathoners married each other in show after show, divorcing between shows. Sometimes a "mock" minister (whom the audience believed was legitimate) performed a ceremony for couples who were in truth already married to others. Professional marathoners Buddy Gannon and Velma Lewis were married during the Yakima dance marathon.
By November 16, “after 980 hours of grueling derbies and treadmills,” three couples and two solo dancers remained on the dance floor (The Billboard, November 23, 1935). Twelve days later, on November 28, 1935, husband and wife team Frenchy Boisjolie and Chad Alviso claimed the $500 first prize. The $250 second place prize went to Buddie Harrington and Bob Fields. Harrington and Fields had teamed up during the final days of the contest following the disqualification of their respective partners.