OLD NEWS: Sow cedes son to prize-winning fox-trotters

Editor’s note: “Old News” is an occasional series looking at some of Long Beach’s quirky and interesting historical stories and headlines.

I was taught at an early age to never over-verify a good story.

Man bites dog? Run with it before you discover that the man had a perfectly reasonable cause to bite a dog. Or, worse, the dog in question was a hot dog. “Man bites dog” sells papers, or clicks. “Man bites hot dog” is just another stupid food story that’ll just get spiked by even the most copy-hungry editor.

This early advice came to mind last week while I was archive-diving, rummaging through some 1921 Long Beach Daily Telegrams (1904-1924) looking for some news about something totally unrelated to what I stumbled upon: An Aug. 9, 1921 Page 9 story with the headline:

“Mother of five to give baby away; it’s offered as dance contest prize.”

How could there be eight pages of news with stories bigger than that one? Almost 100 years later, and I’m still hooked by the headline, with just one question: What?

The first part of the too-short story is sad. A mother had her fifth child, a boy, upon which time the husband deserted the family and left town and has not been heard from. The wife has struggled, trying to find some work while still looking after her children and while she loves her newborn child, she is willing to give it up to a good home.

The story ends breezily, telling us that “Those who want the child are to dance for it at Bud Gerner’s dancing academy.”

The 6-month-old baby boy, the story says, will be given to the couple who win the prize fox trot Friday evening. If the dance winners do not wish to adopt the child they will decide which of the applicants will become the parents.”

Again: What?

I printed out the item and showed it to my colleagues, grizzled journalists all, and each agreed it was the weirdest story they’d ever seen. And each one who read it said, “What?”

So I spent the weekend worrying about this kid, now 99 years old. What was his life like? Did his award-winning step-parents ever tell him that they won him at Bud Gerner’s dancing academy? Did he march off to enlist in the Army during World War II? Did he become Gen. George S. Patton’s aide-de-camp? Or did he become a sad and unloved codeine addict whose last known occupation was selling shrimp and running the penny-toss at the Pike?

To find any trace of the prize baby, I’d need a bit more info, at least the name of the winning couple.

And this is where over-verifying comes in to wreck the story. I looked in the following day’s paper and, again on Page 9 (which was apparently the go-to page for dance-contest news) was a tiny, one-paragraph story about a number of indignant mothers who, after reading a baby was to be given away as a dance prize, assaulted City Hall to holler at City Manager Charles Hewes, who started an investigation into the matter by setting Police Chief Ben McLendon loose on it and he who found that, yeah, a baby was being given away, but it was a pig. A baby pig.

Not cool, Bud Gerner. Not cool.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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