First dance marathon ended early, but set stage for craze

Posted May 01, 2010, at 5:26 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

Local people loved to dance. They danced for charity, they danced for prizes, they danced for the fun of it. They loved novelty. The latest novelty a century ago was the dance marathon. The first one in the area, according to the Bangor Daily Commercial, began at a hall in Brewer on the night of April 28, 1910, and ended in the wee hours the next morning.

“WHITE FACED, ALMOST FAINTING, PLUCKY GIRLS DANCED ON,” said the sensational headline on the Commercial story. “Supreme Endurance Test in Real Marathon Dance in Brewer Last Night — Four Couples Went Two Hours With Never a Pause.” As readers can see, dance marathons had not yet developed into the crazy extravaganzas they became in the 1920s and ’30s, but central Mainers had the spirit right from the beginning.

The lead paragraph on the story proclaimed, “What was probably the first Marathon Waltz ever held in New England was danced from late Thursday night to early Friday in Central Hall, Brewer and proved to be not only a great attraction but a contest of endurance the like of which has rarely been seen around here.”

The first in New England? Who knows. Such unprovable claims were not uncommon in the Bangor papers.

The organizer of this festive occasion was a Bangor entrepreneur with the appropriately jaunty name of Kid Meyers. Attendees were mostly from across the river in the Queen City, said the newspaper. Oddly, there was no mention of a band. Perhaps a Victrola was the source of the music. Victrola concerts were a popular form of entertainment back then.

The dancing started shortly before 11 p.m. About a dozen couples took to the dance floor and, “as they grew tired, leg weary, back weary, dizzy, the strain under which they were laboring began to tell on them.”

The first contestants to quit were William Finnigan and his unidentified partner. They had been “doing the grind” but 13 minutes. After 38 minutes, Joe Cox and partner decided they had had enough “whirling.”

Every little sign of stress was described in minute detail.

“As the long, long minutes dragged on the faces of the dancers underwent considerable change. Some who started in laughing and talking slowed down to merely a slow, steady waltz. Many of the girls showed that the pace was telling on them with their set faces, drawn look around the mouths and staring eyes,” wrote the re-porter, who, doubtlessly dying of boredom, looked for descriptive flourishes to pep up his story.

Next out of the running were “Beauty” Megan and Miss Sadie Hunter after waltzing an hour and 20 minutes. In a few more minutes, Will Smith and Miss Katie Norton quit. Charles Voyal and Miss Griffin slowed down to a walk and then bowed out in an hour and 42 minutes.

That left four couples: Charles Knaide and Miss Lynn; “Babe” Fitzgerald and Miss Kitty Jackson; Vaughn Campbell and Miss Lena Sprague; and B.J. Cunion and Miss Kennedy.

Apparently the judges got bored, too, because they ended the festivities at 1 a.m., and none too soon. One girl was alleged to have turned “chalk white” and was unable to talk plainly.

The remaining couples lined up. It was time to award the prizes. Miss Lynn received the lady’s first prize — a gold watch. The man’s prize — gold cuff studs and scarf pin — went to B.J. Cunion. Apparently no prizes were on hand, however.

“They may get the prizes by calling on Kid Meyers, the man who ran the dance,” concluded the reporter.

This novice event blossomed into a fad that would make entertainment headlines across the nation in a few years as young men and women competed for much larger prizes in contests that lasted for weeks and even months. One of the most famous of these events was the dance marathon in 1933 at the Paradise Pavilion, located on the Penobscot River in East Hampden (across from where Pat’s Pizza is today, according to local historian Dick Shaw).

The marathon had been going for close to six weeks when one freezing December night at around 11 p.m., a northeast wind toppled the building’s chimney, causing the furnace to “explode.” Within half an hour the tinderbox was burned flat. Three people died at the scene and a fourth at the hospital.

Many more would have died if Hampden police hadn’t enforced a state ban on dancing commercially on Sundays by raiding the place some weeks earlier. The fire was on a Sunday night and only about 40 people were in the building, including 11 dancing couples competing for the $1,500 first prize. A grand jury refused to in-dict the dance’s sponsor on manslaughter charges.

Marathon dances had come a long way since the first one in the Bangor area was held in 1910. Outspoken ministers railed against them. Public officials in many places sought ways to keep them out of their towns. Legislators were passing laws to regulate them. The simplicity that had characterized Kid Meyers’ production had been turned into something else — something the public would no longer tolerate.

An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire is available at bookstores. Comments about this column may be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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