On this date in 1937, Hal Ross launched the 1937 Derby Show on a triangle of land between Coast Highway and Hathaway Avenue in Seal Beach, probably in a large circus big top type tent.
To save the curious reader the trouble of pulling out (or googling) a map to look for Hathaway Avenue, there is no road by that name in Seal Beach today. Hathaway Avenue was built in 1931 and branched off from Coast Highway to offer a more inland route from Seal Beach into Long Beach, mostly through oilfields, where it connected with State Street — yet another street you won’t find on a modern street map of Long Beach.
This is probably still confusing because it’s difficult to picture where a road could branch off from Coast Highway in today’s Seal Beach. It would be easy to assume that Hathaway Avenue (sometimes called the Hathaway cut-off) was re-graded, built over and no longer exists. But It does still exist as shown in the photo below.
Here’s the solution to the puzzle. Hathaway Ave stretched from 8th Street in Seal Beach all the way up to the Traffic Circle in Long Beach where it connects with State Street. Both Hathaway Ave and State Street are now called Pacific Coast Highway. (There’s still a bit of Hathaway Avenue just past the Traffic Circle that stretches towards Signal Hill.)
In 1931, Coast Highway was not today’s Pacific Coast Highway. Beyond 8th Street, we now call it Marina Drive and it used to connect to Long Beach through Naples. This isn’t even the original Coast Highway route through Seal Beach, which used to run down Main Street to Central Avenue to Central Way along the marshy edge of Alamitos Bay that had since been filled with landfill as detailed in this post.
That’s a long digression before shifting to the real focus of today’s post — the “1937 Derby Show.” This event was called many things, a derby show, a walkashow, and a walkathon, but regardless of what it was called, the event operated under the principles of a dance-a-thon, a controversial form of public entertainment that was wildly popular during the twenties and the thirties. These events were the spiritual ancestors of roller derbies, televised wrestling, and much of today’s reality TV competitions.
The details vary, but the dance-a-thons were endurance tests that lasted for weeks. A set number of contestants were chosen (sometimes with ringers from management mixed in) to compete for a large cash prize. The rules for dancing were strictly enforced — no shuffling, feet must leave the ground or the contestants would be counted out of the competition. At first, there would be a ten minute rest period for every hour, but as time wore on, a minute would be shaved off the rest period until there was no break from dance. Popular entertainers were brought in to provide live music for the dancers, the crowd of ticket buyers, and sometimes even a radio audience. When the event started to become monotonous, the promoters would stage a marriage proposal between contestants or manufacture a drama or contrive a short-term contest to test the mettle of the exhausted sleep-deprived contestants.
The dance-a-thon craze was not without its critics. Doctors were concerned about the health effects of these endurance tests and a contestant had even died from a heart attack during a dance-a-thon. Some people found these events vulgar and seamy like a sideshow carnival. Many of the operators were scam artists, rigging the winners and sometimes even skipping town without paying anyone. This aspect of the dance-a-thons became even more pronounced in the thirties when desperate and out of work Americans were attracted to the large cash payouts. Winners ended up with a nice little nest egg. The losers had just wasted weeks of their lives and had worked their bodies and minds to the point of exhaustion and burnout — all for nothing.
In spite of the popularity of these events, laws were passed to either limit or outlaw dance-a-thon endurance test competitions. Promoters tried modifying these events just enough, they hoped, to bypass the new laws while still providing the same entertainment value. They also rebranded them as walkashow, walk marathons, and even derby shows.
On August 4th, 1937, the Seal Beach city council passed a walk-a-thon ordinance that allowed Hal J. Ross Enterprises to file for a license to hold a “1937 Derby Show” that was described as combination of athletic contests. The application fee was $500.
This was not the first event like this in Seal Beach. in 1930, the Anaheim Bay American Legion had held a 24-hour dance-a-thon at 8th Street and Ocean, but the Hal Ross event was going to last for weeks and would ultimately end prematurely due to legal issues. There will be more on this in a future post.
For now, to give a little flavor of what these events were like, here’s the coming attractions trailer for “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,” a 1969 film adaptation of Horace McCoy’s novel of the same name, starring Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin. McCoy had worked as a bouncer at one of these events, so his novel was based on firsthand experience.
Just imagine it’s Thursday night, August 26th, 1937, and similar entertainments are about to start in a large tent on a vacant patch of a land where Bay City Center on Pacific Coast Highway now stands.
– Michael Dobkins
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