Closing the Memory Hole: Remembering the Dance Marathons

“Marathon ’33”

“Man lives by a lingering ember,

“And while there are beautiful things to remember,

The ugly things, one should forget.”

—-“Things to Remember” from the musical “The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd”  by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse

Jews sometimes are criticized for evoking the Holocaust at every opportunity. Their explanation is that we “must never forget,” an argument I once thought was bizarre. “Who could forget the Holocaust?,” I wondered. Something so unique and horrible would be impossible to forget; it would be like pretending the Grand Canyon didn’t exist.

That was ignorant of me. Nations, religions, cultures and groups of all kinds are stunningly effective at forgetting historical episodes which challenge their self-image and most cherished illusions. Jews are rightfully and wisely vigilant at reminding the world of what was done to them as the rest of humanity passively looked on in the 30’s and 40’s, because their extermination at the hands of the Nazis is a prime candidate for history’s memory hole, where good and sensitive people, along with their nations, communities and cultures, dispose of memories too ugly to remember. Once the memories are gone, they no longer haunt us, it is true. They no longer teach or warn us, either. The ethical course of action is to remember our worst moments, and evoke them as often as possible. We can only be our best by admitting our worst.

This has never been clearer to me than now, as I direct a professional stage production of “Marathon ’33.” I was drawn to the project precisely because of this issue, and because it provided a rare opportunity for me to unite the two schizophrenic pursuits in my life, that of theatrical artistic director and ethicist. When one watches the show, an environmental theater recreation of the dance marathons of the 20’s and 30’s, the experience is reminiscent of being dropped into a horror movie or a “Twilight Zone” episode. Could this have really happened? Surely not. Surely Americans would never tolerate a form of entertainment in which fellow citizens were not only required to humiliate themselves for food, but also to place themselves in danger of madness, physical collapse, and even death for the entertainment of others. Not Americans. Not here! Yet it did happen, and happened for a more than a decade, thanks to the ravages of the national soul caused by the Great Depression that began in 1929.

Dance marathons began innocently as college stunts in the late 1920s, but when the Crash came and people started jumping out of windows, marathons quickly mutated into the most heartless form of profit-making entertainment ever to disgrace American shores. This was the U.S. of A. entrepreneurial spirit in its darkest form.

Promoters organized dance marathons as the perfect blend of cheap labor, soap opera sentiment, music, and sadism—and profited handsomely on the resulting carnage. Desperate, unemployed contestants agreed to dance until they dropped (they were only allowed 11 minutes of “rest” every hour, around
the clock, for thousands of hours—months—on end) in return for regular meals, with the added challenge of enduring variations on the dancing theme that turned them into the equivalent of gladiators or performing chimps. Spectators paid from ten cents to a dollar a day to watch, cheer, jeer, listen to music, and feel great about the
fact that they were better off than the poor saps being exploited.

They were saps too, however, because the “competition” was as fixed, as Monster Truck rallies and professional wrestling are rigged today. Many of
the contestants were actually regulars on the dance marathon circuit, and the unsuspecting local entrants who entered were usually sloughed off as the hours rolled on, thanks to sabotage, tricks, and psychological warfare. The marathon promoters made up rules as they went along, and those brave, exhausted kids who triumphed at the end were usually either hard-bitten veterans ready to move on to the next city and dance ordeal, or lucky tyros who would soon learn that big cash prize they thought they won had been reduced to pennies by charges for food, medical care, and lodging.

After the succession of suicides, heart attacks, crippling injuries and nervous breakdowns became too prominent to ignore (and the economy started improving) the dance marathons were banned by public health advocates in the 1940s.  Then they entered the dark memory hole where our culture stuffs embarrassments it would rather pretend never happened. The marathons might never have come out, either, were it not for the efforts of  the late June Havoc. The actress, once the perpetual-child vaudeville-circuit star billed as “Baby June” (later “Dainty June”) — yes, Gypsy Rose Lee’s younger sister, right out of the Sondheim–Stein musical “Gypsy”) avoided the soup lines by becoming one of those canny and ruthless dance marathon regulars. Later, when she was an established film and stage star (you can see her at her best in “Gentlemen’s Agreement”), she realized that it was the formative experience of her life that stiffened her spine to make it on Broadway and in Hollywood, which she did with success and versatility. In her two autobiographies, “Early Havoc” and “More Havoc,” June told the harrowing tales of her dance marathon traumas, and they supplied much of the inspiration and source material for both the book and Academy Award–nominated film, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” “Marathon ’33” was Havoc’s stage recreation of the marathons, which she co-directed on Broadway in 1963, garnering a Tony nomination. But despite her efforts, the Depression dance marathons continue to be too painful to popular history recall. “They Shoot Horses…” is almost never on TV; “Marathon ’33” is rarely produced or even mentioned. Come on, Americans would never stand for that!

At least we probably wouldn’t today. Although many of the slimy techniques used by the marathon promoters survive as standard gimmicks on TV reality shows, the motive for contestants now is instant celebrity, not survival. That’s progress, I suppose. Still, the dance marathons need to be lifted out of that memory hole, because what we can learn from them is crucial. They teach us that we are not so uncorruptible as we think, that we must be vigilant to hold on to our humanity in crisis, and that future generations will judge us, not by how we behaved when things were good, but how we treated each other when they were not.


Sources: New York Times

Facts: History Link

Graphic: Dennis DeLoria and The American Century Theater

NOTE: The above post includes material, in somewhat different form, that appears in the program of The American Century Theater’s production of “Marathon ’33” . The author is the same.

12 thoughts on “Closing the Memory Hole: Remembering the Dance Marathons

  1. “Total Dance Showdown! Coming this fall on TLC!”

    I had no idea. I’d heard about dance marathons, but I didn’t realize they worked that way. The parallels to modern reality TV are disturbing. And while reality shows may not take advantage of the desperately poor, I’m convinced that at least some of the performers are mentally impaired.

    By the way, when you say that Ms. Havoc was “an established adult film star,” you mean grown-up, right? There might be a better way to put that…

  2. We were shown “They Shoot Horses, don’t they?” at high school. Part of the mainstream English curriculum, but only because there was no “civics” stream in Australia, it was embedded in all lessons. .

    Those who don’t study history are condemned to repeat it – though you could say history never repeats, but is surely rhymes. .

  3. Really interesting post!

    Just one suggested place you might rephrase. You said ” Later, when she was an established adult film star….” I think that phrase has connotations you didn’t intend?

  4. DOWN THE MEMORY HOLE: the idea of rounding up thousands of innocent people and throwing them into concentration camps, based on their ethnicity — that could only happpen in Nazi Germany in the 1930s-1940s, correct? Never in America, right?

    And if some of you very young readers believe that, I have one word for you to Google; it is Manzanar.

  5. Pingback: Open Thread Link Farm: Yo-Yo in Spaaaaaaace Edition | Alas, a Blog

  6. Why, who could forget dance marathons when they’re depicted on popular television? Ok, popular television 40 yrs ago, but still, that’s something.

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