On Top of the World: Remembering the Lost Trend of Flagpole Sitting

Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly sitting on a flagpole atop the Hotel St. Francis in Newark, New Jersey
Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly sitting on a flagpole atop the Hotel St. Francis in Newark, New Jersey
Alamy

Flappers and bootleggers might be the most memorable aspects of the 1920s, but there's a lesser-known, yet no less colorful, trend from that decade: flagpole sitting. From the glamorous hills of Hollywood to the blue-collar dwellings of Union City, New Jersey, this unusual pastime turned eccentric showmen and ordinary people into overnight celebrities, before the crushing reality of the Great Depression grounded their climb to stardom.

Flagpole sitting is exactly what it sounds like: a person climbing on top of a towering pole, usually in the middle of a city, and testing their endurance by sitting atop it for as long as their body holds up. It began in Hollywood in January 1924, when a former sailor, boxer, steelworker, and stuntman named Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly was hired by a local theater to sit on a pole outside of the building for as long as possible to drum up publicity for a new movie. Kelly, a New York City native—whose nickname was supposedly inspired by his dubious claims as a Titanic survivor—wowed crowds by perching himself on the pole for an astonishing 13 hours and 13 minutes. The stunt worked, and once it got picked up by the papers, offers started pouring in from more businesses to perform pole-sittings. Kelly was eager to oblige.

News of Kelly's exploits spread, and before long, men, women, and children were climbing poles of their own. There was the three-week feat of Bobbie Mack, a young woman from Los Angeles; Joe “Hold ‘em” Powers, who sat for 16 days in Chicago in 1927 and climbed back down with six fewer teeth than he started with after a storm smacked him face-first into his pole; and Bill Penfield, who braved a pole for 51 days in Strawberry Point, Iowa before a storm forced him down. In 1928, a 15-year-old named Avon Foreman of Baltimore even established a juvenile sitting record of 10 days, 10 hours, 10 minutes, and 10 seconds (he practiced on an 18-foot hickory tree in his backyard). Foreman’s accomplishment was so inspiring to Baltimore mayor William F. Broening that he publicly declared that the youngster exhibited “the pioneer spirit of early America.”

Still, Kelly was the one making a big business out of pole sitting. Even when he wasn’t holding the record, he was the ambassador of the bizarre sport. He toured 28 cities, attracting massive crowds that jammed streets and lined rooftops just to get a glimpse of the daredevil poking out among the apartment buildings and businesses of Downtown, USA.

Kelly's notable feats included an 80-hour sit in New Orleans and the 146 hours he spent high above Kansas City's Old Westgate Hotel. But even those were overshadowed by his largest-scale stunts: 312 hours on top of Newark’s St. Francis Hotel in 1927, 22 days on a pole above a dance marathon (another endurance fad of the time) in Madison Square Garden, and 23 days in 1929 in Baltimore’s Carlin’s Park on a pole that was 60 feet high. By Kelly’s own calculation, he’d spend around 20,613 hours pole-sitting during a career that lasted over a decade.

His peak came in 1930 when he lasted 49 days and one hour on a 225-foot pole on Atlantic City’s steel pier. The feat was witnessed by as many as 20,000 onlookers during the weeks he spent up top, becoming one of the first of many spectacles that would grace the pier in the 1930s. (He’d eventually be followed by acts like Rex, the water-skiing “wonder dog”; JoJo, the boxing kangaroo; and the city’s infamous diving horse routine.)

Estimates of Kelly’s fees range from $100-$500 a day throughout his career, paid by whatever outlet needed the publicity and sometimes by crowds who spent a quarter to get a view of his act from nearby hotel rooftops. And what did those onlookers see, exactly? A man on a circular padded seat high above the rabble, sometimes reading the paper, other times enjoying a shave. For food, he’d stick mainly to a liquid diet of broth and water, along with cigarettes, all of which were lifted up to him in a bucket. When he needed to sleep, he’d stay seated by wrapping his ankles around the pole and securing his thumbs into holes in his seat before nodding off. That's if he rested at all—he was also known to deprive himself of sleep on the pole for as long as four days.

The big money would dry up soon after his Atlantic City stunt, and the realities of the Great Depression put an end to flagpole sitting as a career. With up to a quarter of the population unemployed, people were apparently less interested in opening their papers to stories of men and women testing endurance at the top of a pole for more money than the readers would likely see all year.

"As Shipwreck Kelly analyzed it, it was the Stock Market crash that killed pole-sitting as the golden egg that paid the goose," a writer for The Evening Sun in Baltimore put it in 1944. "People couldn't stand to see anything higher than their busted securities."

Kelly’s personal story ends on a similarly somber note. Penniless and stripped of his daredevil veneer, he died of a heart attack in 1952 at the age of 59, his body found not far from the room he rented on West 51st Street in New York City. Underneath his arm at the time of his death was a scrapbook of newspaper clippings detailing his accomplishments as a once-champion flagpole sitter.

