The early twentieth century brought to the world fads that would become emblematic of the times. From dance marathons to flagpole sitting, these would be mostly harmless. But one popular fad was much more dangerous than others – building climbing. In the fall of 1919, building climbing came to Arkansas, when a young man scaled several buildings throughout the state in support of the Red Cross.
The building climbing fad seems to have begun in earnest in the 1910s. Harry Gardiner was one of the first superstars of the sport, having started climbing buildings in 1905, mostly as a lark. Soon other daredevils saw this as a means to draw free publicity for local businesses. For instance, Bill Strother, a native of North Carolina, needed a way to advertise his real estate business. In 1915, the nineteen-year-old Strother joked that he would climb the local Lenoir County Courthouse, not intending to actually perform the feat. Yet, thousands of onlookers, having taken his joke seriously, appeared at the courthouse on the day of the climb. With no other means of saving face, Strother started his climb, reaching the top of the building to the cheers of the crowd.
After gaining wild publicity for the climb, Strother decided to take his building climbing heroics on a national tour, often traveling with the Red Cross. While he scrambled up the building Red Cross workers would collect donations from onlookers. Strother’s reputation grew and the press began referring to him as “The Human Spider”. In 1919, he brought his act to Arkansas, stopping first in Pine Bluff where he topped the six-story Citizens Bank Building. Not satisfied with this climb, he then scaled the Hotel Pines and then stood on his head once he reached the top.
From Pine Bluff, Strother traveled north to Little Rock. His target: the ten-story Southern Trust Building. According to the Arkansas Gazette, Strother climbed “as easily and quite as casually as the average person would walk down the street.” He made sure to make the stunt entertaining for the watchers crowded below. He would pretend to slip, causing gasps and shrieks to rise from the crowd. At one floor, he noticed a group of young women watching from inside the building. He slyly scurried through the window and embraced the women, pulled down the shades, waited a minute or two, then climbed out of the window to roars of laughter. Once at the top, he pulled himself up to the top of the building’s flagpole and balanced on the ball on top of the pole in a prone position while waving a flag he pulled from his waistband.
(Photo: Boyle Building, Arkansas State Archives)
He was not finished entertaining Little Rock residents just yet. On November 22, 1919, Strother decided to conquer the eleven story Boyle Building, then the tallest building in Little Rock. The Arkansas Gazette estimated that as many as 20,000 people crowded the street below to get a glimpse of the Human Spider. As he climbed, he performed several stunts to the amazement and thrills of the crowd. On the eighth floor, he stood on his head on a window ledge. After reaching the top, Strother once again ascended a flagpole, pulled out a copy of the Arkansas Gazette and pretended to read. Then he lay prone once again, but this time he swung his arms and legs wildly, causing the pole to quiver. Then he wrapped his legs around the pole and hung upside down. According to the Gazette, “there probably was no one in the Saturday night crowd who watched him who would have liked to see him remain longer on the pole. The pole seemed quite too risky a place for business.” After his visit to Little Rock, he travelled to Hot Springs where he soared to the top of the Como Hotel Building.
Strother continued climbing buildings throughout the country, often accompanied by his adopted son, Vernon, who had become a singing virtuoso. During his tour, he came to the attention of Harold Lloyd, one of the most popular silent film comedians of the late 1910s and throughout the 1920s. After watching Strother climb, he got the idea for a film. He cast Strother as “Limpy” Bill, in his film, Safety Last (1923). In the film, “Limpy” Bill, Lloyd’s friend, inspires Lloyd, a worker in a clothing store, to climb a building in downtown Los Angeles to curry favor with his boss and his girlfriend. While filming, Strother also acted as Lloyd’s stunt double. While audiences believed Lloyd was climbing the building, except for close-ups, it was actually Strother performing most of the climb.
After suffering injuries from a number of falls over the years, Strother decided to give up his daredevil lifestyle. He settled back down in his home in North Carolina. His need for spectacle was not yet quenched, however. In the 1950s, he became a professional Santa Claus, traveling the country listening to boys and girls’ wishes for the holidays. Few would remember his days as the Human Spider, but his career as Jolly Old Saint Nick would last. Today he is in the Santa Claus Hall of Fame.