A Record Breaking Moment: The dance marathon of 1928

The Daily Times, September 7, 1928. Pg. 32

Doesn’t this ad make you curious? A dance marathon? How exciting! Dance marathons had been becoming more popular after World War I. What started off as little contests to see who could dance the longest and win a small prize had become its own little industry. By 1928, reputations, money, and records were at stake. Davenport joined in the fad and even briefly held the title of “Longest Dance Marathon” in what became a two-month dancing event.

The Coliseum, which still stands at 1012 W. 4th Street, was a popular event spot in the 1920s. From dances to boxing matches, the Col, as it was known, was always busy. It would be the perfect place for a dance marathon and we are sure the ad caught the attention of many interested individuals.

The Daily Times, September 12, 1928. Pg. 6

The dance commenced on September 13th at 4:00 a.m. with 10 couples entered (one couple from Peoria, Illinois was late causing a delay). Three of the 10 couples were local to Davenport. One gentleman, Lester Scheff, was noted for having only one arm from a previous accident.

Several of the couples brought trainers with them. The trainers would keep everything they needed at the ready, massage tired dance feet, prepare a cot to rest on, and secure food and drinks. Nurses or physicians were also in the building at all times along with emcees and judges.

The rules were simple for the most part and followed other dance marathon rules. A few examples include:

  • One dancer had to be dancing at all times.
  • A 15 minute break to rest every hour.
  • Contestants were allowed 10 minutes to reenter the competition upon fainting.
  • You could continue dancing with another partner if they were located within twelve hours of the original partner leaving.
  • Couples must dance 150 hours minimum to get prize money.
The Daily Times, September 12, 1928. Pg. 5

The Col was open 24 hours a day for the event. At any time, someone could come in to watch or take a spin around the floor themselves with admission prices varying depending on the time of day or night. The live bands were switched out to keep the music flowing and the dancers dancing. It looked to be a fun week or two with the winning couple splitting a $1,000 cash prize.

On Saturday, September 15th, one couple dropped out. Miss Ruby Tuesant of Mendota, Illinois was unable to continue after fainting the evening before. She had tried to continue, but it was too much. Her partner was Howard Allhouse from Dixon, Illinois. They had been dancing for 50 hours and 13 minutes when Miss Tuesant’s health forced them to retire.

Mr. and Mrs. Travelin Smith of Davenport withdrew on day four when Mrs. Smith became ill. Contestant Billie Bell had to withdraw when her father became ill and she was requested to return home by family. Around that time, Ray Brocker dropped out. Billie Bell’s partner, Jimmy Solman of Rock Island, then started dancing with Ray Brocker’s partner, Miss Evelyn Fries of Peoria, Illinois. The newspapers reported interest in the marathon was still great with many people paying to come in to watch the couples compete.

The Daily Times, September 16, 1928. Pg. 11

Day six of the contest (September 18th) brought great scandal. Mrs. Earl Wilson, one of the judges for the event, declared her belief that some of the pillows of contestants had been doped by some of the trainers. Several of the contestants acted like they had been “doped”, according to Mrs. Wilson, after their rest breaks on their cots. It was something that had been done at other marathons and the only people allowed in the rest areas were the trainers and those competing. Mrs. Wilson declared her intention of hiring a guard to be in the room at all times to watch the trainers. In the end, several trainers were dismissed after the scandal.

That same day, Miss Grace Coalton from Peoria, Illinois had a huge fight with her partner, Mr. Lester Simpkins. Spectators shared the gossip that the couple had appeared to be arguing since the contest began. Mr. Simpkins continued dancing on his own as his trainer scrambled to find a replacement in the allotted 12 hour grace period. It appears that did not happen and Mr. Simpkins left the floor as well. The local newspapers reported that the dancers were beginning to look haggard from the constant dancing.

Six couples remained by September 19th. They had danced for 150 hours by 10:00 a.m. They were almost at the one-week mark.

