An Onstage Dance to the Death

“For No Good Reason” at Guild Hall
“For No Good Reason” at Guild Hall

    Picture a plethora of fans, cheering on their favorites as more and more participants are disqualified, sneaking forward to nab an autograph but perhaps secretly hoping to see an up-close “crash and burn” scenario.
    Sounds like the Indy 500, but it also describes the dance marathons of the 1930s.
    “It was the reality TV of the Depression era,” said Eric Jacobson of the Jacobson Center for the Performing Arts, which is bringing the world premiere of an original work by Mr. Jacobson, “For No Good Reason,” featuring true stories from the dance marathons of the ’30s to life onstage at the John Drew Theater of Guild Hall this weekend.
    Seeing Sydney Pollack’s powerful 1969 film adaptation of “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” — which was nominated for nine Academy Awards and based on a 1935 book by Harold McCoy that focused on one fictional dance marathon — deeply affected Mr. Jacobson. “It created a fascination for me,” he said. He has taken the last year to write the play.
    “For No Good Reason” is set in 1934 and has 25 actors onstage and in constant motion for the duration of the piece. “I researched people who participated and talked to family members,” Mr. Jacobson said. “There were all these different stories, and we put them all together in one piece.”
    The play also focuses on the corruption behind the scenes at the dance marathons, where the promoters were often the only ones who came out ahead. Dance contestants, down on their luck and lured to participate with the promise of three hot meals a day and a grand prize, often ended up with nothing after spending days, weeks, and once as long as eight months on their feet — with only one 10-minute break every hour.
    “People went insane and got locked away for the rest of their lives,” Mr. Jacobson said. “People died on the dance floor of heart attacks and strokes.”
    Mr. Jacobson recalled “one gentleman who had a harsh toothache, but what the hell, free food and board, right? The M.C. decided to extract his tooth in front of the audience with a rusty pair of pliers and a shot of whiskey. He ended up extracting the wrong tooth and had to go back in.”
    It was stunts like that that brought audiences in by the droves. No matter how long participants had been on the dance floor, no matter how tired they were or how much pain they were in, from 8 to 11 each night, they were required “to dance all out for the audience — the fox trot, the waltz, the Charleston, or the tango, or whatever,” Mr. Jacobson said. No exhausted foot-shuffling, as pictures of the era portray.
    There were also “elimination derbies,” he said, in which the participants were forced to run laps around the dance floor, with the last few couples instantly disqualified.
    Mr. Jacobson, who is the maitre d’ at Tutto Il Giorno in Sag Harbor, describes the play as “a drama, with dancing. It has huge dance numbers set to original music of that time period,” he said. “If you like ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ you’ll love it.”
    Tonight at 8 there will be a preview of “For No Good Reason” at Guild Hall. Performances will also be tomorrow at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets are available for $20 at the Jacobson Center Web site at jacobsoncenter.org.