Here’s a Christmas story you probably don’t know.
It was December 1961 and Richard “Buckeye Dixie” Blandy – the bartender at Dayton’s Varsity Lanes on North Main, a one-time boxer, long-distance cyclist, circus worker, steeplejack, riveter and Merchant Marine, among other things — was off on one of his regular holiday gigs.
He was at a shopping center in Memphis playing Santa Claus. Although he wore the red suit with the white trim, he wasn’t sitting in “Santa’s Workshop “ in some store.
Hired to draw crowds during the Christmas season, he sat in a chair, 18 inches in diameter, that was atop a 50-foot flagpole in the parking lot. He’d been up there 12 days straight, but he did have a telephone connection so he could talk to children on the ground.
But rain and then an unseasonable 20-degree cold snap hit and it took a toll. Soon he was too hoarse to even wish the kids “Merry Christmas.”
Finally, he managed to whisper to concerned authorities, ‘I’m beginning to feel numb. Get me down.”
According to newspaper reports, a firetruck with an aerial ladder was brought in and “a husky fireman” crawled up and carried the barely conscious Santa down to a waiting ambulance as many of the stunned children watched in tears.
The Associated Press account ran in papers nationwide. The Milwaukee Journal’s headline read: “Santa Stranded on the Pole…and Not the North Pole.”
But once treated for exposure, Blandy was on his merry way to another town and another stunt.
Some were quite memorable:
In 1964, he set a world record, spending 78 days atop a 155-foot pole at the Steel Pier amusement park on Atlantic City’s Boardwalk. While up there he was interviewed by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.
He also was saluted by President Lyndon Johnson, whose plane tipped its wings to him as it flew in for the Democratic National Convention. Dixie responded by waiving a red neckerchief.
A year after that, he shattered that record with 125-day stay atop a 200-foot pole set up at the Grona Lund Amusement Park in Stockholm, Sweden. According to reports, he drank 92 bottles of whiskey during that stretch and smoked three packs of cigarettes a day.
One of his biggest problems, he told reporters, was birds coming in off the Baltic Sea: “They’d perch on my hat and keep me awake at night.”
Yet, birds were the least of his worries.
By 1965 he said he’d fallen from poles five times and had broken most of his ribs, his leg, ankle and wrist and had fractured his skull.
Undaunted, he would go on to set a world record by pedaling a bicycle affixed to a pole 509 miles in Charlotte.
In Milwaukee, 75,000 people gathered to watch him descend from a pole after standing for eight straight days and nights – a world record he’d later break again.
For decades Dixie Blandy entertained people around the world, yet here in Dayton – where he lived for many years and now is buried at Woodland Cemetery – he’s now mostly unknown. In fact, he was buried in an unmarked grave until a dozen years ago.
Michael Bashaw, the accomplished musician and sculptor, and his pal John Baldasare first told me about him. They have hiked around Woodland for some 50 years and it was Bashaw who first came across the small grave marker beneath an Eastern spruce, not far from both the massive boulder that marks the burial site of beloved humorist Erma Brombek and the lines of white stone Civil War graves in the Veterans’ Lot.
Blandy’s epitaph caught Bashaw’s eye:
Richard (Buckeye Dixie) Blandy
“Here Lies Buckeye Dixie Blandy World Champion Pole Sitter”
Bashaw and Baldasare later told me about their find when they came upon me walking my dog, Leo, at Woodland.
For a year or so I forgot about it, but this past week I finally looked into it and learned a lot thanks to Dawne Dewey, head of Wright State University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives, which have preserved Blandy’s papers, photos and especially his old brown scrapbook.
It’s filled with yellowed clippings from newspapers like the Winnipeg Free Press, Dallas Times Herald, Florida Times Union, Chicago Tribune, San Juan Star and Davenport (Iowa) Daily Times.
Those accounts took me on the fascinating journey of one of Dayton’s most colorful characters, a guy who pulled off one daredevil feat after another, but also had some terrible spills, including the 1974 accident in Illinois that killed him.
Along the way he not only transfixed crowds across North America, but often wooed the women – six of whom became his wife.
When phones lines were set up at each of his pole stints, it wasn’t just the kids who wanted to talk.
While spending 350 hours atop a 50-foot pole in Flint, Michigan, he claimed he got 200 marriage proposals from women down below.
He said he met his first wife after talking to her on the phone during his first big flagpole stunt – 30 days airborne in Tampa in 1927.
During an 11-day outing atop a pole in Massachusetts, he told a reporter for the Standard Times in New Bedford:
“Since my stay, I’ve received an average of 50 marriage proposals daily…One of those came from a woman with nine children…and three dogs.”
In 1970, the 67-year-old Blandy told a Chicago Today reporter: “I’m wide open to proposals from women between 40 and 70. I’d like to marry once more in my life. I’m trying for lucky seven.”
The reporter ended his story with a come-on:
“The 5-foot-4 Cajun is ready to meet his next wife someday. His telephone number is 453-7824, girls, and he speaks with a Cajun accent.”
‘An agonizing thrill’
Blandy was born into a Creole family in Viuex Carre – The French Quarter in New Orleans – in 1903.
He ran away from home at age 12, joined the circus and later ended up in the Merchant Marines, where he was at home climbing the rigging of ships.
He soon parlayed that penchant for heights into jobs, including a stint as a flagpole painter. It was during a 1923 effort that he got the idea for pole sitting.