The Daily Times, September 25, 1928. Pg. 5
The Davenport Democrat and Leader, September 26, 1928. Pg. 6

A few hours after the above group photo was taken on September 26th, Mr. and Mrs. Marion Cowman of Des Moines, Iowa left the competition at the demands of the nurse after Mrs. Cowman began running a fever. The couple had danced for 328 hours. Mr. Cowman had lost his job a few months earlier and they were trying to earn money for their family. Miss Margaret Lindquist was still dancing with her partner despite having two teeth pulled and a third being pulled that day in quick trips to a nearby dentist’s office. Five couples now remained.

By September 29th, the five remaining couples had danced over 394 hours. To keep interest in the event as it entered its seventeenth day, the promoters staged a boxing match between trainer “Chie” Paulsen and Mr. “Jack” Cowman to help settle an argument the two men had previously. So while the contestants kept dancing a boxing match took place nearby.

The Daily Times, September 29, 1928. Pg. 19

By October 1st, couples were reported to be hallucinating at times on the dance floor. Over 440 hours of dancing had taken place and contestants had worn through two or three pairs of shoes. The boxing match between Paulsen and Cowman had been so successful in drawing people back to watch the marathon that another boxing match was scheduled for October 2nd. 10-year-old Leon Ford was to fight 11-year-old Edward Ford in six rounds of boxing.

The couples had completed 468 hours of dancing. By October 4th, three weeks into the competition, Mrs. Hattie Waldron of Chicago was suffering from tonsillitis. Mrs. Jess Neeley from Harvey, Illinois had her head bandaged after a bad fall when she fainted. Mr. Merle MacWilliams was suffering from partial facial paralysis. Mrs. Elizabeth Meyers who had to have a tooth pulled during one of the 15-minute breaks soon developed a nerve infection in her gums.

The Daily Times, October 6, 1928. Pg. 22

By October 6th, the dancers had been dancing for 22 days and 562 hours. A new problem arose when local bookies who had been taking bets on who would win the contest had begun talking to the dancers on the dance floor. They were trying to pay certain couples to drop out of the race to allow other couples to win. Once the management of the Col realized what was taking place, they blocked access to the dancers on the floor to prevent illegal activity.

On October 7th, Margaret Lindquist’s family visited her from her hometown of Burlington, Iowa. They were horrified by her appearance and tooth infection and ordered her to leave the contest. Her partner, Davenporter Merle MacWilliams danced by himself for 12 hours in an effort to find a new partner among the existing women. When that failed, he retired from the dance floor to sleep. Mrs. Jess Neeley celebrated her 23rd birthday on the floor with gifts and cake – all while dancing. Four couples now remained having danced 612 hours.

New excitement arose on October 11th as the Col Ballroom was to host large professional boxing matches with thousands of fans expected. But what to do with the remaining four couples? No one had expected the dancing to last so long.

A solution was found when a large truck was brought in to hold the dancers and musicians. The dancers “danced” as the truck drove them to the Northwest Davenport Turner Hall. They spent the evening and morning dancing there before returning to the Col the next afternoon. All the dancers agreed the outing had been a wonderful break from their usual view.

On October 16th, Mrs. Jess Neeley could no longer go on after 800 hours and left the floor with her husband. Much was made of Mrs. Neeley and her weight of 180 pounds lasting so long in the competition. Mrs. Elizabeth Meyers had to have another tooth pulled that greatly increased the pain in her gums. Three couples remained. That day, the remaining three couples completed 802 hours which broke the Iowa dance marathon record of 797 set in Des Moines months earlier. Roller Skating exhibitions were added into the evening festivities to help attract more visitors to the marathon.

October 25th marked 1,018 hours of dancing for the remaining three couples. Interest was once again renewed with the public. Mrs. Meyers had had another tooth pulled leaving her physically weakened. Earl Waldron was showing signs of “nervous strain” and many expected both couples to pull from the competition at any moment.

The Daily Times, October 27, 1928.

Sunday, October 28th was eventful as Mrs. Hattie Waldron and Mrs. Elizabeth Meyers got into an argument on the dance floor about 3:45 a.m. Mrs. Meyers accused the Waldrons of drinking alcohol. Mr. Allen Meyers, Elizabeth’s husband who was watching the contest, entered into the argument on the dance floor. Mr. Waldron took exception to this and punched Mr. Meyers causing the gentleman to collapse on the floor.

