With ILHC and Camp Hollywood fast approaching, the idea of competition is in the air. This prompted me to share with you all about one of the biggest competitions back in the actual swing era besides the Harvest Moon Ball, The International Jitterbug Championships also known as the The Swingeroo.
Swivel Magazine Article
Peter Loggins originally wrote about this topic for Swivel magazine, a swing dance publication which was produced in the 90’s. An online version of this document can be found here and is posted below for your convenience.
The Biggest Contest
by Peter Loggins
In the summer 1939 Los Angeles was a hot bed for big bands and swing dancers alike. With Artie Shaw’s Orchestra on the bill, the Palomar Ballroom on Vermont and 3rd was possibly THE center of attention in the beginning of June. Upon entering the Palomar to see the great big band, dancers were greeted by promotional posters advertising the “International Jitterbug Championships” To Artie Shaws and Ken Bakers Orchestra’s ! To be held June 18th 1939 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Cash prizes over 2,500 dollars to be awarded !!! Dancers looked upon this contest as a chance to finally prove themselves.
Excited dancers chatted amongst themselves to see who would be the favorites and who had the most confidence. Early favorites were Jimmy Renkin and his partner, and Dean Collins and Jewel McGowan. In the weeks to come dancers started practicing their routines using all the tricks in the book to help them catch the eyes of the judges. The big debate was over who’s style of dancing would suit Artie Shaw’s Orchestra, swing or lindy? Roy Damron and Snooky Bishop were favorite show stoppers, coming from Alhambra and representing their troupe, “The Alhambra Alligators.” Hal Takier and Betty Roeser, from Redondo Beach, represented the famous “Ray Rand Swingers,” which the great Maxie Dorf was also part of. On many occasions Hal and Dean argued over who would win the upcoming contest that brought so many, many sponsors under the main Palomar leadership.
By Sunday the 18th over a thousand dancers had entered the contest. People from all over the United States had made the trip; representing over 20 states and 6 foreign countries! Tensions were high the night before, and many dancers could not sleep due to nervousness, however, all they had to do was do what they did best….. just dance. Lying awake at night, dancing in their heads, going over and over the routines they had been practicing only made them toss and turn in their beds. Restlessly they awaited sunrise, which would eventually heat the summer air above 80 degrees. Morning finally came.
The trip to the Coliseum was as emotional as 5 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 the grand 12,000 foot dance floor, with one side hosting the band stand 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 you could see 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 studio’s. With over 1,000 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 a.m. Ken Baker’s band swung into gear, kicking off the first rounds. The temperature was in the 70’s and rising. Early on, dancers Freddie Christopherson and his sister Betty won their Division. Jake Arkon and Marion Goldytook their Divison 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 Damron and Snooky Bishop.
After all the Professional Division first rounds finally ended it was time for lunch and intermission while Artie Shaw’s Orchestra took to the band stand. As soon as Artie broke 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 huge dance floor and not until they returned to their seats did the contest continue.
The Finals finally came in the late afternoon. Under the 80+ degree Southern California sun, Artie Shaw’s Orchestra played away as the division finalist danced against each other at the same time. At 6:00 p.m. the event came to end as the dancers’ final steps made the Coliseum attendance applause with approval.
The Awards Ceremony was next and was held at the Palomar Ballroom. Starting with the Navy Divison, the winners were 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 weighed nearly 200 lbs, went through their airsteps and routines with her partner Herman, who hardly tipped the scales at 100 lbs.
At last it was time to announce the winners of the Granddaddy of them all: The International Championships! First came the runners up: Hal Chavoor (Takier) and Betty Roeser, “The Spanish American” champions known for their fast foot work and ability to put on a good show at mach speed. Then the Big Winners were announced……… Jack Arkon 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 1930’s. Winning the International Jitterbug Contest lead them to perform in Ken Murray’s, “Black Out,” and at the El Capitan theater to name couple, not to mention appearing with Artie Shaw’s Orchestra and the other winners 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, and an old memory that only a few alive can share. The Coliseum is vacant of fans and Mr. Shaw doesn’t play the music that used to move the feet of dancers. Well, at least this event did take place, although long ago, and it gives us all something to dream about as we drive past the Coliseum: the biggest Jitterbug Contest in history……
Images of the Swingeroo
One of the difficulties of researching about this event is while it was held in the Los Angeles Coliseum, it was sponsored by the nearby Palomar Ballroom so some resources (to my personal belief) have incorrectly labeled pictures as at the Palomar Ballroom for the same event. Below are some photos from the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collections of what I believe to be from the event.
Here are the following square feet measurements of several iconic ballrooms associated by swing dancers across the United States:
- Avalon Casino Ballroom (California): 10,000 or 18,000 sq. ft (I’ve seen it listed differently on several sites)
- Palladium Ballroom (California): 11,200 square foot (Now called the Hollywood Palladium)
- Glen Echo Spanish Ballroom (Washington D.C.): 6,500 sq. ft
- Century Ballroom (Seattle): 2,000 sq. ft
The first time I encountered the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was oddly enough several years before I started swing dancing when I was a member of the rave community in southern California. At an event known as the Electric Daisy Carnival, I remember walking through the main gates and stopping of awe of the vastness of the crowd and the size of the coliseum, it was simply breathtaking.
I can’t even imagine walking through those same gates, hearing the legendary Artie Shaw performing with his full orchestra, and having come into view a massive dance floor with some of the best swing dancers in the world like Dean Collins competing while tens of thousands of swing dancers cheered them on.
Sadly on wikipedia and websites documenting the history of the Coliseum does not list this event. It is not mentioned in lieu of the Olympic and football related merits of the place. However I am sure to all who competed or watched that day or to those of us who have a curious interest in swing dance history, The Swingeroo has meaning.
- Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collections, http://digital.lapl.org/
- Jitterbuzz.com http://www.jitterbuzz.com/thifor.html
- Swivel Magazine’s Website, Peter Loggins’s article The Biggest Contest, http://replay.web.archive.org/20001008151248/http://www.swivelmag.com/swivel_home/dance/biggest.htm