Dancing ‘Til You Drop … And Those That Survived Got the Cash Prize!

The original Fun Zone with the Pavilion in the background early 1940s.

The original Fun Zone with the Pavilion in the background early 1940s.

Remember that great movie from 1970, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? starring Jane Fonda and Gig Young, which won Gig Young the Golden Globe Award and Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor? The movie was centered in a shabby ballroom on the Santa Monica pier where couples entered a marathon dance contest and the last couple still dancing wins the cash prize. The marathon goes on for weeks with disastrous affects at every dance turn, until it becomes so gruesome that by the end of the movie no one ends up a winner.

Recently I watched the movie again and it brought back my own memories of happy times we spent at our favorite summer escape place, Balboa Island. The Balboa Pavilion opened in July 1906 and was just across the bay from our summer home at Newport. It’s now an historical landmark and has been maintained for over 100 years; still the center of fun and sun.

In the days we spent there, you could only get to the island and pavilion by either the ferry for one nickel (which I loved) or by boat. We would sometimes row over in my little white rowboat with blue trim called the Patricia Ann and anchor or tie it along the landing or beach it on the sand along with the many other boats and spend the entire day.

I especially loved the “Balboa Fun Zone” which was a small sort of makeshift carnival/amusement park. It was built around 1936 and is still there to this day on Mr. Abbott’s Landing he created by bringing soil over from the mainland and planting trees on the Balboa Peninsula. The little Fun Zone covered the entire block on the bay front side and had a Ferris wheel that always scared me the way it rocked back and forth, especially when it arced over the top and would swing down the front and then up the backside and over another turn. There was also a merry-go-round and some small carnival like shops where you could get hot dogs, hamburgers, popcorn, peanuts, cotton candy, cold drinks, beer, and of course my favorite was Delaware Punch, which unfortunately they’ve stopped making. Today however, there are shops, restaurants, and more rides at the Fun Zone.

I remember one summer they held this dancing competition on the island and of course we had to go see it for ourselves in the shadow of the old pavilion where courageous souls literally danced their soles out until they dropped from sheer exhaustion. They were dancing for money, kiddies, and the stakes were high.

The couples had these big numbers pinned to the back of their clothing so they could be identified, especially by the gamblers who were placing bets among each other as to which couple would win. For the dancers, the ultimate goal was to win the big jackpot of prize money. I don’t remember hearing the exact amount ever mentioned, but it was a coveted prize.

I went with the William Glassells of Glassell Park, because my mother would never let me go alone. The one time she did go with me, I remember how disgusted she was, because she saw them carry out a few couples that were practically dead on their feet. Seeing the movie again reminded me of how exhausting and life threatening the dance marathon actually was.

People brought box lunches and had picnics; staying late into midnight and many stayed all night huddled in the makeshift bleachers, still betting on the winners. I’m pretty sure we had to pay something to sit in these improvised seats to watch the “Show of Survival” spectacle.

When we would become exhausted ourselves, just from watching the exhausting marathon dancers barely hanging on to each other, we would head over to the big pier for some fresh air. We would watch people fishing for their dinner and showing off their prize catch of the day.

I don’t remember how many hours and days or weeks it went on, or who finally won, but looking back, I’d love to see it all again.

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