1920s Entertainment Flagpole-Sitting
Flagpole Sitting... Living It Up In "The Roaring 20's"
Once upon a time, back in the glorious days of when marathon dancers kept the hop going, six-day bicycle riders rode to where ever they were headed, and college goldfish swallowers ruled, some of the goofy things that America found amusing. It was Flagpole-sitting that was king in the mid to late 1920s. Why? you ask... the answer is simple no T.V.s. People needed fun and amusement...without television they had to get out of their houses and go find some way to amuse themselves...(same theory may apply to the start of the baby-boom, as well)
Blah, blah, blah...Pole-sitting is related to the ancient ascetic discipline of Stylitism, or column-sitting. Famous column-sitters include St Simeon Stylites the Elder (c. 388-459) of Antioch (now Turkey) who sat on a column for 36 years...blah, blah. boring... history crap...mmm..blah.
Flagpole-sitting is the futile practice of sitting on a pole for extended lengths of time, generally used as an excuse, to test endurance, or to get away from a wife who wanted you to take out the garbage back then. A small platform may be placed at the top of the pole to keep you from getting a rude case of "pole hole". Then you just sit.. yep, high up on a pole... you just sit.
Flagpole-sitting was the cat's meow of fads, that's heyday lasted from 1924 to 1929. The fad alledgely began when a friend supposedly dared stunt actor Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly to sit on a flagpole. Honest to God, folks...that's the rumor on how it all got started.
...And if you believe that one then you'll believe how "Shipwreck" Kelly got his nickname...First of all there was he was NOT the pro football player (his name was John "Shipwreck" Kelly) , then there was a Paul "Shipwreck" Kelly, and there have been plenty more "Shipwreck" Kellys. One tale that I know is false is that our pole-sitting hero, Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly supposedly claimed to have been on the Titanic ...true be known he was nowhere near that hunk of metal... chances are there my have been an Alvin Kelly on the ship's crew and our boy Al may have just taken credit for it... who knows?... any way back to the story at hand...
Shipwreck's initial 1924 sit lasted 13 hours and 13 minutes. It soon became a fad with other contestants setting records of 12, 17 and 21 days. In 1929, the attention starved Shipwreck decided to reclaim the title. He sat on a flagpole for 49 days in Atlantic City, New Jersey, setting the enduring record. This act of uselessness eventually reached many Shipwreck imitators when, in 1929, Baltimore had at least 17 boys and 3 girls sitting on 18 foot hickory poles while their family and friends cheered them on The following year, 1930, Kelly's record was broken by Bill Penfield in Strawberry Point, Iowa who sat on a flagpole for 51 days and 20 hours, until a thunderstorm brought him down.
Today, the term "pole-sitter" refers to an exhibitionist or show-off. "Flagpole Sitta" was a song by the band Harvey Danger. and for all you racing fans, there is the pole position.
The "Roaring" 1920s
Fad's Of The Roaring 1920's
Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly
Born, Aloysius Kelly in Hell's Kitchen in 1893, an orphan at birth, his mother having died during child birth. Just seven months after Alvin's father, a rigger fell to his death from a derrick. Alvin ran away at the age of 13 to join the men of the sea. Later, like many Navy men, Alvin knocked around as a boxer, steelworker and eventually landing a gig as a Hollywood movie stuntman. It was there, supposedly January 1924, that a theater owner was looking for some publicity. so he hire Kelly to climb up top the house flagpole and stay there for 13 hours. The Los Angeles police had to send out reserves to control the crazed, curious crowds. By the time Kelly came down, he had offers flooding in from movie theaters all over the country asking him to do the same stunt for their theater.... he had just found his golden ticket; a very lucrative line of work.
Kelly was an ex-sailor who claimed to have been shipwrecked many times. As a professional boxer, glass-jaw Kelly was knocked-out so often that fans yelled, "Sailor Kelly has been shipwrecked again." The name "Shipwreck Kelly" stuck and he went on to make a career as a flagpole sitter. Hey... believe which ever story you want... Alvin ain't talkin' much these days.
I know what you are thinking what about food, sleep, and other body function necessities?
Like any true red-blooded American pole-sitter, Alvin often just drank coffee and smoked cigarettes while hovering above the masses. One other occasions he would have food and drinks hoisted up to him in a basket using a rope and pulley. How did he sleep? "Shipwreck" learned to catnap during performances by locking his thumbs in holes in the flagpole staff. If he swayed while dozing, pain in his thumbs would cause him to right himself without waking up. 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?!
The flocking crowds
Seeing what a big thing Kelly was making out of flagpole sitting, "monkey see monkey do"... dozens of others tried it. Some even used Kelly's name. The real "Shipwreck" once counted 17 other "Shipwrecks" operating at the same time. It is hard to tell who was more stupid in this situation; the stunt person or the people who gawked up at him. I think I would have to go with the people who watched, if I had to cast a ballot. I know I made this point earlier, but this was all happening long before television. Now a days people can sit at home, in total comfort and watch a never ending procession of crap that is called entertainment.
In 1929 Kelly set the world's record for flagpole sitting by staying aloft for 23 days. When he came down, he was treated like he was a hero. Boys and girls, from age 8 and up, took to sitting on poles and trees at an alarming rate. While moralists made their usual fuss about it, the parents of these kids shared in the notoriety and apparently loved it. See folks even then the Warholian theory was at work... and people are just natural media whores.
Kelly eventually broke his own record by staying on top of a flagpole for more than 49 days. When he came down he was greeted by telegrams from prominent Americans, and by large crowds. This guy had himself a rackett going on and America was buying it big time.
Kelly's lifetime total for pole-sitting:
20,613 hours atop a pole, 210 of them in subfreezing weather and 1,400 hours in the rain. Here's a fun tidbit for ya...kids! In 1939 during National Doughnut Dunking Week, Shipwreck was photographed performing a headstand on a plank (sticking out of the 54th story of a New York skyscraper) while eating doughnuts handed to him by an assistant.
Whoa! hold up there, just one minute... National Doughnut Dunking Week? Why ain't this on my calendar? I'm sure if it still existed banks would probably close for the week. But damn, what a great week that woulda been!
Sadly, flagpole-sitting died out around 1929 with the coming of the Great Depression,(not the pop a paxil kind of depression) but during its time, it certainly swindled a nations interest and imagination.
ON SATURDAY the 11th of October in 1952, Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly, who was 59 years old and living on home relief in a furnished room, left his building with a scrapbook full of his yellowed newspaper clippings under his arm and a minute or two later dropped dead in the street. Found among his belongings was a duffel bag still packed with his old flagpole-sitting gear, in case any fresh jobs came along.
Popular Culture: Flagpole sitting
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