Dancing marathons sweep city off its feet

City Council passes ordinance to ban marathons in ’31

Betty and Benny pose for a publicity shot on their Sky Dancing platform as Earl LeValley, president of Columbia Valley Lumber, uses a yardstick to show how small it is. Photo by J. W. Sandison, Whatcom Museum of History & Art

As the Great Depression began, outlandish feats of stamina, spectacular stunts and bizarre competitions were popular entertainment. Shipwreck Kelly’s flagpole sitting and C.C. Pyle’s transcontinental foot race, known as the Bunion Derby, made national headlines as the Roaring Twenties came to a crashing end.

Dance marathons, the most notorious of these fads, already suffered a bad reputation by the early 1930s. Endurance hops, like promoter Milton Crandall’s “pageants of fatigue” in Chicago and New York, had surpassed the 3000-hour mark and raised scorn from church and civic leaders. Many cities banned the “dangerous and lascivious” dance marathon.

Bellingham’s first tango with marathon dancing started New Year’s Eve 1930 at the State Street Auditorium. Though meant to be a fundraiser for the local Veterans of Foreign Wars, within days the “Walkathon” drew complaints from polite society.

To deflect suspicion, dance marathons were often called walkathons by their promoters. Walkathon was actually a more apt description since such marathons didn’t include much dancing, instead young couples “trudged around” in hopes of winning prize money by being the last left standing. As partners tired, they slowly sagged into one another’s arms and this quasi-intimate contact shocked the vocal agents of morality.

Bellingham Councilman Elroy Harshman said he’d visited the State Street Auditorium and “seen enough to realize that the city did not want that type of amusement.” Acting Mayor E. E. Sherwood complained that the walkathon stole business “from regular establishments, such as theaters, billiard parlors and restaurants.” Here was a first, a Bellingham official sticking up for billiard parlors!

Yet the walkathon was a huge hit with Bellingham folks. There was high drama when dance partners Jack Vyse and Viola Patterson were married in front of the audience and promptly dropped out of the competition on Jan. 9. There was a big public birthday party for contestant Mila Tisdel. And there was, as an added attraction, a sitting contest with nine entrants started on Jan. 14 that, after fifty hours, was declared a tie between Ed Logan and Earl McAllister.

The raucous fun ended on Jan. 26, 1931, when the Bellingham City Council passed Ordinance No. 5204 outlawing dance marathons, walkathons and other continuous performances. The State Street shuffle was stopped in its tracks 500 hours in and with 10 contestants still on their feet. Arthur Allen, manager of the event, lamented that “the boys and girls have been walking too long to be forced to quit now and give up the possible chance of breaking the world record.”

The new law, however, did not hamper kids in Bellingham from creating their own endurance contests. In the spirit of the times, 10-year old Arthur Reynolds sat in a poplar tree on the Columbia School grounds for 240 hours to “set the local record” in 1931. That same summer, a bicycle-riding relay on Cherry St. by Keith Swanson, Raymond Kelley, Charles Reed and LaVerne Kelley set our town’s longevity mark at 168 hours. But this record was quickly broken over on Lynn Street, when Junior Johnston, Floyd Osborne and Billy Nicolay rode continuously for 221 hours!

Then there was the “Sky Dancing” of Betty and Benny Fox, which came to Bellingham in the summer of 1934. Sky dancing took the dance marathon to new heights by combining it with flagpole sitting. It was dancing at the top a pole!

On July 20, 1934, Betty and Benny climbed up to a 24-inch wide circular platform perched atop a pole that rose 75 feet above the roof of the six-story Herald Building. For the next thirty-one hours, “regardless of wind, sun, storm or earthquake,” the daring couple danced and did stunts on their “dance floor.” No ticket was necessary to view this event, as spectators jammed the streets below to watch the dancers above. Many held a vigil through the night.

Newspaper ads were filled with photos of the smiling acrobats posed with this or that Bellingham business owner who had helped sponsor the event. Products were tied to the stunt, often in a stretch, like “Betty and Benny take no chances in their Sky Dancing, you take no chances when you buy Kulshan Brand selected goods.”

More direct was Clem Ford’s Buster Brown Store, 109 E. Holly, providing the partners with new “Sky Dancing shoes.” The Hotel Henry gave them free rooms for the better part of two weeks. Columbia Valley Lumber Co. made the two-foot wide dance platform and Morse Hardware donated the steel cables supporting the pole that was anchored to the Herald’s rooftop sign. Whatcom County Dairymen’s Association provided the milk, which was the couple’s official drink during their 31 hour performance.

