March 12, 1999 (Ira Pilgrim)

Shipwreck Kelly

Perched atop flagpoles on tall buildings he endured 14,000 hours of rain and sleet, 210 hours in temperatures below freezing, 47 hours in snowstorms. He climbed poles for more than 20 years, and what he started never stopped.

Bill Severn (A Carnival of Sports)

When I was in high school there was a cartoonist who had a strip called "Dreams of Glory," in which a child is imagining himself as the president of the United States, some famous athlete, his class's valedictorian, and so on. I suspect that many of us harbor a desire to be famous, but only a rare few will go to any great length to attain fame; or more properly, notoriety. Andy Warhol, the "pop artist(?)," who made a career out of notoriety, said that "In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes."

In 1924 a theater owner hired Alvin Anthony Kelly, then 31 years of age, to sit on top of a flagpole on his theater as a publicity stunt.It drew a big crowd and Kelly was well paid.

This was long before television. Now people can sit at home and watch a never ending procession of ridiculous things on the tube in comfort; and they can eat while they are watching.

Kelly was an ex-sailor who claimed to have been shipwrecked many times. As a professional boxer, Kelly was decked 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 and, according to Bill Severn, was reputed to have have spent 14,000 hours on top of flagpoles including some in below freezing weather.

Food and drink were hauled up to him in a basket using a rope and pulley, which also served to lower his waste products down. He used a blanket to cover himself when he did things like........modesty forbids.

Seeing what a big thing Kelly was making out of flagpole sitting, dozens of others tried it. Some even used Kelly's name. He once counted 17 other "Shipwrecks" operating at the same time.

In 1929 Kelly set the world's record for flagpole sitting by staying aloft for 23 days. When he came down, he was acclaimed as a hero.Boys and girls, from age 8 and up, took to sitting on poles and trees at a phenomenal rate. While moralists made their usual fuss about it, the parents of these kids shared in the notoriety and apparently loved it.

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.

Kelly died at age 59 in 1952. Even in the '70s people set new records, but they did it on platforms with tents etc. Shipwreck Kelly wouldn't have considered that as real flagpole sitting.

Why am I writing about Shipwreck Kelly at this time, some 70+ years later? Well, when I read about Kelly, I was impressed by the fact that some people are still imitating him and for the same reasons. Even if recognition is, for some, an end in itself, publicity can ultimately have a big pay off.

Only someone very young or incredibly stupid would do the kinds of things like flagpole sitting that are done to gain the public's attention. Sensible people who want fame work at doing something worthwhile and hope that someone will notice. Others, such as musicians and actors, hire public relations people to help them to get that recognition. For them, celebrity means money in the bank.

It is hard to tell who is more stupid; the stunt person or the people who watch him. My vote would go to the people who watch.

Next column

Return to the Light Stuff Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page