The 1920s are remembered as the Roaring 20s partly for the all the crazy fads that caught on during the decade, among them flagpole sitting and playing mah-jongg. None was crazier or more challenging than marathon dancing. It was both a competitive activity and a spectator sport as it spread.
The first dance marathon on record occurred in 1923 when New York’s Alma Cummings stayed on the floor for 27 hours. Thereafter the race was on to break her record and, secondly, to win prizes. The events were staged in large venues like Madison Square Garden, stretching on for weeks. Spectators paid 25 cents to watch the contestants stumble about the floor for hour after hour, day after day. It was all in the name of fun for spectators and prize money for participants, but marathons also put dancers in the hospital and in some cases mental wards. A few deaths were even recorded.
Dance marathons were not exclusively white either, though that is the way they have gone down in history. “All-colored” dance marathons took place in Dallas, for instance, with special sections reserved for whites. Generally, the authorities did not interfere.
The rules were pretty much the same everywhere. Couples danced for an hour or 45 minutes with a 15-minute break. One partner had to keep moving all the time although the other could hang on and catch a few winks. Couples were disqualified if they fell down or even went to their knees. The music was a mixture of fast and slow numbers, everything from waltzes to the varsity rag. After a while, there was no connection between the music and the dancers’ moves. It was important to get maximum use of the venue as the days dragged on, so sponsors scheduled other events at the same time, including mud wrestling, “mock weddings,” and raffles.
In time, the contests became so physically and mentally grueling that doctors and nurses were on site for the duration, rotating in and out themselves. Many sponsors also held “marathon walking” contests at the same time with contestants constantly circling the dance floor. The simultaneous walking contests also helped deflect criticism from the supposed immorality of couples clinging to each other hour after hour and even occupying adjacent cots during breaks.
It did not take the craze long to reach Fort Worth. Police did not want dance marathons here, associating them with vice activities. In 1923 after one marathon got started, Police Commissioner John Alderman vowed to close all “public dance halls,” an official effort that had not been seen since frontier times. But the demand was too strong. Any announcement of a marathon brought as many as 60 teams to town from all over the state. They were welcomed at places like the “labor temple” because they made money for sponsors.
In January 1929, one Fort Worth American Legion post announced a competition to set the world record held in the North Main Auditorium (formerly the KKK hall). They offered a prize of $1,000 each for the winning couple and lesser amounts for runners-up. Entrants included Edward Blossom and Alleene Willerford of Fort Worth who vowed to set a new world record. Most others were more interested in the prize money.
A “dance ring” was set up on the stage, and the marathon started on Wednesday night, Jan. 23, to the music of Ted Brown’s band, who would play every night for the duration of the event. Another band took over during the day. Brown, who doubled as emcee, was a veteran of more than 20 dance marathons around the country in just four years.
Other arrangements included curtained-off “sleeping quarters” set up on the floor of the auditorium where during breaks, couples could grab forty winks on cots, change shoes and even put on fresh clothes.
When mid-February arrived with seven couples still going strong, the Legionnaires announced it would continue into March if necessary. According to the Star-Telegram, the dancers appeared to be “walking in their sleep.”. On Feb. 26 the newspaper gave a “big hand” to the six remaining couples. A few days later, with public interest flagging, the paper invited readers to, “Come out and join the fun.” It was the biggest event at that venue since Harry Houdini played Fort Worth five years earlier.
The whole thing was filmed by a camera crew so that it could be shown at other American Legion posts. To keep the spectators happy, vendors circulated selling cold drinks and popcorn. On Saturday night, Feb. 23, Brown surveyed the survivors and predicted, “It won’t be long now.” He was wrong. It was not until Thursday night, March 28, at 9:17 pm, that Mickey Sheehan and Jessie Holman of Dallas were pronounced the winners . They had “danced” continuously for 1,537 hours or 64 days.
A Fort Worth couple, Creed Ketzler and Hattie Mae Hamrick, came in fifth, dropping out a week before. Ketzler was 18 years old, his partner Hattie Mae, just 10 years old. There were no age limits for entering the contests. To hurry things along at the end, the sponsors shortened breaks to five minutes and insisted both partners must keep moving (“dancing”). Still, the marathon dragged on with a few hearty participants refusing to give up no matter the price.
The American Legion marathon fell a few hours short of the world record, though at the end in accepting their prize the winners announced they could have danced “another 500 hours.” Other contestants were not so full of bravura. Several spent a few days in the hospital being treated for a variety of ailments.
And although the Star-Telegram had milked the event for all it was worth, not all its columnists were on board. Ruth Cameron, who wrote a regular “Ask Ruth” column, called endurance dances, “the most absurd, outrageous, and at the same time pathetic things that ever were.” Neither the city nor the state ever officially outlawed such contests, but in the next few years people grew tired of them, and they went the way of other fads. Meanwhile, the North Side Auditorium turned to pro wrestling matches to attract an audience.
Author-historian Richard Selcer is a Fort Worth native and proud graduate of Paschal High and TCU.