A special committee was called to review the fight as the couples continued to dance. By Sunday evening one hundred witnesses had been talked to about the altercation. Mr. Waldron was disqualified and told to leave the floor. Miss Evelyn Fries took the opportunity to leave the floor as well after learning Mrs. Waldron was without a partner. Jimmy Solomon joined with Hattie Waldron to continue the contest. This was Mr. Solomon’s third partner.

After leaving the floor Mr. Waldron accused Mrs. Meyers of starting the fight and using inappropriate language during the marathon he demanded another committee be created to see if Mrs. Meyers would remain in the contest. The review committee found the charges to be false and Mrs. Meyers continued to dance.

Things finally came to an end at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday, October 31st. At midnight, Earl Waldron threatened to remove his wife from the contest unless Mr. Scheff and Mrs. Meyers agreed to change the marathon into a derby with dancing being continuous except for five-minute breaks every four hours. The couple agreed to Waldron’s demands and Mr. Frank Duffy, a local boxing referee, was called in to oversee the derby.

The derby soon started and at 7:55 a.m. a five-minute rest was called. When the couples were to return to the floor at 8:00 a.m., Jimmy Solomon was missing. Witnesses said he had told them he was done with the contest and entered a car and left without notifying the officials or his partner. Mr. and Mrs. Carl Wilson, judges for the event on duty at the time, told newspapers that Mr. Solomon had been about to collapse and Mrs. Waldron had physically carried him for two hours on the dance floor. Mrs. Elizabeth Meyers and Mr. Lester Scheff were the winners.

The Daily Times, October 31, 1928

The event set a new world record of 1,156 hours danced. This beat the record previously set in Hammond, Indiana of 1,154 hours. The couples danced for 48 days and 4 hours.

In the end, Lester Scheff and Elizabeth Meyers split the $1000 first-place prize. Jimmy Solomon and Hattie Waldron split the $350 second-place prize, and Earl Waldron and Evelyn Fries split the $150 third-place prize.

That night, Lester and Elizabeth along with the Waldrons returned to perform an exhibition dance for the crowd.

The record set in Davenport was soon broken. Marathon dancing continued in popularity into the 1930s before fading away with recovery from the Great Depression and the start of World War II.

We aren’t sure if we want to rest our feet or have our teeth checked after researching for this blog. Maybe we will just take a nap in honor of these hard-dancing people of the past.

(posted by Amy D.)

Resources:

  • The Daily Times, September 7, 1928. Pg. 32
  • The Daily Times, September 12, 1928. Pg. 6
  • The Daily Times, September 13, 1928. Pg. 22
  • The Daily Times, September 15, 1928. Pg. 4
  • The Daily Times, September 17, 1928. Pg. 8
  • The Daily Times, September 18, 1928. Pg. 11
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, September 20, 1928. Pg. 14
  • The Daily Times, September 21, 1928. Pg. 5
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, September 26, 1928. Pg. 18
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, September 27, 1928. Pg. 21
  • The Daily Times, September 29, 1928. Pg. 4, 19
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, October 1, 1928. Pg. 15
  • The Daily Times, October 2, 1928. Pg. 5
  • The Democrat and Leader, October 2, 1928. Pg. 2
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, October 4, 1928. Pg. 2
  • The Daily Times, October 6, 1928. Pg. 4
  • The Daily Times, October 8, 1928. Pg. 6
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, October 10, 1928. Pg. 2
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, October 12, 1928. Pg. 30
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, October 16, 1928. Pg. 14
  • The Daily Times, October 16, 1928. Pg. 6
  • The Daily Times, October 17, 1928. Pg. 6
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, October 17, 1928. Pg. 19
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, October 29, 1928. Pg. 2, 15
  • The Daily Times, October 29, 1928. Pg. 6
  • The Daily Times, October 31, 1928. Pg. 1

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