June 21, 2018
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Dirty dancing targeted by Bangor reformers a century ago

By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN

Bangor’s reformers attacked immoral dances a century ago as part of a crusade of righteousness sweeping the nation. Would “ragging” go the way of liquor, gambling and prostitution? If Alderman Daniel J. McGrath of Ward Seven had his way, it would.

“Are the seductive tango and the enlivening turkey trot doomed in Bangor….?” a Bangor Daily News reporter wanted to know on Dec. 3, 1913. McGrath, known as a proponent of “vigorous municipal reform,” said the police should abolish or at least regulate dances like the aforementioned athletic hijinks. One little number known as the Kitchen Sink was said to be the worst of all the new dances seeping into the nation like a moral infection.

Chief of Police Lindley Gilman had just shrugged when asked for his opinion at a recent city council meeting.

“He doesn’t dance the turkey trot himself, but he has a deep suspicion that Patrolman [James] Reagan is practicing some of the steps in the detention room when nobody is looking,” wrote the reporter, who was having trouble taking the issue seriously.

He included a little editorial within his news story about why the city should stay away from the whole subject: “…dancing is a form of art; and when the police undertake to become censors of art, the result is always ridiculous.” Of course, there were “standards of propriety,” but these standards were “mighty seldom violated at public gatherings of young people.”

What about the possibility of “discrimination,” the reporter wanted to know. If the tango was permitted at private parties at places like Society Hall, a privately owned ballroom where wealthy people gathered for social events, then shouldn’t it be allowed at City Hall dances, where anybody could attend who had the money for a ticket?

Alderman McCarthy asked for a legal opinion from City Solicitor Benjamin Blanchard. Could the city regulate these controversial dances without passing a new ordinance? He had his answer two weeks later.

“If the turkey trot, tango, rag and the kitchen sink are immoral or tend to corrupt morals of youth there is plenty of law to prevent them from being danced in the public dances of this city without the necessity of passing a new law,” Blanchard told the council as reported in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Dec. 18, 1913. State law already provided for fining or even imprisoning anyone who managed, advertised or participated in an immoral show. It would be a matter for the courts to decide, however, if these dances were immoral.

The regulation of immoral dances had a recent history in Bangor. Representatives of the Christian Civic League of Maine were always snooping around the Eastern Maine State Fair looking for racy tent shows. Just two years before, the league’s superintendent, the Rev. Wilbur F. Berry, had demonstrated his version of a “hoochee-coochee” dance he said had been performed at the fair in an effort to convince a committee of state officials including the commissioner of agriculture meeting at the Penobscot Exchange hotel in Bangor to cut the event’s state subsidy.

Berry’s performance wasn’t very convincing, and the complaint was dismissed.

The debate over local dances heated up last June when Father P. J. Garrity of St. John Catholic Church announced that “indecent dances” would be banned at dances in St. John School hall on State Street. These new dances “are ruinous to all sense of morality and decency,” said the priest.

The issue of dirty dancing had been elevated to the national and international stage sometime before that. Bangoreans were getting used to reading headlines from all over the world about the evils of these new dance steps and the ragtime music that accompanied them.

PREDICTS HELL FIRE FOR TANGO DANCERS: Mrs. Alma White of the Holy Jumpers Says Satan Admires Them Most of All Sinners, proclaimed a typical headline in the Bangor Daily News. Another one in the Commercial about this time announced that the Pope, the Queen of England and the Kaiser were leading a war in Europe against the dance.

A letter to the editor of the Commercial on Jan. 16, 1914 showed how the concern about the new dances was spreading into the countryside. The Rev. J. M. Harrington, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Orono, protested the failure of local officials there to enforce the law against the tango and other “degrading, savage” dances being performed in town hall. A dance was recently held “about which everyone is indignantly talking.” The janitor “should have called in an officer or turned off the electric current,” suggested the priest.

By Jan. 19, some remarkable progress was announced in Bangor. “NOW BANGOR HAS A REAL CENSOR: No Bunny Hug, Grizzly Bear or Kitchen Sink with Laffey on the Job,” said a headline in the Bangor Daily News.

“With the passing of an order by the city council forbidding ‘ragging’ at dances in City Hall, an officer has been on duty at recent affairs to see that the rule was enforced,” said the reporter. “Patrolman [Edward] Laffey happens to be the dance censor at present, and he is right on the job at all times.

“He is stationed at the door of the hall, and a word of caution has usually been sufficient for those who were inclined to fall back into the acrobatic stunts which have been the feature of dances up to now.”

Then, assuming his role as court jester, a role that newspaper reporters (or their editors) frequently donned in those days when they could no longer stop laughing, the reporter noted that some people were still getting away with the tango in “far off corners” of the City Hall dance floor.

“To remedy this, it has been suggested that a few police in plain clothes dance about the hall and keep an eye on the couples, or one of the night squads be stationed at various points in the balcony.” It was even rumored that dance lessons were being provided in the guardroom at City Hall. As for Patrolman Laffey, he had been seen stopping an unruly horse at Pol’s corner “with a five-step clutch.”

Meanwhile, at least one newspaper pundit viewed the tango controversy as a passing fad like the roller-skating craze in the 1880s, the bicycling phenomenon of the 1890s and the auto hysteria of the last decade. It was not that these interests had disappeared, but they had quickly become part of the culture. Novelty seekers (and the press) had moved on to other fixations like the tango.

“The tango, as all the world is dancing it, expresses nothing but an hour’s exuberance and demand for novelty, and in fact adds strength to the likelihood that its reign is to be fleeting,” wrote this newspaper philosopher in the Bangor Daily News on Jan. 31, 1914.

The backlash against immorality continued to spread into the country towns around the Queen City of the East, however. DEXTER WOULD BAN THE TANGO: Movement There to Prohibit “Ragging” and Even Hesitation Waltz in Dance Halls, reported the town’s correspondent to the Commercial on Feb. 9. Who knew where this might end?

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. A new book of his columns, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.


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