As he told reporter Lawrence Walsh: “My arms get tired, you know. And it was warm up there and I dozed off for 20 or 30 minutes. When I awoke, there must have been several hundred people looking up at me, so I thought to myself, ‘Hey!’”
Pole sitting as an endurance sport became popular in the 1920s. The first guy to make headlines was Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly, a former sailor and stunt actor who initially sat atop a pole in Newark, N.J. in 1927, Three years later he drew a crowds of 30,000 in Atlantic City.
But in 1952 he died of a heart attack while carrying his scrapbook down West 51st Street in Manhattan.
Over the years there have been other pole sitters who made a splash. In 1959, Maurice Rose, a 17-year-old kid, spent 211 days and nine hours atop a pole, protesting being called “a juvenile delinquent.”
Peggy Townsend, also 17, spent 217 days on an elevated platform in Gadsden, Alabama as part of a radio contest she said she entered after a near-death experience. After being dragged by a car that left her hospitalized two years, she recovered and later felt invincible.
From November of 1982 to January in 1984 – a total of 439 days, 11 hours and six minutes – David Werder sat atop a pole in Clearwater, Florida to protest gas prices.
But when it comes to longevity, Dixie Blandy’s 47-year career eclipsed them all.
As someone once noted, he spent more time on flag poles than most flags.
And it certainly wasn’t an easy life.
He’d be perched on a barstool-sized seat – or, tougher yet, on a bicycle he’d bolted to the top of a pole – and there would eat, bathe and try to survive. Essentials were brought up to him in a bucket.
During his standing feats, he held onto a rod that came up to his waist.
At night he put a cross bar on the rod so that it formed a T and he slept with his arms draped over it. From the ground, it looked like a crucifix
He had a portable radio up there, often read, did yoga, supposedly played the French harp at times and had his staples, smokes and Southern Comfort.
His special diet included calf’s liver and regularly chewing garlic cloves “to lower my blood pressure and maintain nerve coordination.”
Yet, often during his interviews, he parroted the old maxim: “It’s lonely at the top.”
Once he explained his obsession: “You’re a fatalist…You die 1,000 deaths up there, but it gets in your blood. ..It’s an agonizing thrill.”
‘The pole gives and the pole takes away’
While thrilling, pole sitting, standing and cycling came with a price.
Blandy estimated the grounded poles he was on were struck by lightning 200 times.
During the Christmas season in Miami in 1933, the pole he was on was shaken by 80-mile an hour hurricane winds. He hung on, but his Santa Claus wig was blown away.
He fared much worse in a tornado in Oklahoma City. He was 17 days into an event at an amusement park when his 50-foot pole was bent over and he was hurtled through the air
As he explained to Virginia Pilot columnist Lawrence Maddry: “I blacked out and woke up 150 feet away from the pole, still in my chair. My eyeball was knocked out of its socket and they put 20 stitches in my head.”
He also had a broken leg, two broken toes and three cracked ribs. He had a lengthy stay in Mercy Hospital there and didn’t return to the pole for a year.
On a bicycle atop a pole in Atlanta, he suffered a sunstroke and passed out. In Tampa he fell asleep pedaling, wasn’t properly strapped on and fell, hitting a guy wire that broke his fall.
In Memphis, a drunk shook the pole and brought old Dixie down.
And then there was the Jacksonville woman who sent up eggnog for him to drink. Soon he was slumped over and the fire department had to rescue him.
As he explained: “It had dope in it.”
He later found out she had bet someone $200 that he wouldn’t stay on the pole through the whole promotion.
Blandy was also rescued during a cold, rain-drenched feat here at Dayton Motor Sales on North Main St., right across from the Varsity Lanes where he worked as a “mixologist,” as he called it.
“One knee swelled up last night,” he told a Dayton reporter after his descent. “What do they call it? It wasn’t lumbago and it wasn’t arthritis. It was something new, but it got old awful quick. I had to keep rubbing it.
“I don’t do this regularly, but I had a pint up there for the knee …and it wasn’t linament.”
Yet, for all the travails, it was the challenges and cheers that had a hold on Blandy.
“I hope to continue these feats until I reach the age of 75,” he told Charles De Villers of the Standard Times in New Bedford, Massachusetts. “On my 75th birthday, I hope to retire to a peaceful life.”
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
On May 5, 1974, he was perched in an aluminum chair atop a 50-foot pole at a shopping mall in Harvey, Illinois. It was near the end of a four-day event and he phoned the security guard, asking him to move a trailer so the retrieval equipment could be brought in.
But in moving the trailer, the guy snagged a guidewire and it snapped the pole eight feet from the ground.
According to a report in the Reading Eagle, Blandy lay “unconscious and writhing” in the parking lot. He was rushed to Ingalls Memorial Hospital with a skull fracture and internal injuries.
He died three hours later.
He was 71.
His body was returned to Dayton and he was buried unceremoniously in Section 201 at Woodland. In 2006, a group of admirers provided the grave marker.
During his heyday, he was asked what the most perilous part of his job was.
He said it was being in love while being aloft:
“I found all six of my wives through the medium of the telephone on the pole…And I lost them the same way.
“You know, maybe they want to go to a dance and I’m up there on the pole. Or, they’re out drinking or it’s a hot night and they feel like maybe taking a moonlight boat ride. And I’m up on the pole. They know where I am all the time, but I can’t keep track of therm.
“My last wife ran away from me in Winnipeg….That’s the way it is in this business.
“The pole gives and the pole takes away.”
In Dixie’s case – in love and life.
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