Date: Sun, 20 Oct 1996 06:08:42 -0400
From: "Barry A. Popik" Bapopik[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]AOL.COM
Subject: "MARATHON" and "-ATHON": Dance Marathons, Walkathons, Telethons, etc.
One hundred years ago, an event called the "marathon" was held for the
1896 Olympic Games. In less than two weeks, the New York City Marathon will
"Marathon" became well known as a test for endurance. I'll discuss this
by beginning with the second part first, and start with the "dance marathon."
There are two new books on this subject:
DANCE MARATHONS: PERFORMING AMERICAN CULTURE IN THE 1920s AND 1930s, by Carol
Martin. Jackson, Mississippi, University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
DANCE OF THE SLEEP-WALKERS: THE DANCE MARATHON FAD, by Frank M. Calabria.
Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993.
Surprisingly, you won't find this in the Encyclopedia of New York City,
but the Great American "Dance Marathon" Fad started in New York City, many
years before the New York City Marathon road race. On 18 February 1923,
Sunderland, England had started it all, and the Sunderland Magistrate later
refused to permit any more endurance tests, remarking, "It is an idiotic
idea, verging on lunacy" (NY Times, 11 April 1923, pg. 3).
New York City responded. In the Audubon Ballroom--now famous as the
murder site of Malcolm X--32-year-old Alma Cummings danced from March 30,
1923 at 6:57 p.m. until March 31, 1923 at 9:57 p.m.--27 straight hours. She
exhausted six male partners in the process.
The dance marathon was born.
It was from the start called a "marathon." The phenomenon was later
depicted in the novel and film, THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?
On 10 June 1928, promoter and publicist Milton Crandall held the "Dance
Derby of the Century" at Madison Square Garden. Health Commissioner Louis I.
Harris shut down the contest in its 482nd hour on July 1. Some years later,
many states (including NY) banned such contests after the deaths of some of
That's why it's called a "marathon," right?
The term "walkathon" dates from the early 1930s and is in the Dictionary
of Americanisms from 1932. (I have 1931.) It is the same as "dance
marathon," but was used to more accurately reflect what the "dancers" REALLY
The dance marathon clippings file in the NY Public Library's Lincoln
Center Performing Arts Library has a release that states "'OUR PLACE'
INAUGURATES WORLD'S FIRST 'DISCOTHON' ON SUNDAY, DECEMBER 5" . Nora
Hayden, the proprietor of "Our Place" at 148 East 48th Street, said, "I heard
enough about the great publicity and acceptance given the marathon dancing of
the late 20's and early 30's and some sports-minded friends of mine recall
the fabulous days of 6-day bike racing. So I thought it was about time to
kick off with a discotheque marathon. For want of a better name, I coined
'Discothon.' To my knowledge, no one else in the country has come up [with]
Wentworth & Flexner's DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN SLANG contains a listing of
suffixes and suffix words, but "-thon" is not there! Flexner's LISTENING TO
AMERICA and I HEAR AMERICA TALKING also miss the "marathon" and "-thon" idea
Jerry Lewis, of course, popularized the telethon. The "walkathon" no
longer involves dancing at all, but is a marathon for non-runners. There are
"talkathons" and many other "-thons." All emphasize extreme endurance.
Now for the first part, the origin of the marathon....