If you were a young couple living in the town of Norris, Tennessee, on the last Saturday in January 1936, you would most likely be entertaining overnight guests, dragging out your prettiest party dress or your old tux, and dolling yourself up for the social event of the season—The President’s Birthday Ball. Held in the community building, the festivities would begin with music from local bandleader, Tony Musco. The Grand March, with all couples promenading across the dance floor, would occur later in the evening, and everything would stop at around 10:00 p.m. so that attendees could hear the President’s address over the loudspeakers. Merriment would continue for the remainder of the evening with several house parties springing up after the main event. What a night! What a weekend!
On the evening of January 30, 1882, after prolonged, difficult labor, Sara Delano Roosevelt gave birth to her only child, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The anniversary of his birth became a great cause for celebration every year, and throughout his life, FDR would use the occasion to honor devoted friends as well as to raise money in the fight against polio. At its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, polio would paralyze or kill over half a million people worldwide every year. FDR contracted polio in 1921 at the age of 39 and was paralyzed from the waist down. For the rest of his life, FDR was committed to finding a way to rehabilitate himself as well as others afflicted with infantile paralysis.
At the suggestion of a public relations consultant, business magnate and FDR political ally Henry L. Doherty launched the National Committee for Birthday Balls that sponsored a dance in every town across the nation to celebrate the President’s birthday and to raise money for the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, a therapeutic center where FDR found much relief and solace. Open to patients from all over the country, the Foundation provided medical treatment and an opportunity to spend time with others suffering the effects of polio.
The first Birthday Ball was held in 1934, with 4,376 communities joining in 600 separate celebrations that raised over one million dollars for Warm Springs. Just like the shindig in Norris, many communities in the Tennessee Valley embraced these dances. The Florence Herald covered the 1935 Birthday Ball which was held at the CCC recreational hall at Nitrate Plant No. 2 on Wed evening, Jan . 30. An unusually large gathering danced to the rhythm of the Alabama Cavaliers, which according to the Herald, was “one of the outstanding dance orchestras of the nation.”
Knoxville, Tenn., was not to be outdone. In 1936, the Knoxville News-Sentinel reported that the “brilliant function will be one of the “most colorful in the entire South—and the best attended.” In addition to dancing to music by Fred Murph’s orchestra, there was an elaborate floor show which included a Chicago tap dancer, an appearance from one of the “Our Gang” kids from the movies, and several other renowned dance acts of the time. The gala was definitely the place to be on January 30. Chattanooga, too, got in on the festivities: The Chattanooga News reported in 1937 that 4,000 citizens would be celebrating the President’s birthday with a band concert, a pageant with a cast of 200, a grand march, and dancing to the music of four of the city’s leading orchestras.
Future Birthday Balls across the country continued to raise about a million dollars per year, with contributions split between Warm Springs and the local communities where the balls were held.
In 1938, FDR created the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, not only to help Warm Springs but also the victims of polio throughout the country. To increase awareness of the campaign, radio personality and philanthropist Eddie Cantor took to the air waves and urged Americans to send their loose change to President Roosevelt in “a march of dimes to reach all the way to the White House.”
Soon, millions of dimes flooded the White House. In 1945, the annual March of Dimes campaign raised 18.9 million dollars for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. Ultimately, the March of Dimes (as the National Foundation became known) financially supported the research and development of a polio vaccine by Jonas Salk in 1955, eradicating the disease throughout most of the world by the 1960s.
Franklin Roosevelt’s dedication to finding a cure for polio benefited millions of children worldwide. But it was the participation of Americans across the nation in Birthday Balls that made the campaign a success. Their hard work and financial support supported the development of new methods of treatment to improve the lives of those stricken with polio and the creation of a vaccine to protect future generations from its devastation. Although the Birthday Balls ended in 1945 with the death of President Roosevelt, both of their legacies live on in the March of Dimes.