Walk-A-Thon of 1931, My Grandma was a Contestant
The Great Depression
A product of the great depression, Walk-A-Thons and Dance-A-Thons drew participants who were desperate for money. Criticized for exploiting the less fortunate, and even being sadistic, they were eventually banned in some states as being cruel and inhumane.
A Little Background
What made my grandma want to enter a Walk-A-Thon? It's only one of the many questions I wished I'd asked her when she was alive.
A little background may help glean the answer. My grandmother, Margaret Hohnstein was born in 1914 to Sadie Hohnstein, the petite women in the front row on the left. Her childhood was far from easy, and in fact unstable. She had three brothers and two sisters, a wayward mother and a father who was never there.
Grandma's mother Sadie Hohnstein, Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles
Quotes one family member:
"Sadie was not easy to like, and I tended to always hold her in low regard for putting her younger kids in either an orphanage or, as in the case of Margaret, farming her out to relatives."
"But once I realized what a miserable man Peter Hohnstein was, how his treatment of his entire family was so callous and unfeeling, I had more respect for her ability at five feet tall to simply survive. He never stayed around their Colorado acreage long enough to do more than get Sadie pregnant again, then off to do "his" thing. When he came back the last time, having been gone nearly a year, and found Sadie pregnant, he deserted them all including his own raft of children and was never seen again. I know the story was he vanished in the gold fields or some such, but it was desertion plain and simple."
My grandmother never talked about being tossed around among relatives, having a father who was callous and unfeeling, or a mother who was "loose" with men.
But she did speak lovingly of her Aunt Blanche.
So maybe it was Aunt Blanche that gave her permission to enter the Walk-A-Thon, or maybe she didn't need permission. Maybe no one cared or even knew she was entered. Did anyone go to watch her?
Dance Marathon | Excerpt from America Dances! 1897-1948
Who will collapse
The guidelines to these types of events would vary. The couples either started out dancing and ended up walking, or just had to walk.
They were given a ten or fifteen minute break every hour or two. While they were on the floor they had to remain upright. If their knees touched the floor, or if they were down for any length of time, they were disqualified.
Comedians and vaudevillians were often hired for additional entertainment. At some, the contestants were made to sprint, or jump or do some silly thing to keep the audience amused. Ultimately, people paid admission in the hopes of seeing someone collapse.
Record Smashing Walk-A-Thon!
My Grandmother was 16 years old when she entered the Walk-A-Thon in September of 1931. Marvin Ellison was her partner. This was held at an amusement park called Lakeside, just outside of Denver, Colorado.
Amazing physical endurance
With 31 couples, the Walk-A-Thon continued through October, through Thanksgiving, through my Grandma's birthday in December when she turned 17. It continued through Christmas and they brought in the New Year of 1932.
By sometime in January it was a showdown between just the two couples, drawing record breaking throngs of audience members to see which couple would fall first.
In all, the Walk-A-Thon lasted 2,680 hours, which is just over 119 days. That's 17 weeks, or just over four months. At this time, it broke the amateur record by 700 hours, and the professional record by 400 hours.
They Shoot Horses Don't They?
In 1969, the film, "They Shoot Horses Don't They" was about a desperate group of characters competing in this type of marathon.
In preparing for the movie, Jane Fonda and Red Buttons stayed awake for two days, until Ms. Fonda started to hallucinate.
The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards and Five Golden Globes. Gig Young took home both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for best supporting actor. The New York Film Critics Circle awarded Jane Fonda Best Actress.
"The movie is far from being perfect, but it is so disturbing in such important ways that I won't forget it very easily, which is more than can be said of much better, more consistent films…¹
Trailer for Sidney Pollack's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"
Appears Near an End
It would only make sense that the last contestant standing naturally declared the contest over.
"Several times the management has announced that it appeared near an end," states an article in the Denver Post dated Tuesday, January 26, 1932.
Since it became obvious that neither of the two couples would concede, management decided that a tie would be declared at the stroke of midnight on Tuesday.
Excerpt from article
My Grandma was Famous!
Headlines! In the newspaper, and a Headliner at the Triple Feature!
Back then movies, or picture shows as they were called, were combined with live entertainment. The Walk-A-Thon champions were the first to appear.
In fact, the four winners, signed contracts to appear at the Empress Theater for an entire week following the conclusion of the contest.
At the first appearance, it was reported that my grandmother sang A "Boop-a-Doop" song. Maybe this sounded similar to the "Three Little Fishies" song she used to sing to me when I was little. Or maybe I'm just remembering the beautiful lilt in her voice.
Their pictures were in the paper, they were interviewed, applauded and lauded over. I can only imagine how gratifying this felt to my grandma.
Although Walk-A-Thons were portrayed darkly and criticized for being cruel that was never made apparent to me. What I experienced when my grandmother talked about those days, was a great sense of pride and accomplishment. I never thought she was desperate, I thought she was strong willed, tenacious, and a gracious winner.
Articles from The Denver Post, January 1932Click thumbnail to view full-size
I don't remember exactly how much my grandmother said she won. Research shows that the average was $1,000 in prize money for these contests.
When I asked her what she did with the money, very matter of fact she just said, "My mother came into town and took it."
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