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How the ‘Human Spider’ thrilled audiences in Richmond and around the world

Posted at 10:50 PM, Jul 27, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-23 21:45:37-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- You can look long and hard for the historic marker. But your search would be a fruitless endeavor. 9th and Grace at Capitol Square.

Just happens to be the site of one of the most thrilling and least known chapters in Richmond's storied history.

“He was actually called the Houdini of the time,” said Donna Deekens. “Absolutely. I think he became a folk hero.”

“It was a tremendous spectacle with over 5,000 people,” she added.

Bill Strother

June 14, 1918. Author Donna Deekens says one man captivated the masses below. Bill Strother a wiry 21-year-old attempted to scale the gleaming new Hotel Richmond.

“I’m not sure I could have looked at it,” said Donna. “He did it with regular clothes and shoes on his feet.”

Ten Stories. No rope. No net and no fear.

“He said don’t look down. That was the key. Don’t look down,” said Donna.

After 30 minutes, Strother reached the top.

“I’m not sure it was guts. I just think he had to be sorta crazy,” said Donna.

She says the big-hearted North Carolina native scaled the hotel for philanthropic reasons. Strother was collecting money for U.S. soldiers fighting in WWI.

Bill Strother

“He raised $1,000 that night,” said Donna.

A century after his high-flying fundraiser. Deekens says the Human Spider remains largely unknown.

“Daredevil doesn’t even describe him in my book,” says Donna.

She says the Human Spider remains largely unknown.

“He just had an extraordinary talent and will. To even want to try something like this,” said Donna.

Strother would repeat his stunt over and over by conquering the Woolworth in New York and Wrigley in Chicago.

“He climbed about 1,000 buildings across the United States and Canada between 1918 and 1925,” Donna said.

Bill Strother

The Library of Virginia's Errol Somay, Director of the Newspaper Project, says Strother generated lots of publicity in black and white.

"This is an example of what I’d call forgotten history,” said Errol. “I think there were some moments where Bill Strother was on page one. You have to remember. There was no internet. There was no tv. Commercial radio wasn’t around. So, newspapers were the only game in town.”

Strother's fame reached new heights when legendary silent film star Harold Lloyd convinced the daredevil to star alongside him in the iconic movie "Safety Last" playing Lloyd's sidekick, Limpy Bill.

“He was a master at what he did,” explained Donna.

But what moviegoers did not know? Strother also served as Lloyd's stunt double.

“It was Bill climbing dressed as Harold Lloyd.”

It would be Strother's one and only film appearance.

“After the film came out he was doing promotions for the film by climbing theatres,” said Donna.

But Strother's most iconic role wouldn't involve going up. But shimmying down the chimney. Just four blocks from his original stunt. Strother would thrill legions of Richmonders as Miller & Rhoads' Legendary Santa.

Bill Strother

“He was there till 1942 to 1956 as Santa Claus,” said Donna.

The Saturday Evening Post claimed Strother's St. Nick commanded $1,000 a week. Donna says Strother set the bar for all department store Santas.

“He not only changed the face of Santa not just here but across the country,” she said.

Donna hopes the biography she penned will help shed light on this unknown dynamic figure.

“To me Bill is like the onion where you pull layer after layer after layer.”

Sadly, the risk taker who tempted fate would die in a car crash in 1957 in California.

Bill Strother

“I think one of the reasons why we should remember Bill is that he was so unique,” said Donna.

Now, 62 years after his death, Richmond’s most daring exhibitionist maker still captivates the curious.

“You know the next thing I’m going to do is walk over there and stand on the corner and look up and try to figure out how he did it,” said the Library of Virginia’s Errol Somay.

Bill Strother. From Spider Man and Silent film star to Santa is finally stepping onto the rungs of history.

“The world needed someone to do something unusual. And something that people could look up to literally and figuratively,” said Donna “He found his calling in that.”

Before he died Bill Strother and his wife ran a small Bed and Breakfast called the Strother House in Petersburg. As for author Donna Deekens. She made a startling discovery during her research. Donna Strother Deekens found out she is a distant cousin of Bill Strother. You may recognize Donna. She was Miller and Rhoad’s famous Snow Queen from the early 70’s through the 1980’s.

If you know of someone with an interesting story to tell email Greg McQuade.

Watch "I Have A Story" Fridays on CBS 6 News at 11 p.m. If you know of someone with an interesting story we should tell, email gmcquade@wtvr.com