As a reminder of how low pop culture sank in the past, and of how relatively mild the current humiliations of “Survivor” and other reality-TV shows are, American Century Theater will perform the little-known play “Marathon ’33” at Arlington’s Gunston Arts Center starting Friday and continuing through Aug. 25. The 1963 script, which positions the audience as dance-marathon spectators, demonstrates “how the bottom has fallen out of civilization,” says American Century Theater founder Jack Marshall, who is directing the play. “It was a frightening phenomenon.”
Frightening because of the rampant corruption (winners were often fixed in advance and promoters took hefty cuts of the purse) and the grueling physical toll of the marathons. Participants had to remain upright and moving for 45 minutes out of every hour, around the clock, and as their stamina withered they could be forced into footraces, or risk elimination.
Their popularity as a spectator sport now seems barbaric, although part of the audience appeal was that tickets were cheap and you could stay as long as you liked. This 20th-century version of Roman gladiator games had such a controversial hold on the American public that some cities ended up banning the marathons. (Seattle, for example, prohibited the contests after a local woman tried to kill herself when she placed only fifth after 19 days.)
But the world revealed in “Marathon ’33” is not an entirely hopeless one. The play was written by a woman who had battled in the dance-marathon arenas and emerged not only intact, but with a place in show-biz history. She was June Havoc — otherwise known as “Baby June,” the younger sister of notorious stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.
Havoc, who died in 2010, contended that the marathons help make her tough — and who’s to argue, when she lived to be 97? She long outlasted her more-famous sister, whose memoirs of their childhood in the clutches of an indomitable stage mother inspired the 1959 Stephen Sondheim/Arthur Laurents musical “Gypsy.”
Havoc parried with a couple of memoirs of her own. She didn’t like “Gypsy,” which, after all, revolved around her sister and sidelined Havoc, who always maintained she was the more artistically talented of the two. Indeed, she sustained a thriving Broadway and Hollywood career, and earned a 1964 Tony nomination for directing “Marathon ’33,” which starred Julie Harris.