~ The Biggest Jitterbug Contest in History ~
By Peter Loggins edited by Tam Francis
I’m thrilled to share another article by dance historian Peter Loggins. I was fortunate to have Peter on staff when I published Swivel: Vintage Living Magazine. I’m happy to take it from the printed page to the digital world! Take it away Peter.
In the summer of 1939, Los Angeles was hot bed for big bands and swing dancers alike. With Artie Shaw’s Orchestra on the bill, the Palomar Ballroom on Vermont and 3rd St. was possibly THE center of attention in the beginning of June that year. Upon entering the Palomar to see the big band, dancers were greeted by a promotional poster advertising the International Jitterbug Championships to Artie Shaw and Ken Baker Orchestras. To be held June 18th 1939 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with cash prizes over $2,500 (41,000 in today’s dollars) to be awarded. Dancers looked upon this contest as a chance to finally prove themselves.
In the weeks to come, dancers started practicing their routines honing the tricks and footwork that would help them catch the judge’s eye. The big debate was over who’s style of dancing would suit Artie Shaw’s Orchestra, Swing or Lindy. Roy Dameron and Snooky Bishop were favorite show stoppers, coming from Alhambra and representing their troupe, The Alhambara Alligators. Hal Takier and Betty Roeser, from Redondo Beach, represented the famous Ray Rand Swingers, which the great Maxie Dorf was a part of. On many occasions, Hal and Dean argued over who would win the upcoming contest and marveled over so many sponsors coming together under the main Palomar leadership.
By Sunday, June 18th, over a thousand dancers had entered the contest. People from all over the United States had made the trip; representing over twenty states and six countries. Tension was high the night before, and many dancers passed a sleepless night. All they had to do was do what they did best–swing. But, lying awake at night, dancing in their heads, going over and over the routine, only made them toss and turn in their beds. They restlessly awaited sunrise which would bring a summer heat above eighty degrees.
The trip to the Coliseum was as emotional as the five years prior when the Coliseum hosted the 1932 Olympic Summer Games. Upon entering the great structure the dancers were met by over 26,000 fans. The middle of the would-be football field held a grand 12,000 sq. ft. dance floor, with one side hosting the bandstand for the orchestras, and the other side hosting the judges platform. The judges were dance directors sent in by different movie studios, and as they took the platform the crowd recognized the likes of Bill O’Donnell from Warner Brothers, Hermes Pan from RKO, Carlos Romero from Paramount, Nick Castle and Geneva Sawyer from 20th Century Fox along with other dance directors from other major studios. With over one thousand dancers entered in the categories of Professional and Semi-professional, smaller divisions were put together in order to run small groups of dancers at the same time, making them work their way up the ladder to the finals.
At 9:00 am Ken Baker’s band swung into hear, kicking off the first rounds. The temperature was in the 70s and rising. Early on, dancers Freddie Christopherson and his sister Betty won their division. Jake Akron and Marion Goldy took their division as well, upsetting one of the favorites, Dean Collins and Jewel McGowan. Another team to win their division was Hal Chavoor (Takier) and Betty Roeser, upsetting another favorite, Roy Dameron and Snooky Bishop.
After all the professional division first round finally ended it was time for lunch and intermission while Artie Shaw’s Orchestra took to the bandstand. As soon as Artie busted into one of his more popular songs, thousands of fans broke through police lines and onto the field, causing a mild riot. Dancers from the stands were swinging all over the dance floor, and not until they returned to their seats did the contest continue.
The Finals came late in the afternoon under the 80 plus degree Southern California sun. Artie Shaw’s Orchestra played as the division finalist danced against each other at the same time. At 6:00 pm the event came to a close as the dancers final steps brought the Coliseum spectators to a roar of applause.
The awards ceremony was held at the Palomar Ballroom beginning with the Navy division winners, Danny Stephenson and Annabelle Hoffman. The National Champions came next: Herman Harrison and Ernestine Davidson, a black couple from Los Angeles who had the crowds roaring with laughter when Ernestine, who weighted nearly two hundred pounds went through their airsteps and routine with her partner Herman, who barely tipped that scales at a hundred pounds.
At last it was time to announce the winner of the granddaddy of them all: The International Champions. First runner up was Hal Chavoor Takier and Betty Roeser, “The Spanish American” Camps known for their fast footwork and ability to put on a good show at mach speed. First place went to Jack Akron and Marion Goldy from Los Angeles. Jack and Marion lived in the Miracle Mile area of Wilshire Blvd. and had localized many of the favorite spots in L.A. since the mid 1930s. Winning the International Jitterbug Contest led them to perform in Ken Murray’s Black Out and at the El Capitan theatre to name a few, not to mention appearing with Artie Shaw’s Orchestra in the weeks following the contest.
This day in history is now nothing more than a few rare, fragile, and yellowed newspapers gently tucked away, an old memory that few alive can share. The coliseum is vacant of fans, and Mr. Shaw had gone to the great orchestra in the sky, but we can remember and dream about the biggest Jitterbug contest in history and imagine for one minute, that we were there.
Have you ever been in a Jitterbug Contest? Been to see one live? What was your favorite part? Do you think contests are silly or do you like them? I’d love to hear about it. I’ve got a lot of scenes in the novel and have used these stories as inspiration for my fictional characters.
Tam Francis is writer, blogger, swing dance teacher, avid vintage collector, and seamstress. She shares her love of this genre through her novels, blog, and short stories. She enjoys hearing from you, sharing ideas, forging friendships, and exchanging guest blogs. For all the Girl in the Jitterbug Dress news, give-aways, events, and excitement, make sure to join her list and like her FB page! Join my list ~ Facebook page