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Advertisement for Portland’s first Walkathon on February 19, 1931 which included a pass for free admission.

Portland was the birthplace of the Dance Marathon circuit in the Northwest. Some of the organizers who got their start at Lotus Isle went on to fame and fortune in larger cities. There were a number of innovative showmen who operated Walkathon organizations across the country after getting their start in Portland when Walkathon Fever hit Lotus Isle in 1931 and 1932.


Interior view of the Peacock Ballroom at Lotus Isle in August 1931, just days before it would burn to the ground.


As the world embraced this new fangled invention called a Radio, people began to talk and communicate via Radio Airwaves. The wireless signals received on their radios connected nearly everyone in town. With NBC, CBS, ABC, Mutual and other national networks, folks became connected with the world. As if by magic, the wooden box called a Radio could talk to them.

Many popular Radio Serials began streaming into everyone’s homes. There were variety shows, soap operas, mysteries and dramas that captured the attention of the masses who were just beginning to grasp the power of Radio. Movies would soon capture everyone’s attention and Television was just beginning to develop.

This was Radio’s time, and Live Radio Broadcasts from the Ballrooms of Amusement Parks were all the rage. People went there in droves to support their favorite contestants. They would pack a meal and hop on a streetcar, getting there in 15 or 20 minutes.

Promoters began advertising “Dance Marathons” as Walkathons to shake the bad reputation their scamming had gotten for them in the 1920s, all in hopes of attracting new audiences. The crowds flocked to Lotus Isle to see 56 couples who competed in an endurance contest that continued for several months. Walkathon Fever had a very positive impact on profits from Radio Advertising and Walkathon promotions. Teams of two contestants could win thousands of dollars in cash and prizes.

A typical Walkathon was in a hall decorated with patriotic bunting to spruce up the image of the event. Every Walkathon had their own rules, sets, music, players, spectators and promoters. Each Walkathon was well staffed with cooks, judges, trainers, doctors, dentists and nurses. Spectators paid 25 cents for admission or more for evenings with special entertainment. A popular band would play in the evening and they would listen to the radio or play popular music on a victrola during the day or while they were on breaks.


In 1931, Al Painter’s Walkathon Organization had live remotes on KEX Radio with Announcer Earl “Gabby” Fagan, a very talented organist  who was the Chief Master of Ceremonies. They introduced Vaudeville entertainment to the Walkathon.


Couples would compete in Walkathons at the magnificent Peacock Ballroom for thousands in cash and prizes. Several faux weddings were held in the Peacock Ballroom which was large enough to hold over 6,600 people.



Leo Seltzer

Making ends meet was a very big challenge to nearly everyone at this time in history. Twenty-six year old Leo Seltzer, a former film publicist, owned a chain of theaters in Portland. After investigating his rapidly declining business, he determined it was attributed to Walkathon Fever. By 1931, the country had endured a couple years of the Great Depression and people lost interest in the movies. His theaters were empty, so Leo Seltzer set out to ‘Legitimize’ this dance marathon business with a shady past.


Leo A. Seltzer started the American Walkathon Company which was billed as the “Best Walkathon Organization” in the United States.


Leo Seltzer advertised his Walkathons in Billboard Magazine on December 29, 1934. His organization was headquartered at the Arcadia Gardens Ballroom in Chicago. He maintained additional staff at Walkathons in the Coliseum in Chicago and in Birmingham, Alabama.


Last updated 10-18-16


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