On August 21, 1935, a dance marathon/walkathon closes in Fife, a community just north of Tacoma, after 1,376 hours (55 days or almost two months). The event is popular with citizens of nearby Seattle and Tacoma, both of which have city ordinances banning dance endurance contests. 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.
Dance marathons, also called walkathons, were partially staged performative endurance contests and they were quite popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Audiences paid 15 to 25 cents to watch a mixture of hopeful amateurs and professional dance marathoners compete for prize money. Contestants danced around the clock with 15 minutes off their feet each hour. They were fed, standing at a chest-high table, 12 times per day.
The 1935 Fife dance marathon was staged at the Century Ballroom by promoter Hal J. Ross. Ross, one of the best-known and most dependable of the 10 or so professional dance marathon promoters active during the 1930s, had another marathon taking place in Bellingham during the same time period.
Ross attracted a large group of professional contestants, whose travel expenses he paid. He also gave his press representative a 20 percent stake in his profits, which usually guaranteed his events copious coverage in the local newspapers.
Ross was reported to have spent $6,000 to ready the newly built Century Ballroom for the marathon. Audiences had their choice of 3,000 seats, 500 of them ringside.
Ross’s status in the entertainment business meant that his shows also offered audiences the finest in comedy routines, vaudeville-style entertainment, and slick emcees, as well as star contestants whose grinding work was the main event. "Most contestants are artists along various lines, and have a number of surprises in store for Tacomans and residents of Southwest Washington. Ross is the first conductor of walkathons to take a chance with the ‘one fall and out’ rule. Regulations are strict. Every couple must keep in motion. If they falter, it’s just a piece of hard luck" ( The Tacoma Times, June 26, 1935, p.2).
Music was provided by Al Heuer and his Walkathonians. Ross’s wife Jane Shannon, known as "The Blue Flame of Melody," headlined the nightly floorshow. The contest opened on June 27, 1935.
Tacoma was at this time in the third month of a lumber workers’ strike, and local tensions ran high. Tacoma was threatened with imposition of martial law (The Tacoma Times, July 16, 1935), which reduced dance marathon crowds early on. The event was heavily publicized and broadcast on radio KVI, however, and the audience soon grew.
Thirty of the contestants were local favorites from within the state. By July 27, after 700 hours, the only Washingtonians remaining in the fray were Gordon Beasley of Spokane and Cecil Johnson of South Tacoma. Gordon Beasley lasted through at least 840 hours, but did not endure to win prize money. It was almost unheard of for an amateur to win a dance marathon. The professionals, known within the business as horses, simply lasted longer and/or had the contest tipped their way by promoters.
Watching marathoners drag around the floor was monotonous. Ross made certain that each evening offered audiences a special reason to come back, as noted in The Tacoma Times: "Beauty Parade" (July 5, 1935), "Ladies’ Day" (July 8, 1935), "Circus Carnival" (July 13, 1935). As the contest progressed the audience was treated to "Boys’ Cot Night" (July 16, 1935), and "Girls’ Cot Night" (July 18, 1935). On these occasions the typically off stage cots onto which the contestants collapsed for 12 minutes every hour were pulled out into the auditorium for public view. "Cots and training staff right out on the contest floor -- they sleep in full view of the audience…And You Think Your Brother Is Hard To Get Up In The Morning," ran the display advertisement (The Tacoma Times, July 18, 1935).
Since contestants were also subjected to 35 minute running treadmill elimination events on these nights, the prurient audience was guaranteed the spectacle of truly exhausted participants receiving rubdowns on the cots. Both events drew standing room only crowds and were repeated on July 19, 1935. "The eager look on the faces of hundreds of patrons each night seems to indicate their desire to witness a disqualification, which always happens when one is least expecting it." (The Tacoma Times, July 18, 1935) "45 Minute Treadmill. Can your favorite last through this grueling test?" asked advertisements the same day (The Tacoma Times, July 18, 1935).
By July 22 contestants had danced 600 hours and were being subjected to "blindfold treadmills, which last for 45 minute periods, with any contestant being eliminated who stumbles or leaves the dance floor." (The Tacoma Times, July 22, 1935)
On July 23 the sold-out crowd was given a marathon staple, the public wedding. "Couple No. 5, Bob Turner and Gladys Maddox…You are Invited -- Flowers -- Cake -- Gifts -- Wotta Nite -- This Afternoon, Marriage Rehearsal," read the advertisement in The Tacoma Times.
After the wedding it was back to "20 minute Reverse Sprint (running backward), 45 Minute Treadmill -- if their feet stop -- out! 45 minute sprint at top speed! On to the finish!" (The Tacoma Times, August 6, 1935). August 9 saw a "special blindfold sprint for girls from 10 to 10:45." Soon the male contestants, too, were blindfolded, sprinting for 50 minutes straight.
The inherent brutality and degradation of these elimination events often provoked storms of protest from church and women’s groups, although this does not appear to have been the case in Fife.
By August 17, the contest was "being operated without a rest period for any of the contestants with only two minutes out of every two hours being allotted for hygiene" (The Tacoma Times, August 17, 1935). Four days later, still with no rest periods, hundreds of fans were turned away from the full capacity Century Ballroom as contestants inside were subjected to a "no-time-limit-sprint" (The Tacoma Times, August 21, 1935). This was a race to the death -- the final contestants on the floor would win. After two hours of running, Bob Blixeth and Helen Tyne were declared victorious.
Eager to dispel the notion that dance marathons were fly-by-night operations not concerned with the communities in which they occurred, Ross gave Tacomans a public accounting of his Fife expenses: "Salaries, $10,840; rent, $3200; prize money, $1750; expenses before the contest opened, $7000; four automobiles purchased in Tacoma from local dealers, $4000; and the state sales tax, $2600" (The Tacoma Times, August 22, 1935).