As dim as the outlook for the long-stressed U.S. economy looks, and as tough as the recession has been so far, at least we can console ourselves with this: No one has reached into the fiery depths of hell to bring back the dance marathons of the ’30s.
Variously referred to as a dance of death, a “palace of wasted footsteps” or a “corn and callous carnival,” the fad of the dance endurance contest that started in the 1920s swelled into one of the cruelest means of survival during the Great Depression. The spectacle of desperate, hungry hopefuls submitting to weeks and even months of physical exhaustion for a bleak chance at prize money — and for the amusement of wealthier ticketholders — was depicted in Sydney Pollack’s 1969 film “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” But for the most part, this singularly punishing form of exploitainment has all but vanished from American history.
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.
Most of all, Havoc thought “Gypsy” sugarcoated the woman it dubbed Momma Rose. In reality, Havoc told the New York Times’s Alex Witchel in 2003, “My sister was beautiful and clever — and ruthless. My mother was endearing and adorable — and lethal.”
One is inclined to believe her. Havoc, born Ellen Evangeline Hovick, was thrust onstage at the age of 2, when she was known as “Baby June, the Pocket-Sized Pavlova.” If there was some truth in “Gypsy,” a chunk of it was expressed in the song “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” Havoc’s gimmick was dancing on her toes; the novelty of this from a blue-eyed tyke in a baby bonnet had audiences enthralled around the country. She was kept out of school and dragged around the vaudeville circuit throughout her childhood, performing three or four shows a day. She also appeared in film shorts with actor Harold Lloyd.
By the time she was 13 (or maybe a little older — her exact age was always fuzzy as her mother possessed several birth certificates for her), Havoc had had enough. She ran off with a boy from her stage act — “Gypsy” got that part right. But in the musical she’s never heard from again. In fact, Havoc and her beau were hunted down by her mother, who tried to shoot the boy — and at the police station, no less.
The boy survived, but the marriage didn’t. And with her mother focused on her sister’s career, and the unschooled Havoc barely able to read and write, her only means of survival turned out to be that catchall for other young, fit, jobless victims of the Depression: dance marathons.
They were an offshoot of the craze for social dancing in the early years of the 20th century. Havoc was 14 when she entered her first one. She lasted through three years of them, logging thousands of hours at a time. Her longest was reportedly 3,000 hours, or more than four months of staying on her feet and sleeping only in 15-minute intervals. Perhaps her childhood of near-marathon performances had hardened her.
Havoc was resilient enough to become one of the circuit’s regulars, which meant earning some money under the table. By the time she stumbled through her last contest, she’d had a baby by one of the marathon promoters (Havoc’s only child, April Hyde, who died in 1998).
And she had reams of racy material, which she later plowed into her first memoir, “Early Havoc,” and then into “Marathon ’33.”
“This was the formative experience of her life,” says Marshall, the director. “It’s the reason the play meant so much to her, and in her later years she was always promoting it and trying to get people to put it on. . . . She felt that the forge of her character was the dance marathon. She hated it, but she was indebted to it. It made her the woman she was.”
Now a single mother, Havoc left the marathons and found work in legitimate theater. She landed her big break in 1940, in the Rodgers and Hart musical “Pal Joey,” alongside another young talent making his breakthrough: Gene Kelly.
Film roles followed. Her most acclaimed was in Elia Kazan’s 1947 “Gentleman’s Agreement,” with Gregory Peck, which exposed anti-semitism. Havoc carried off a complicated part with a mix of coolness and sympathy, perhaps drawing on her own tough shell and churning interior: She played a Jewish secretary passing as a gentile, afraid that her firm’s recent policy to hire Jews would admit the “bad ones” and make things worse for her.
Havoc worked in television in the 1950s, became the artistic director of the New Orleans Repertory Theatre in 1970, published another memoir and went on tour with her one-woman show, “An Evening with June Havoc.” She died on her farm in Connecticut, surrounded by a menagerie of animals, having survived an incredible nine decades in the entertainment business.
Her play was considered experimental when she persuaded Lee Strasberg of the Actors Studio to help produce it. She wanted to give audiences the feel of the ordeal, so all the interactions among the characters happen while the dancing is going on and a live band is playing. (The setup will sound familiar if you’ve seen “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Havoc’s writings were among the sources for it.) The action is peppered with vaudeville routines, as were common. There’s a wedding between two contestants and a tooth-pulling. With a cast of 30, it’s no wonder the play is rarely performed, Marshall says.
“Our biggest challenge is making sure this constant chaos allows us to get the story told,” he says. “She was really not a playwright.” Still, he was drawn to the work because it and Havoc’s first book are among the few first-person chronicles of the dance craze that took a ghastly turn before burning out entirely.
“I’ve been working with this for months, and it still boggles my mind that it happened,” he says. “One of the things she described is how the contestants shaved onstage, wrote letters, washed themselves, ate while keeping their feet moving, even had sex under blankets on the dance floor. June was freaked out by that.”
Also mind-boggling: That the teenager kept her head about her in that swamp, shook off the horrors and went on to long and sustained success.
“Both June and the country came out of it,” Marshall says. “And they came out of it better than they went in.”
at Theatre II in the Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Performances run Friday through Aug. 25 (pay-what-you-can preview Thursday and pay-what-you-can performance Aug. 1.). Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets $35-30; $32-27 for students, seniors and active-duty military. Children younger than 18 admitted free with an adult paying full price (space permitting, limit five). 703-998-4555 or visit americancentury.org.