Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Where in the World is "Shipwreck" Kelly?

by Connie Cortright

If you lived during the 1920’s, you’d probably be able to answer that question correctly, "He's sitting on a flagpole." What? Sitting on a flagpole? Yup. People were so desperate to find new forms of entertainment – before the days of television- that they flocked to see anyone doing something as different as pole sitting.

It all started in Hollywood (not surprising) by a film promoter as a way to advertise a new film in 1924. He hired a part time actor, Alvin Kelly to sit on top of a flagpole for 13 hours and 13 minutes. It brought so much publicity that “Shipwreck” Kelly became a star overnight and got offers to do the same for other theaters.

The fad quickly spread across the country with other pole-sitters trying to outdo Kelly. The length of time turned into days as the competition expanded. By 1930, “Shipwreck” broke the all time record by sitting on a flagpole for 49 days in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Would you have gone to see him sitting up there?

I think we all have a question ready to burst forth. How in the world did this work? Kelly would attach a small square platform to the top of the flagpole and climb up there to sit. I have no idea how he could stand (no pun intended) sitting there so long without going crazy from boredom.

A basket would be hoisted up there on a pulley system to bring him food and beverages. I read that he liked drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes for much of the day. (I’d need books to read, at the very least, if it were me.) He had a blanket when it got cold at night. He would sleep by catnapping, hooking his thumbs into a hole in the flagpole. When he started swaying, the pain in his thumbs would rouse him enough to right himself before he’d topple over.

And what about the other question? I’ll let someone else explain. And when nature called? Shipwreck would use a hose along the side of the pole or a bowl would be brought up by the same pulley system that delivered his lunch... he would use a blanket as a modesty curtain.... well c'mon... who would want to look up into the sky and see.... that?!”

He was so popular that he was treated like a hero. Kids would emulate him and try pole-sitting themselves. Parents encouraged the young imitators in this pursuit because of the publicity it brought to the family. Must have been part of the Roaring Twenties mindset. I can’t imagine that weird phenomenon getting to be so popular today.

With the onslaught of the Depression in the early 30’s, flagpole sitting pretty much came to an abrupt end. The Roaring Twenties were over and people had more important things to think about than how long someone could sit on top of a flagpole. From our perspective, I can’t imagine how or why it lasted as long as it did.

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