I was scrolling through the Associated Press’ half-million strong archival footage dump when I came upon a video that struck me as funny, and sad.
“Unemployed actor breaks world pole sitting record.”
The silent footage shows the pole sitter being lowered down from his perch in a cherry picker, where he is greeted by a smiling crowd.
The unemployed actor, Kenneth Gidge, is not a household name, so this particular stunt probably had not paid off for his dramatic career. Intrigued, I searched for coverage of the event, and found that Gidge regretted the decision to spend more than eight months on a pole.
A headline from a 1971 issue of the Telegraph read “Never again, says flagpole sitter Gidge.” That story was published on December 23, the same date listed on the AP video. That means Gidge sat on a pole for 248 days in Peabody, Massachusetts, broke the record for pole sitting, came down and immediately said, Nope.
“I’d never do it again,” Gidge told the Telegraph. “I’ve broken the record and there really is nothing else to work for.” The Telegraph described Gidge as an aspiring actor and a novelist, and the pole sitting experiment as such:
“Gidge, 25, took up residence in a six-foot-wide fiberglass hut on top of a 30-foot flagpole near here last April 18. He said he was seeking publicity so he could get a job. He also wanted to break the old flagpole sitting record.”
So Gidge, a 25-year-old unemployed actor, had in his young life gotten married on a jetliner and spent eight months on a pole, an act he publicly and swiftly said he’d never do again. To be fair, pole-sitting is a supremely dangerous sport.
Pole-sitting, in brief
The rather straightforward challenge — stay atop a pole for as long as you can — gained traction in the 1920s, and was popularized by one Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly, born 1893. Kelly wowed the nation by sitting atop a pole in Newark, New Jersey, in 1927. Author Bill Bryson described Kelly’s pole-sitting career in his book, One Summer: America, 1927:
“Kelly would reside for days or weeks on a tiny perch — a padded disk about the size of the seat on a bar stool — attached to a flagpole on the top of a tall building… Food, shaving implements, cigarettes, and other vital items were conveyed to Kelly by rope. To sleep without tumbling off, he would lock his ankles around the pole and jam his thumbs into two small holes drilled into the side of the seat.”
Kelly continued to sit on flagpoles and pull stunts until he died of a heart attack in 1952, carrying around a scrapbook of his achievements.
Richard “Dixie” Blandy followed Kelly in fame and daring. He died at 71, after he fell off a flagpole. The Reading Eagle reported on his death back in 1974:
“Blandy, who claimed to be the world champion flagpole sitter, was perched on an aluminum chair at the top of a 50-foot pole in south suburban Harvey, calmly waiting through the final few hours of a four-day shopping center promotion. He asked through a communications wire attached to a trailer below that a security guard move the trailer aside to make room for equipment which would whisk Blandy to the ground at day’s end. But when the trailer moved, the wire become taut. The pole snapped eight feet above the ground and crashed — along with Blandy — to earth, police said.”
Since then, others have pulled slightly safer pole-sitting stunts. In 1963, 17-year-old Peggy Townsend (later Townsend Clark) spent 217 days on an elevated platform, setting the pole-sitting record for 1964. According to her obituary in the Gadsden Times (she died last year) the late Mrs. Peggy Townsend Clark “was known as ‘Peggy on the Flagpole,’” and undertook the feat as part of a contest sponsored by a radio station.
Clark told Al.com on the fiftieth anniversary of her time on the pole that she decided to enter the contest because a near-death experience left her feeling strong. In high school, she had been dragged by a car and spent two years in the hospital before making her recovery, and entering the contest. For Gidge, the decision was simpler.
Meet Kenneth Gidge
“I was just bored,” Kenneth Gidge told Fusion in a phone interview. “When I first put the idea together I was working in a real estate office.” Young, working a job unrelated to his passions, Gidge was looking for something new. So he put an ad in a paper, “Flagpole sitter looking for a flagpole to sit on,” and received a call from a flagpole company that was willing to help him out. “I said look, I’m going up there to break the world record.”
Gidge described a fairly easy process of getting set up for the stunt — everyone wanted a piece of the record-breaking pie. The flagpole company (Gidge recalls it was located outside of Cambridge) offered to lend him a flagpole and build a little house for him to live in. A car dealership offered Gidge a spot in front of their business, and offered to pay him $250 a week while he was up there. And a nearby restaurant delivered his meals.
Though Gidge had stated his goal as breaking the record for pole-sitting, he didn’t really plan on following through. “I wasn’t really planning on staying for the record,” he told Fusion, “but then it just got damned interesting.”
From the beginning, the project was a challenge. “There were several problems. This was a test flagpole, and it was made out of fiberglass… all you had to do was think ‘right’ and the thing would move right. The wind would blow and I felt like the house would be flung off the pole, it was ridiculous.”
Eventually, the kinks were worked out, and Gidge (and his parakeet, Nixon, who “hated me, I have never seen a bird or an animal hate me more to this day,”) settled in to an uncomfortable eight months.
“It was so small I couldn’t lay out straight," He said, add'ing "I had to be curved around the pole. It was a tiny little house, we’re talking really small. I almost froze to death during the winter, it was just terrible.” But Gidge was always connected to his fans below. “[I had] a television and two phones, a small TV.” One of the phones was for emergencies, and the other was for interviews — Gidge said he did more than 500 radio interviews while living on the pole, often with Boston’s Larry Glick.
Gidge got attention from print media, as well. Three months into the stay, the Boston Globe published an account of the stunt:
“So far, he’s lost 15 pounds, three inches from his waist, and 13 days of sleep. He sticks to one meal a day, hoisted up in a blanket by employees of a nearby restaurant, and two daily sessions of isometric exercises. A fan brings him some relief from the heat. He uses a chemical toilet… When the weather is nice, a steady stream of visitors yell up to him and ask him how he is doing. He says the women usually ask if he is lonely, and the men as how he sleeps and goes to the bathroom.”
Gidge said that the "chemical toilet" was "a little potty thing" he had to empty out each night. At the time, Gidge told the Globe, “It’s been a real adventure — doing something like this. There is so much humor involved — and great loneliness.”
Gidge said at the time he was planning to write a book about his experiences. More than 40 years later, that’s still the plan. “I have 100 typed pages of things that took place, and one day I’m going to pull them out and put something together.”
Life after pole sitting
Gidge may have never become an actor, but he did a lot else. He is currently serving his fourth term in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. He’s an inventor. He hosts a talk show on Nashua’s public access channel, where he talks to his political opponents.
And he’s an artist, focusing lately on 3D abstract pieces (you can see the art on his site: GidgeWorld.com). But his stint on the pole follows him even now.
“I come across people I haven’t seen for 30 years and they mention it… It just goes on and on.” He added, “I’m a foolish person, I shouldn’t have done it. But I did. And I wouldn’t give it up.”
Newspaper clippings courtesy of Lee C. Guerette.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.