Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Palladium and the Marathon craze

A marathon dance in 1910 in St Louis ended when it was called a draw and three prizes were awarded to three couples. As organizer of the benefit, Annie Jackson made the call. She was worried that the police would interfere if the marathon became too strenuous on the couples. Already that summer, marathons had been raided by police in San Francisco and Brooklyn and Annie didn't want any such trouble at her event. Also, the public attendance for the week had been exceptional so she could easily afford to pay each couple the $25 prize. That wasn't how the marathon dances craze of the later Jazz Age usually went. Typically, these things were 24/7, no-mercy, last-man-standing kind of endurance contests. The same themes of reality TV like Survivor, Idol and Dancing with the Stars, the dance marathon was the beginning of the stuff of American pop culture. Horace McCoy's book, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was made into a movie in the 1970s and it portrays the character, the hype and the seedy scenes of the marathon spectacle very vividly.

The Palladium building off Grand at Delmar and Enright was built as a Roller Skating rink in 1914 and a newspaper article told of Gene Rodemich's early St Louis Jazz band performing there. Music was changing from the Ragtime fad to the Jazz fad and the spectator sport of Roller Derby was evolving around the Rollerskating fad. On these roller skating rinks, the Marathon Dance Derby or "Walkathon" fad began.

Reliable information available about the Marathon craze is scarce and most of what is available assumes that it occurred only during the depression. But it was in at least two other cities besides St. Louis by 1910 and the last one in St. Louis was held at the end of the 1930s.

By 1950, the Club Plantation had seen it's best days. The club's old crowd had settled down to make baby-boom babies and didn't come out much anymore. The new younger crowd with their new music were making some new place crowded, like the beatniks over in the Gaslight Square area or the lounge crooners at the Chase Hotel.

Historically, St. Louis culture has a unique creative technique in finding the future trends - it takes the best of the past and brings it forward. So it doesn't seem strange that the Club Plantation's owner, Tony Scarpelli, had an idea to bring back some business to his place by bringing back the Marathon. He ran an ad in the entertainment trade journals for a revival of an authentic old-time Walkathon Derby in the authentic, historic Palladium building.

It's not known if his Walkathon revival ever happened. Shortly thereafter the Club Plantation was gone and Tony had gone into other business. But maybe years later, he saw the movie They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

And maybe years later, Tony saw the end of the 1970s when the younger crowd and their new music called Disco were dancing on Rollerskates in Roller Rinks.

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