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The stratosphere man.


Arzeno Eugene Selden was born September 22, 1889 near Lansing to parents John Adam Selden and Elizabeth Adele Abbey. Little is known about Seldens childhood or the start of his career. But by the time he died in 1951, millions were aware of the performer known as "The Stratosphere Man."

Seldens stage name related to his specialty: He was an "aerialist," an acrobat who performed in the air, on a suspended apparatus such as a trapeze or tightrope. Ads promoting Selden promised thrills, suspense, and showmanship--and he consistently delivered.

Seldens high-wire skills in a small circus stood him in good stead for 30 years. Then he developed something different that, according to Billboard magazine, inspired "exclamations of awe and admiration filled with suspense and relief [to] come from the crowds" at the conclusion of each show. (At the time, Billboard was the paper of record for circuses, carnivals, amusement parks, and other forms of live entertainment.)

That something different was a two-part act. In the first part, he performed a complex series of maneuvers on something called a "sway pole." This aptly named apparatus was a flexible pole of 100 feet or more in length, planted in the ground but able to sway back and forth in a wide arc while he executed handstands and other acrobatic moves atop it.

After Selden finished thrilling the audience on the sway pole, he would dismount from it by executing a stunt called a "Slide for Life." This involved a wire that ran from the top of the pole to the ground. Selden would place a strap around his head and attach it to a small pulley car on the wire and slide down it, risking his safety (and, possibly, his life) in the process. It should be noted that Selden performed without a net.

With his new death-defying act, Selden quickly became one of the most popular aerial acts in the country. He performed at dozens of festivals and fairs, venturing out from his native Michigan to appear from coast to coast. His aerial acumen even helped him land repeat invitations; he was one of the headliners at the Texas State Fair, where he appeared five times. One of Selden's most famous Texas performances occurred during the 1939 fair. Selden executed a series of acrobatic moves on a 130-foot sway pole, teetered on a kitchen chair 90 feet in the air, and then ended the show with a 500-foot Slide for Life.

A contemporary performer and friend of Selden, Sam J. Levy, noted that "[Arzeno] was a real trouper in the grand tradition, one of the greatest thrill acts, and a big asset to the business."

Selden received similar praise complimenting his professional manner, cooperative nature, and dedication to his act. His professionalism was well-known; as booking agent Ernie Young once said, "[Selden] was never late on a job, worked under adverse conditions, [and] never complained."

Not content to simply perform, Selden became a pioneer in aerial acrobatics and helped push the limits of such performances. He was an early adopter of the "breakaway" sway pole: a new apparatus designed to increase the danger and shock the crowd. The difference between the two poles was the location and the presence of a hinge. Unlike the traditional sway pole, the breakaway model was not planted directly in the ground, but rather attached to a crosspiece suspended between two support poles.

Selden would climb up the new pole and perform his usual swaying acrobatics. At the end of the act, he would press a trigger that caused the pole to "break" and swing down like a pendulum. Believing that Selden had fallen, the crowd would react with a rush of emotion. Then he would reveal the trick.

During his career, Selden also performed his high-wire stunts at record-breaking heights. His first record involved climbing a 160-foot sway pole. Upon reaching the top, his acrobatics caused the pole to sway in a stomach-churning 60-degree arc. This particular performance was a highlight of Selden's career, and is commemorated on his gravestone. Not surprisingly, Selden was the highest-paid sway-pole performer of his time.

Only Selden's record-setting Slide for Life surpassed his sway pole achievement. With nothing but his own balance and nerve, Selden slid more than a quarter of a mile for the Chicago Tribunes 100-year anniversary celebration in 1947.

In order to achieve these record-breaking stunts, Selden needed the proper equipment. The rigging that was commonly used at the time could not meet the demands he put on it. So, using mechanical skills he learned as a youth in a machine shop, Selden developed his own rigging made of a special metal alloy. The equipment weighed more than three tons and took five men 15 hours to erect.

While Selden enjoyed many triumphs as an aerialist, he also suffered his share of tragedies. In 1944, he sustained his most painful injury during a performance at Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While executing a Slide for Life, he lost control and crashed into the anchor that secured the cable to the ground. The impact broke Seldens neck, collarbone, and several ribs. Remarkably, he recovered rapidly and was soon on the circuit again.

A more emotional injury came when his wife, Inez Anthony Selden, fell 35 feet from a trapeze in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and died. She had been trained by her husband and was an accomplished aerialist in her own right. "She was hanging from her teeth and suffered a temporary paralysis of the jaw muscles," he explained. On another occasion, Selden was in the same show when "The Great Peters" hanged himself in a hangman's act in St. Louis, Missouri. "It was a tough job cutting him down--we were good friends," Selden observed. "But we all go on until we go out.

In 1951, tragedy struck Selden again. While performing a Slide for Life in Fort Myers, Florida, the aerialist fell 50 feet onto a parked car. He insisted from his hospital bed that he would recover quickly and be able to appear for a sixth time at the Texas State Fair. But he could not keep his promise. A week later, Arzeno Selden died from a heart attack. He was 61 years old.

Selden's agent, Charles Zemater, had this to say about his client: "[His] passing leaves an unfillable gap in the ranks of outdoor performers." Fred Tennant Jr. of the Texas State Fair added, "Not only have we lost a great act, but I have lost one of my best performer friends."

Selden was interred in Deepdale Memorial Park in Eaton County's Delta Township. Fittingly, the aerialist's grave is unique. Commissioned by Selden before his death, the headstone features an image of him performing his two best-known stunts. On the opposite side is an image of the performer flexing his muscles above a list of his aerial accomplishments.

Jacob Makowski is the membership coordinator for the Historical Society of Michigan and a graduate of Michigan State University.
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Author:Makowski, Jacob
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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