‘Hu­man Spi­der’ climbed for char­ity a cen­tury ago

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - LOCAL PERSPECTIVES - BY NICOLE KAPPATOS nkap­patos@times­dis­patch.com (804) 649-6304 Twit­ter: @nicole_kap­patos

On June 14, 1918, 5,000 spec­ta­tors stood breath­less be­low the Ho­tel Rich­mond on Ninth Street in down­town Rich­mond as Bill Strother, also known as the “Hu­man Spi­der,” scaled the walls of the build­ing unas­sisted in less than 30 min­utes.

Strother, a North Carolina na­tive, put on the show as part of a char­i­ta­ble ef­fort where he en­cour­aged at­ten­dees to buy thrift stamps dur­ing World War I.

Ac­cord­ing to the June 15, 1918, Rich­mond Times-Dis­patch re­port, once Strother reached the top of the ho­tel, “A long breath of re­lief was drawn by the crowd be­low, whose nerves had al­ready been set on edge by sev­eral fake falls, which were ex­e­cuted, [Strother] said for the pur­pose of stim­u­lat­ing the con­tri­bu­tions from the spec­ta­tors.” The Rich­mond war sav­ings board re­ported that nearly $1,000 was raised in the drive and an es­ti­mated 220 stamp cards were sold.

On Nov. 28, 1920, The Times-Dis­patch an­nounced that Strother would re­turn to Rich­mond to “give the cit­i­zens of this city some of the thrills of their lives.” Strother ef­fort­lessly scaled the Ho­tel Rich­mond again, that time to raise money for the Med­i­cal Col­lege of Vir­ginia.

Strother per­formed his risky climbs and stunts all over the U.S. and Canada un­til the 1920s while also work­ing as a stunt dou­ble in Hol­ly­wood. He re­tired from climb­ing in the late 1920s after a bad fall.

Dur­ing his re­cov­ery, Strother met his wife, a nurse named Ethel Grady Weems. In the early 1930s, Strother and Weems re­turned to the East Coast, where they opened a ho­tel in Peters­burg, known as Strother House, which they ran for many years.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Strother con­tin­ued to make an im­pres­sion on the Rich­mond com­mu­nity when he served as the Miller & Rhoads Santa Claus for 14 years. Ac­cord­ing to a Times-Dis­patch ar­ti­cle in 1957, Strother “used to tell chil­dren he be­gan to play the part of Santa be­cause the world needed a Santa Claus who was strong and fear­less and could do the un­usual.”

After eleven years run­ning Strother House, Strother and his wife moved to Cal­i­for­nia, but every hol­i­day sea­son Strother re­turned to Rich­mond to per­form his Santa du­ties. He once said, “The most im­por­tant thing in all the world is that dreams come true. It’s as im­por­tant for grown-ups as for chil­dren.”

In Septem­ber 1957, Strother was killed

An ‘Ex­tra­or­di­nary Life’

To learn more about the life of Bill Strother, check out Donna Strother Deekens’ book, “The Real Santa of Miller & Rhoads: The Ex­tra­or­di­nary Life of Bill Strother.” in a car ac­ci­dent near Bur­bank, Calif. On Sept. 13, 1957, Ross Valen­tine, who played one of Strother’s elves, paid trib­ute to him in The Times-Dis­patch with a let­ter say­ing, “He could make a child who had for­got­ten Santa Claus be­lieve in him again.”

DONNA STROTHER DEEKENS

Bill Strother, whose busi­ness card is shown here, per­formed risky climbs and feats across the U.S. and Canada and worked as a Hol­ly­wood stunt dou­ble.

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