Evelyn Pangburn had long legs as a high-school majorette.
Those legs went a long way to raise money against polio during the early 1950s — during a fun campaign that was equal parts mirth and mystery.
Evelyn and five sister majorettes from Draper High School became the Rotterdam Polio Majorettes in January 1953. The Schenectady County March of Dimes was just beginning its annual fundraising campaign; Frank Dickershaid recruited the girls to wear metal boxes that covered them from head to hip. Each box carried the messages “These Legs Will Help Polio Children Walk” and “Join the March of Dimes.”
The gag was actually stolen from the cigarette industry. During the early 1950s, the Old Gold brand showed television audiences a tall “dancing” package of cigarettes — accompanied by a shorter “dancing” box of matches.
Dickershaid had to secure permission from the Lorillard Tobacco Co. — which sold Old Gold and Kent, among others — in order to use the dancing-box concept.
Evelyn, now Evelyn Gallup of Gallupville, Schoharie County, remembers the slot in the front of the costume that allowed for limited vision. She said some of the boxes had straps near the bottom that girls would grasp; other costumes had straps that fit over shoulders.
The majorettes even had a miniature version for their travels. Diane Dickershaid, Frank’s 4-year-old daughter, played the matchbook-sized polio fighter. Freddy Zubal, also 4, was another mascot for the team. But Freddy didn’t get to wear a box, just a shirt and tie.
The team was introduced during a Dimes gathering on Jan. 8 at the Danish Hall on Albany Street in Schenectady. About 200 people turned out on a snowy night, and they handed over coins and dollars to majorettes who walked up and down the aisles between tables. Coin boxes were attached to each outfit.
The Danish Hall visit was the first of about 15 appearances for the girls. Gallup believes Draper baton-twirlers were drafted because Mary Margaret Sills, who died of polio in 1951, had been a school majorette.
“We just walked into these places and just paraded around,” said Gallup, who was a sophomore at the time. On some occasions, members of the American Legion and Rotterdam police officers escorted the team to places around the area.
“Everybody helped us get in and get out of these things,” Gallup said. “You had to put them on over your head, you couldn’t ride in a car with them on.”
Walking down stairs could be tricky because of the limited vision. Although audiences only saw legs and white majorette boots, each girl wore a white jacket and white corduroy shorts.
Gallup also said it was fun having a secret identity.
“A lot of people knew but a lot of people didn’t know, either,” she said. “They knew it was six girls from Draper, and they knew it wasn’t the cheerleading squad. A lot of the kids in school knew and their parents knew, so I think word got around.”
All covers were blown on Jan. 30, at a March of Dimes benefit dance at the Beverly Hose Club. The privileges of “unboxing” the teens were auctioned for $124, with each successful bidder — including Nicholas J. Barber — waltzing with the majorettes.
Polio was on the run after 1955, when the Salk vaccine won approval. Following widespread use of the polio vaccine, the March of Dimes later began focusing efforts on the prevention of birth defects and infant mortality. The organization now also works to reduce premature birth.
Gallup, now 78, said she later taught majorette skills to young girls. But of her four children, eight grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren, none of them wanted to follow in her high-stepping footsteps.
“I’ve still got my boots and my baton,” she said. “I wouldn’t get rid of them for nothing.”