At Our Leisure: The Highs and Lows of Marathon Dancing, April 1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today’s “At Our Leisure” entry highlights a wacky press photograph, taken on this day in 1927, from the Homestead’s collection showing two couples in dance positions, which doesn’t sound too nutty put like that.  But, what about if it is added the one of the couples was referred to as “Mr. and Mrs. Highpockets” and consisted of “Sky High” Madison, said to be the world’s tallest man at 7’6″ and Gertrude Hall, his female counterpart, listed as being 7’3″.

Mr and Mrs Highpockets photo 11 April 1927
This press photograph, dated 11 April 1927 and from the Homestead’s collection, shows circus performers Gertrude Hall (said to be 7’3″) and “Sky High” Madison (towering at 7’6″) and another couple preparing for a dance marathon, held in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles on the 21st.

Not only that, but the two, who were performers in a Los Angeles-area circus, were said in the caption to be preparing for a marathon dance contest, to be held on the 21st.  Madison and Hall towered over an average size couple also entered in the contest.  Behind the quartet are some of the elements of the circus grounds, as well.

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Los Angeles Times, 16 April 1927.

In an age of fantastical fads, such as flag pole sitting and goldfish swallowing contests, marathon dancing was one of the more popular and the contest for which the two couples posed was at a ballroom in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles.  It was reported that 700 participants were entered for a chance to win a cash prize of $1,000, a hefty sum ninety years ago.

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Times, 23 April 1927.

What set this marathon apart from most others was that it was literally a marathon in that, as noted in a 16 April 1927 article from the Los Angeles Times, participants “will take to the open road and head for Los Angeles by way of Washington street . . . no stopover privileges will be allowed . . . the total distance is estimated at seventeen miles.”  Accompanying cartoons poked fun at the contest with some clever gags.  Apparently, the outdoor part was scrapped and it was decided to hold the contest indoors at the El Patio dance hall, the original starting point in Venice.

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Times, 23 April 1927.

There were still ten couples participating when, nineteen hours later at near Noon the following day, the marathon was halted by order of the city’s health officer “for the good of the contestants and spectators alike.”  It turned out there were some fifty participants who wound up at hospitals and “others tottering around in El Patio dance hall looking more dead than alive, and some weeping hysterically.”

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Times, 23 April 1927.

While those who put on the event said they would have continued the marathon until there was a sole couple to claim the $1,000 prize if not stopped, it was decided to divide the purse among the 20 survivors.  Of course, at $50 a person, it is assumed that the money went towards treating whatever ailments befell the dancers during the ordeal!  A little blurb in the sports section of the Times cracked that the marathon should have ended at the Patton state hospital for mental health patients near San Bernardino.

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Times, 24 April 1927.

More details in the paper are of interest.  It was stated that, of the fifty persons taken to Orthopaedic Hospital downtown, only a few had serious aliments, although all taken there were “in a state of collapse.”  One man was advised to stay for a few days for observation, but declined and went home.  It was stated that, by 11 a.m., those still on the floor were only able to continue on sheer willpower and that further exertion would do permanent damage.  It was also said the air inside the hall was “foul and unfit to breathe.”

Dr. Parrish, the health officer added:

It is one of the functions of the public health officer to take care of the public health if the public doesn’t know how to do it themselves.

He went on to suggest that those who went further than their endurance would allow “will feel the effects on their health the rest of their lives.”  Toward the end of the event, dancers were shoe-less and the orchestra had long departed “and a phonograph seemed to torture the dancers with its mechanical music.”  It got to the point that

Shortly after midnight the dance floor had welcomed unto its waxed bosom the skull of many an exhausted dancer, both male and female.  The cracking of heads on the floor popped out with horrible booming time after time.

Bystanders then rushed out on the floor to carry out the dancer to a waiting ambulance.  It was said that a girl laid her head on the shoulder of her partner, tears streaming “on his already-soaked shirt” while he implored, “C’mon, baby, keep it going, honey!”  Finally, when Parrish called a halt to the sad proceedings,

The contestants were herded out into a patio adjoining the dance hall.  They oozed around the fountain and flopped there in the sun, a sorry-looking lot . . . [as photographers snapped images] one of the lady participants yelped out in protest: “Aw, for cryin’ out loud, how long d’ya think we’re going to sit in this hot sun? Watta ya think we are, anyway?”  A sheik reached out into the fountain, scooped up some water which he poured on the head of his partner, and she murmured, “Oo-o-o.”

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Times, 28 May 1927.

A little more than a month after the Venice debacle, Dr. Giles Porter, Parrish’s stand-in while the health officer was in Mississippi assisting with the devastation caused by massive flooding there, “informed the Police Commission that marathon dances should not be permitted unless time and distance are limited by regulation.”  This came after a film company sought “to conduct a marathon for colored dancers from Ocean Park to the end of the ‘W’ car line and back.”

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Times, 28 June 1927.

When the matter, however, came before the city council at the end of June it was stated that “the Council is helpless to legislate against marathon dancers” even though it and its Public Welfare Committee “declared that such dancers are injurious to the health of those taking part in them.”

Young people in every generation have their fads, some of them dangerous (or, at least, perceived as being so) and marathon dancing was one of those in the 1920s that drew a lot of attention.  Our photograph made it seem like the Venice contest was a fun and harmless one, but it turned out to cause a great deal of concern about the health of its participants.

NE-1711700-3405
The World War I registration card for Ralph E. Madsen (a.k.a. “Sky High Madison”), who was listed as engaged in “traveling moving picture/film” as an occupation.

Incidentally, while little is known about Gertrude Hall, who appears to have had other names in her circus career, “Sky High” Madison wound up being in circuses for many years and even made a few film appearances, including in a Harold Lloyd comedy.

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It’s a little faint on the 1930 census return sheet, but Ralph E. Madsen, sixth down in this image, is listed as a “Circus Exhibitor” when he lived with his parents and siblings in Bell, a suburb southeast of Los Angeles.

A native of Nebraska, born Ralph E. Madsen in 1897, “Sky High” lived in Los Angeles for a number of years, married in the early 1930s, and remained in the area until his death at age 51 in 1948.

 

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