Spirit

In Depression’s dark days, they danced until they dropped

These days, El Torreon at 3101 Gillham Plaza is an event space. But in the 1930s, its massive ballroom was the scene of a popular event of the day: dance marathons.
These days, El Torreon at 3101 Gillham Plaza is an event space. But in the 1930s, its massive ballroom was the scene of a popular event of the day: dance marathons.

The dance marathon surely was the granddaddy of TV reality shows.

Picture it: Couples staggering miserably around a ballroom as thousands of spectators encourage favorites, jeering when competitors finally collapse in exhaustion.

Just a few nights of harmless spectacle? No, in 1932 at the El Torreon Ballroom, 3101 Gillham Plaza, the agony of the calves went on for 117 days.

Also called walkathons, they distracted from the Great Depression’s grim days. How grim? Some contestants, fed regularly for a change — they got 10-minute breaks every hour — actually gained weight. Some fed their minds, reading books while circling the floor.

From William Redding’s “Tom’s Town: Kansas City and the Pendergast Legend,” “The sweating, rude, shoving, cheering crowd in El Torreon gave itself up joyously to pure animal emotion …

“Some of the fans lived on the benches in order to stay close to their adored champions. An intense rivalry developed between the partisans of … youthful sweethearts planning to get married on the prize money ($1,000), and the wedded couples who were trying to collect something for the grocery bill.”

Sadism figured in, too. Waiting for the sleep-walkers to crash and weep was akin to attending NASCAR for the crashes.

After three weeks, Kansas City Manager Henry McElroy stepped in to stop it. City inspectors cited fire code violations. The real reason, says Redding, was some disagreement between promoters and Johnny Lazia, north side mobster.

Offers to improve the safety situation were rejected. When a reporter asked on what grounds McElroy was acting, the Pendergast puppet sneered, “Coffee grounds.”

This was regarded as wit, since Lazia forced eating establishments to buy his sacks of cheap coffee. Supplementing gambling dens and loan sharking, his soft drink company similarly controlled entertainment concessions.

The dancing/dragging continued under federal court order.

One of the promoters presciently quipped: “I’ve never seen a married couple win a walkathon.” When it was over on May 30, the winners promptly wed … at the El Torreon, dressed as George and Martha Washington. Top that, Kardashians!

It wasn’t the only union. A former burlesque comedian tired of the dirty talk hired on as a master of ceremony for 10-hour shifts. The teenager had his eye on a pretty cashier, a Kansas Citian named Edna Stilwell. She soon became wife, stage partner, gag writer and business manager to Red Skelton.

Offering Charleston room for 4,000 flappers, the ballroom opened in 1927’s happier days. All the jazz greats played El Torreon. A supper club for a while, it went through a roller-skating rink phase, before music resurged: B.B. King, Van Morrison, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Frank Zappa. It has also housed a church, and today is offered for events.

  Comments