Monday, June 18, 2012

"Who Will Drop Next?": Schenectady's 1933 Dance Marathon

Marathon dancer Edward Daughton of Syracuse at a 1933 marathon dance in Schenectady. The photograph was given to Dr. Garrison Lester, who served as the dance's physician. From Larry Hart Collection.

During the 1920s and 1930s, dance marathons were a nationwide fad. In these dance endurance contests, where the participants tried to stay on their feet for a given period of time, individuals, couples, and teams competed for cash prizes. Early marathons began as non-stop dance contests. As the fascination with marathon dancing grew, so too did the duration of the marathons. Rules changed to allow periods for sleeping, eating, and resting; thus, marathons would continue for thousands of hours rather than dozens. Entertainment promoters began to include floor shows, live musical performances, comedy acts, giveaways, and other spectacles to marathons to lure crowds. The coming of the Great Depression also changed the tenor of dance marathons, as more and more contestants traveled to compete in one marathon after another. 

In Schenectady, advertisements for dance marathons appeared in the newspaper as early as 1919. Winners of a 1928 marathon dance, Anna Cervenka and Ray Radcliffe, danced for 288 continuous hours. After winning the contest, the couple appeared at local attractions to demonstrate the latest dance steps. Radcliffe and his wife Beatrice Schanze continued to work in the area as dancers and entertainers through the 1930s and 1940s.

The dance marathon held in Schenectady in 1933 was perhaps the most contentious. The marathon, held at Downey's Dance Castle, 214 Clinton Street, was organized by promoter Meyer E. Davidson of Syracuse. The contest offered prizes of $500.00, $300.00, and $100.00 for first, second, and third place, respectively. In addition to the attraction of the dancing, which drew spectators, the promoter offered theme nights, skits, special dance demonstrations and endurance challenges, birthday parties, door prizes, and even featured an engagement party and wedding ceremony for two of the competing couples. Advertisements for the marathon often included counts of the hours couples had danced, and exhorted Schenectadians to witness the spectacle. An advertisement nearly two months in to the contest read "Biff! Bang! Crash! The most grueling test of this contest take place tonight. Some one must drop out - no human being can possibly stand this severe test of endurance indefinitely . . . Who will drop next?"

"Who will drop next?" Advertisement for the dance marathon that appeared in the Schenectady Gazette on April 8, 1933, the same day that the contest was shut down by the police. Image obtained via

From the beginning, there was significant objection in the community to the 1933 dance marathon. A few days after the marathon began, the February 14 Schenectady Gazette reported a meeting of the Schenectady Ministerial Association that called for protest against the contest. A motion approved at the meeting read: "For obvious hygienic, economic, and moral reasons the Schenectady Ministerial Association wishes to protest vigorously against the so-called 'marathon dance' now being conducted in this city."

Marathon dancers Thelma Smith and Tom Ross held their wedding ceremony on March 29, 1933, as an added attraction to the contest. The couple had danced for 1176 hours by that date. An advertisement promoting the spectacle read "Public Wedding - Every one invited to see Tom and Thelma take the fatal leap - Don't miss it." From Larry Hart Collection.

On April 5, the laws and ordinances committee of the city's common council reported that many complaints had been received about the marathon. The committee asked the mayor to immediately revoke the license that had been issued for conducting the contest, claiming that "no benefit results from said marathon except such as comes in the way of profit to the promoters thereof." Rev. H. Victor Frelick, pastor of the State Street Presbyterian Church and chairman of the Law Enforcement League, decried the dance marathon as part and parcel of what he characterized as "vice and corruption" in the city of Schenectady. At a meeting on the evening of April 6, 1933, Frelick reported "In spite of all appeals and regardless of the good name of our city, this disgraceful exhibition [the dance marathon] has been permitted by the mayor and his subordinates until this day."

On the morning of Saturday, April 8, Schenectady's Chief of Police, William Funston, shut down the dance marathon under the orders of the city's Commissioner of Public Safety. The marathon had been going on for 58 days and 12 hours, and 13 contestants were remaining when the marathon was stopped. On April 27, 1933, the Schenectady Gazette reported that New York State Governor Herbert Lehman signed a bill making it a misdemeanor to conduct or participate in a dance contest that continued for more than eight consecutive hours.

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