Phillips column: 'The Human Spider' started in Kinston

Phillips column: 'The Human Spider' started in Kinston

During a short span in Kinston in 1915, Bill Strother unknowingly was launching his new career and was to become nationally-acclaimed as "The Human Spider," a name given him by Kinston Daily Free Press Publisher and Editor H. Galt Braxton. 

He was born Sept. 1, 1896 in Eureka, a small community in Wayne County. As a young child, his family moved to nearby Stantonsburg, where his father became the postmaster.

Young Bill loved climbing trees. The youngster was slim, agile, light-footed, had a tight grip and was full of self-confidence. Once he saw a steeplejack scale the walls of the Wilson County Courthouse. A seed was planted as he thought to himself that was something he could do. 

Three years later, Strother finished high school and went to work in a real estate office. In 1915, while working in Kinston, Bill found himself frustrated. The handbills he ordered to advertise a real estate auction he was organizing failed to arrive on the train. 

While sitting at a lunch counter, Strother in an off-handed kind of way, indicated to a fellow diner that he would now have to climb the courthouse walls to get people to come to the sale. The diner, who happened to be Braxton, put a story in the paper the next day.

The story stated, “Bill Strother, The Human Spider, would be climbing the walls of the Lenoir County Courthouse.” The climb was to be an attraction for a real estate auction. The newspaper story worked and to Bill’s surprise, thousands showed up to watch. Strother sold a fortune in real estate lots that day.

For a while, Strother only climbed buildings as part of an attraction for real estate sales, but in December 1917, he began climbing just for climbing’s sake. This led to working benefits and exhibitions. He developed a technique when reaching near the top of a building of engaging in acrobatics and balancing. It was exciting and breath-taking to watch.  

Strother made many benefit appearances across the United States for Victory Bonds, Red Cross, Salvation Army and other charities; they would pay him a percentage of funds collected. These exhibitions headlining The Human Spider drew large crowds. They came to see The Human Spider climbing a building, stand on his head at the top, faking near-falls, riding a bicycle on the cornice ledge near the top of building and other nerve-shattering feats. His daredevil performances raised thousands of dollars for Victory Bonds and charities. 

About 1921, Bill moved to Burbank, California, where he became a movie stuntman. In 1922, silent film star Harold Lloyd saw Strother climb a building in Los Angeles. The chance meeting resulted in Lloyd’s biggest hit movie called "Safety Last!" in which Lloyd’s character climbed a building to win over a girl. Strother not only was Lloyd’s stunt man but played Lloyd’s friend “Limpy” Bill in the 1923 release. He went on to do other movie work during the silent film era.

However, in between movie work, he continued traveling to do benefit work across the country. Bill’s greatest feat was climbing the 57-story Woolworth Building in New York City, at the time, the tallest building in the world. Strother was proclaimed the champion by his peers as the best at climbing buildings. By now, he had reached celebrity status across the United States.

Most of his climbs were successful but there were a few falls along the way. One such fall landed him in the hospital where a pretty nurse caught his eye. He and Ethel Glady Weems soon were married. Ethel was intrigued with the exciting man she found to be a decent sort and was kind. They both loved children but never had any. 

As the years passed, The Human Spider’s age and weight gain began to take a toll on his career. He was not as sure-footed and nimble as he once was. After a bad fall, he knew it was time to bring about a major life change. 

In the late 1930s, the Strother’s brought a beautiful old home in Petersburg, Va. They turned it into a tourist home with Bill as the cook and called it the Strother House. It was on Hwy 301 that ran from New England to Florida giving it high visibility to many travelers.

In 1942, the well-known Miller-Rhodes Department store in nearby Richmond advertised for a Santa Claus. Ethel saw the ad and urged Bill to apply. She knew with his affection for children he would make a great Santa. He applied for the job and was hired.

Strother brought with him many techniques from Hollywood and made the Miller & Rhoads Santa Claus a symbol of the Christmas season. His makeup, designed by the famous Max Factor, took Strother about two hours to put on, and he was, without a doubt, the most realistic Santa Claus ever seen.

In addition, he devised a special Santa act. After appearing out of a chimney, he received children on his lap and by use of a concealed throat-mike on an assistant, was able to address each child by name. No act at any theater in Richmond ever drew the crowds -- adults as well as children -- that flocked to see this Santa Claus appear out of a chimney.

A Saturday Evening Post magazine article stated he was the highest-paid Santa in the world. His Santa became legendary around Virginia as he served as the Miller & Rhoads Santa Claus for 14 years.

After 11 years running Strother House, Bill and his wife moved back to California, but every holiday season Strother returned to Richmond to perform his Santa duties.

The end of his life came in Los Angeles on Sept. 7, 1957, when an approaching driver crossed the lane and collided with a vehicle in which he was a passenger. He was 61.

Bill Strother once walked the streets of Kinston at the tender age of 20 and climbed a building for the first time. No one ever imagined this would put him on the path to an amazing career of adventure and daring that made him a celebrity called "The Human Spider." In his later years, he became the best Santa of all. I think it would have been fun and fascinating to have known him. What an amazing man! 

Sources for this piece include:

  • N.C. Dept, Cultural Resources
  • Literacy Digest Volume 57 pg. 61
  • International Santa Claus Hall of Fame
  • "The Real Santa of Miller & Rhoads: The Extraordinary Life of Bill Strother"
  • Richmond Time-Dispatch Facebook Page, June 13, 2018
  • - numerous newspaper articles from many newspapers across the United States and Canada
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