Saturday, May 20, 2017

Allentown, the Reagan Era and 3 Guys Living on a Billboard

Before social media, before YouTube, it was the three major U.S. networks and leading print newspapers that lit the spark for “viral news.” And so it went that in 1982, no one really knew about an AM radio contest in Allentown, Pa. that led three men to live on a billboard by the highway until The Wall Street Journal put it on their December 9th edition front page.

The Billboard Boys, a feature documentary about the contest, screened May 18th at the Ambler Theatre in Ambler, Pa. and shows Sunday May 21st at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville. In addition to the documentary, there is also a fictionalized feature-film treatment coming soon from Zeke Zelker. Zelker shot his movie last year, upping the contest participants number as well as the original WSAM-AM prize package.

From a piece last fall in The Morning Call:

The tale begins when WSAN owner Harold Fulmer III announced the "You'll Love to Live With Us" contest. The radio station partnered with Love Homes to offer an $18,000 modular home to the person who could live the longest on an 8-by-48-foot platform attached to a billboard.
Dalton Young, who had just returned from the Army, filled out 1,000 entries. Ron Kistler, who was laid off, sent in 4,004 entries. Their numbers paled next to Mike MacKay's, who sent in 47,000 entries with the help of his wife Linda. The men's names were drawn from 600,000 entries.
On Sept. 20, 1982, they climbed ladders to a platform 25 feet above the roar of Route 22 traffic. They slept on cots in tents equipped with phone lines, camp toilets and heaters.

Coincidentally, Billy Joel's song "Allentown" was released during the run of the contest, though as director Pat Taggart likes to point out, it was on the Billboard singles charts (no pun intended!) for a span shorter than that of the contest. The twists and turns during those 261 days are a wonky slice of Americana.

As Taggart has been mentioning in interviews, like the one below with WHYY Public Media, he was amazed when he first stumbled on to the story that a documentary had not already been made. Zelker meanwhile has titled his project Billboard and plans to support it with enhanced web series content.

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