Even Harlow-Hollingsworth Funeral Home bought into the event. Following the sky dance, the undertaking firm’s “ambulance” served as Betty and Benny’s limousine to the Mt. Baker Theatre where “they explained their death-defying achievement.”

On Aug. 12, 1935, there was a line to the end of the block of those waiting to get into the Hal J. Ross Walkathon at the State Street Auditorium, now the home to 20th Century Bowling since 1956. Photo by J. W. Sandison, Whatcom Museum of History & Art

The endurance-contest era in Bellingham had its grand finale in 1935. On July 18, Hal J. Ross started a “European-type Walkathon” with 22 couples at the State Street Auditorium. Most contestants were seasoned “professionals,” from as far away as Oklahoma, Massachusetts and Indiana, who traveled a circuit competing in marathons.

Ross, a former boxing trainer, was a founder and first president of the National Endurance Amusement Association. Considered an even-handed promoter, he sought to create a governing code of walkathon rules that would turn dance marathons into a legitimate sport. Ross contended that “never, to my knowledge, has Marathon dancing under proper conditions done any participant any harm.”

And Ross paid well, his walkathon offering $1,750 in prize money with a cool grand for first place. Ross made sure his marathons moved at a “profitable pace” by compelling participants to pick their feet up and move around the room, not just shuffle in one spot. Pairs were allowed timed 15-minute breaks each hour to eat, use the toilet, sleep or shave. Yes, Rule No. 2 explicitly stated “all male contestants must be clean shaven at all times.” Warren Moore, M.D., was the event’s official physician in case of a severe nick.

Al Heuer and His Melody Men were the house band and Bill Stein served as “Master of Microphones.” Rogan Jones’ radio-station, KVOS, broadcast live updates from the walkathon four times daily. Jane Shannon, “The Blue Flame of Melody,” sang during the once-an-hour breaks.

Nearing the 600-hour mark on August 12, this “Battle of the Champions” had narrowed to a wilting eight couples. Actually, eight and a half couples, as Teddy Ackerman of Bellingham was dancing solo! The crowd darlings were partners Harry Hamby and Jean Moon, of Austin, Texas, who were being sponsored by Gordon’s Auto Wrecking at 929 N. State.

Nearing the 600-hour mark, Ross’ Walkathon is packed to the rafters! Photo by J. W. Sandison, Whatcom Museum of History & Art

Meanwhile, a huddle of local ministers denounced the walkathon as wanton exhibitionism and called for it to be stopped immediately. J.E. McGinnis, the City treasurer, agreed and threatened Ross with arrest for violating Ordinance 5204. But Bellingham Mayor Burleigh Hanning and Chief of Police William Stone did not view the walkathon as the same threat to public safety that McGinnis did. Their indifference to enforcing the anti-marathon statute prompted the treasurer to take matters into his own hands.

McGinnis had been deputized by former Bellingham Mayor John A. Sells and took seriously the badge’s authority. Tin-star in hand, the treasurer paid the walkathon a visit and demanded that Ross pay a vaudeville license if he didn’t want to have to appear in court on Monday. But Ross claimed it was customary that first “a warrant or some legal paper be served on him.”

The treasurer, in a huff, went to the police chief’s office and demanded that Stone enforce the law. Stone, instead, requested that the treasurer quit playing policeman and return the badge. McGinnis fired back that “some city official is getting a hand-out” from the walkathon promoter. “Are you accusing me of taking money?” Stone asked, warning McGinnis “not to get me started or I might lose control of myself.” Then Stone invited McGinnis to “come outside” to resolve the issue, but considering the chief had “not taken off his gun” the treasurer surrendered his badge.

Ross also relented and paid the city’s vaudeville license, but all the bad press kept the scolded public away from the walkathon. To hasten an early outcome (and get out of town as quickly as possible), a “sprint” was ordered between the two and a half remaining couples. It didn’t take long for Hamby and Moon to be declared the winners. The partners were paid a consolation and the walkathon lights turned off, Aug. 26, 1935.

On March 15, 1937, Washington Gov. Clarence Martin signed State Bill 186 outlawing dance marathons and their ilk statewide. Nobody could quite recall what all the fuss had been about when the law was repealed in 1987.

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