The Spirit of Valentine’s Day with Crazed Love Competitions

Let’s take a look back at Valentine’s Day history in Chicago. For decades, couples risked everything from arrest to their lives in order to compete for a little loving notoriety. Even love and dance in Chicago can have a taste of scandal in Chicago history…

Record-Breaking Ridiculousness

valentine's day history in chicago dance marathon 1923
A glimpse at a 1923 dance marathon. Image via Wikimedia

In the early 20th century stupendous human stunts and record breaking were all the rage. Dance marathons were a guaranteed crowd pleaser. In order to see couples compete for weeks or even months at a time, Chicagoans would crowd ballrooms like the Trianon in Woodlawn, the Merry Garden in Lakeview, or the Coliseum in what is now called the South Loop.

These nearly endless embraces weren’t as romantic as the idea might sound. Dance marathons were lengthy and degrading endurance contests. As you can see in this picture from 1936, these people are exhausted and haggard. They look less like glamorous lovers and more like life-drained zombies.

As early as 1923, Chicago’s Chief of Police Morgan Collins banned dance marathons. He claimed such dancing to be statutory riot. He even compared dance marathons to bull fighting and suicide. Dance marathons were indeed often ruinous to dancers’ health. They were alleged to even lead to dancers’ deaths, according to the Chief!

Dance marathon promoters responded by hiring physicians for the competitions. Such measures were not enough to convince Chief Collins. He continued to see dance marathons as a peril to public health.

No Risk, No Reward

If you competed in a dance competition, you risked health problems and the scandal of being associated with an immoral exhibition!. But the pay-off was great! You could win prize money, world renown, and the esteem of the audience. Chicago couples would not stand for such interference. The promoters fought to continue this business, as they made great money off of the fad. Eventually everyone would win back their rights to literally dance until they dropped.

The most remembered of these dancing couples in Chicago history was Mike Ritof and Edith Bourdreaux. They danced at the Merry Garden Ballroom for over seven months in the spring of 1931. Ritof and Bourdreaux set the world’s record for the longest continuous dance.

How is that possible to do, you might ask? Here’s a montage of clips from Chicago dance marathons around that time. It shows the regiment of breaks andcouples eating meals as they danced. You’ll also see some of the disqualifications, like not having your feet on the floor or, that’s right, collapsing onto it.

Scandal taints the dance marathon scene at every angle. Remember, social dancing is only starting to be acceptable at this time. For many, dancing on display was an indecent act in and of itself. The tight embraces shared by sleepy couples only raised ire higher.

Professional dancers often posed as amateurs in competitions. Then when they won, sometimes even the promoters were accused of rigging prizes. These scandals detracts from the allure of the dance marathon. They eventually lose their popularity.

Dance Marathons in Chicago Today

Nowadays, dance marathons are shorter, more respectable fundraisers. While many things have gotten more extreme in the current day, dance marathons are a little more subdued compared to those of the 1920s. Lurie Children’s Hospital, for example, has a fundraising party called “Chicago Dance Marathon” on February 25. But it’s just an eight-hour dance party, not months long! In 2002, the University of Chicago started throwing dance marathons for charity. It originally was 18 hours long, and then got trimmed to 12 hours. It  hasn’t happened in the last few years though.

Valentine’s Day History in Chicago

Dance marathons continue, and so do other kinds of romantic endurance contests. Chicago couples also competed in the romantic competitions of kissing. One kiss-a-thon in Schaumburg circa 1974 saw Vincent Torro and Louise Heath kiss for over 114 hours, which set yet another world record for the time.

The scandal of their romantic endeavor even reached the Vatican. There, the magazine L’Osservatore della Dominica condemned the kiss marathon as a peak of human stupidity. Despite the scandal, kiss-a-thons continue to be popular as a sign of protest.

Valentine's Day History Al Capone St. Valentine's Day Massacre Chicago Detours
Valentine’s Day history is not always very romantic. Image via Wikimedia.

The most infamous day in Valentine’s Day history would have to be from 1929. This is the Valentine’s Day of the St. Valentine’s Massacre. Al Capone sent a bloody valentine message to gang rival George “Bugs” Moran by shooting him cold dead, along with six others. It happened at a garage at 2122 N. Clark Street. It may be the most infamous crime in Chicago history, but we don’t like to delve into too much gangster lore and gore. Let’s talk more about love!

Scandalous as it may be, I can’t think of a more romantic way to spend a week than on a couch kissing my valentine. And I’m sure Chicago couples would agree with me that it beats the labor of a dance marathon. So as you think of Valentine’s Day history in Chicago, why not grab a partner and break a romantic record or two? It would be sweeter and easier than a dance competition, or gangster history like the St. Valentine’s Massacre.

– Written by Elizabeth Tieri, Chicago Detours Tour Guide, and Edited by Alex Bean, Chicago Detours Content Manager


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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