Though flagpole sitting has fallen out of the public eye since the Depression, it has occasionally shown faint signs of life. In 1963, 17-year-old Alabama native Peggy Townsend cruised past all of Kelly's highest marks by spending 217 days on a pole for a radio contest. That time was later beaten by Kenneth Gidge, who topped her at 248 days in 1971 before becoming an artist, inventor, and New Hampshire state representative later in life.

Today, the occasional pole-sitter still pops up in the news, though they're now most likely perched for protests or as living art installations. Regardless of the purpose behind it, it's unlikely that a person atop a flagpole will ever attract a sea of thousands of onlookers again—and the days when a man like Kelly could become a household name and dub himself the "Luckiest Fool on Earth" seem long gone.

The Time Baby Ruth Sued Babe Ruth

Allsport/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Allsport/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1920, the Curtiss Candy Company introduced the Baby Ruth candy bar, causing a certain baseball player with a very similar name to take notice. Babe Ruth was having a monstrous year—his 54 home runs in the 1920 season were more than any other team in the American League. If you were going to misappropriate someone’s name for a candy bar, Ruth’s was a logical choice.

Sensing opportunity, the Great Bambino struck back by creating his own Babe Ruth Home Run Bar. Curtiss quickly sued Ruth’s company for trademark infringement. But what happened next was surprising: When the Sultan of Swat accused the company of using his name, Curtiss feigned shock. Its bar was named after “Baby” Ruth Cleveland, daughter of President Grover Cleveland.

For years, this has been the oft-repeated explanation, but the argument makes no sense. Cleveland had been out of office for more than two decades and dead for 12 years when the bar debuted. “Baby” Ruth herself had died of diphtheria in 1904, at just 12 years old. Although the country’s most famous baseball star would seem much more likely to have a namesake candy than a former president's departed child, the courts sided with Curtiss.

When Ruth learned of the verdict, he bellowed, “Well, I ain’t eatin’ your damned candy bar anymore!” Somehow, the Baby Ruth bar survived without his support.

What Is the Wilhelm Scream?

iStock
iStock

What do Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Toy Story, Reservoir Dogs, Titanic, Anchorman, 22 Jump Street, and more than 200 other films and TV shows have in common? Not much besides the one and only Wilhelm Scream.

The Wilhelm Scream is the holy grail of movie geek sound effects—a throwaway sound bite with inauspicious beginnings that was turned into the best movie in-joke ever when it was revived in the 1970s.

Just what is it? Chances are you’ve heard it before but never really noticed it. The Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect that has been used in both the biggest blockbusters and the lowest low-budget movies and television shows for over 60 years, and is usually heard when someone onscreen is shot or falls from a great height.

First used in the 1951 Gary Cooper western Distant Drums, the distinctive yelp began in a scene in which a group of soldiers wade through a swamp, and one of them lets out a piercing scream as an alligator drags him underwater.

As is the case with many movie sound effects, the scream was recorded later in a sound booth with the simple direction to make it sound like “a man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams.” Six screams were performed in one take, and the fifth scream on the recording became the iconic Wilhelm (the others were used for additional screams in other parts of the movie).

Following its debut in 1951, the effect became a regular part of the Warner Bros. sound library and was continually used by the studio’s filmmakers in their movies. Eventually, in the early 1970s, a group of budding sound designers at USC’s film school—including future Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt—recognized that the unique scream kept popping up in numerous films they were watching. They nicknamed it the “Wilhelm Scream” after a character in the first movie they all recognized it from, a 1963 western called The Charge at Feather River, in which a character named Private Wilhelm lets out the pained scream after being shot in the leg by an arrow.

As a joke, the students began slipping the effect into the student films they were working on at the time. After he graduated, Burtt was tapped by fellow USC alum George Lucas to do the sound design on a little film he was making called Star Wars. As a nod to his friends, Burtt put the original sound effect from the Warner Bros. library into the movie, most noticeably when a Stormtrooper is shot by Luke Skywalker and falls into a chasm on the Death Star. Burtt would go on to use the Wilhelm Scream in various scenes in every Star Wars and Indiana Jones movie, causing fans and filmmakers to take notice.

Directors like Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, as well as countless other sound designers, sought out the sound and put it in their movies as a humorous nod to Burtt. They wanted to be in on the joke too, and the Wilhelm Scream began showing up everywhere, making it an unofficial badge of honor. It's become bigger than just a sound effect, and the name “Wilhelm Scream” has been used for everything from a band name, to a beer, to a song title, and more.

But whose voice does the scream itself belong to? Burtt himself did copious amounts of research, as the identity of the screamer was unknown for decades. He eventually found a Warner Bros. call sheet from Distant Drums that listed actors who were scheduled to record additional dialogue after the film was completed. One of the names, and the most likely candidate as the Wilhelm screamer, was an actor and musician named Sheb Wooley, who appeared in classics like High Noon, Giant, and the TV show Rawhide. You may also know him as the musician who sang the popular 1958 novelty song “Purple People Eater.”

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