Copied from The State Journal – Lansing, Michigan – Sunday, February 21, 1937
Lansing’s Stratosphere Man
“He flies through the air with the greatest of ease –
The daring young man on the flying trapeze.”
By Gerry Root
But according to Lansing’s “stratosphere man,” who has traveled with circuses, played in vaudeville and with fairs for 30 years, the average aerialist is not so young. In fact, really adept circus performers of today are past middle age. The older man does the hardest stunts. He is the one who is most versatile. If the younger performer is in the air, the older man is on the ground directing his timing and acting as the instructor.
If the younger performer is more agile in a few stunts, the veteran outdistances him in variety. And always behind the show is the oldest worker who instructs the newcomers to the circus and makes the performance a success.
You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, according to a well-worn phrase, but this may be because he knows enough already.
It takes years of diligent training to obtain the delicate sense of balance needed on the tight wire or trapeze, and the aerialist must spend days of practice the year around, especially during his youth, to maintain this ability. So the teacher and the finished acrobat is most often a man past middle age.
Arzeno E. Selden of Lansing, who is known to fair directors and circus managers the world over as “the stratosphere man,” is 40 years of age. He was featured at an eastern amusement park in recent years on the swaying pole 130 feet in the air, which is his principal act at the present time. While he remained in the air two young women stood in rapt attention at the foot of the rigging and were heard to conjecture upon his probable appearance. At length he came to earth. The two young women glanced at him briefly. “Phooey,” muttered one, and they turned to walk away. Mr. Selden was later told of the incident by a helper who overheard the conversation.
* * *
Common opinion often gives the young credit for dominance of work in the circus. That, says Mr. Selden, is piffle.
The fact that the older performers are prominent in this vocation need not discourage the younger athletes. The circus needs more recruits from the up-growing generation.
Youth is not choosing this particular line of athletics in America at the present time, and circus managers and fair directors are forced to import many of their stars from Europe. An opening is to be found in this field for the capable athletes who are playing professional football or dusting off their trousers as they play baseball on the sand lots of the nation.
“There are certainly enough disadvantages to circus work to discourage the athletes from entering this field. For one thing, there is constant danger associated with work on the trapeze. A single mishap may cause a fall, and death or broken bones. The dauntless acrobat who treads lightly in the face of death is engaged in one of the world’s most hazardous occupations. The reason for the low-rate of fatalities is that most performers know what they are doing before they become a full-fledged trapeze performer or aerialist. Yet, here is enough reason to force a horde of young job-seekers with an athletic trend away from this occupation.
Furthermore, if the circus performer is fortunate enough to have a home, he is usually away from it. He lives in tents the major part of his life. In one city for a week, or perhaps only over night. Moving during the night, and going through his act the next day. With sleepless nights for all participants, the tent caravan moves rapidly across the country. To survive this test of endurance the member of the circus troupe must have a bit of gypsy blood, or as the circus jargon puts it, “have sawdust in his shoes.”
The recompense for circus work is usually quite small. It is often not the pay which performers have foremost in their minds.
But nevertheless, a lot of people seem to like it. A few years with the circus seems to “get them.” After he has been in the circus, the actor wants to be around circus people for the rest of his life, for only they can share and understand his troubles. Although they know that most performers have little or nothing, and are often homeless when they leave the game. Usually upon death., the circus people still love their chosen art.
Although the stage, vaudeville, and the road show have bowed to cinema, the circus is one institution that has not been replaced. There is still a popular demand for men and women on the trapeze, aerialists, acrobats and contortionists. Fairs also are furnishing a market for athletic ability turned to these lines. Nothing has yet arisen to replace the circus.
In one way, however, the circus has changed. There is today a greater demand for a different type of entertainment. Since the advent of the automobile, greater thrills are demanded by circus audiences. In the old days when thrill-seekers could hop onto a buggy or buckboard, and go dashing at full 20 miles an hour or so, death-defying acts were much tamer than they may be today. With the modern generation hardened to skimming around curves at 60 miles an hour, and traveling across country in airplanes … toughened to dropping 60 floors in as many seconds in a modern elevator … the audiences require a much bigger act to give them a thrill. It seems that some part of human nature makes a spine-tingling sensation out of watching others risk their necks. The stunt must have enough breath-taking moments to whiten the gills of the timid, make women faint, and cause even the strongest and bravest of the lot to quiver. In other words, the performers must be near death at every moment of the act in order to keep the audience from yawning.
Selden believes he has that act. With a trapeze rigged up nearly 100 feet above the ground, he balances a chair on a wire as part of his act, sitting on this chair high over the heads of his audience. In order to make the thing more spectacular, he may hang from his toes from a trapeze hung at some dizzy height.
Another favorite sport is to set a 40-foot steel pole on top of the 100-foot rigging. The Stratosphere Man then climbs atop the unsteady pole, balances on his hands, and sways from side to side.
The climax of the act is the “slide for life.” From a height of 90 feet the acrobat grasps a strap on his mouth and slides down a rope for 500 feet into the grandstand.
The Stratosphere Man claims this act is the highest trapeze and swaying pole act in the world. All this is performed without a life net or other safety device. It was built in Lansing in 1932. Since then it has been Mr. Selden’s main act, and with it he has toured fairs and amusement parks.
The costumes which Selden wears on the high trapeze are elaborate. While playing at the Indianapolis centennial, he was dressed completely in white, the spotlights playing on him. It happened that the end of the wire on the death slide extended into an elderly woman’s dooryard. The woman never failed to present herself in the evening at the time of his act and craned her neck to watch him rapturously.
After several nights of watchful attendance, she was heard to exclaim: “My, doesn’t he look just like an angel?”
* * *
Sometimes the circus performer finds it difficult to understand the awe with which the man and woman in the street view his daily exertions. He goes about his routine on the trapeze quite as naturally as the stenographer types off her daily correspondence or the bookkeeper sets down his daily figures. It’s just another day’s work for him.
He realizes what a slip may mean, but he doesn’t intend to slip … And years of experience as an aerialist tend to give him a measure of confidence in his own ability.
Selden has been a trapeze performer for 30 years. But even before he started his youthful career as a trapeze artist, he swung on hay ropes in his father’s barn at Eagle, Mich., much to his father’s annoyance, and tried everything that he had seen done at the circus. His father had unwittingly taken him to a large circus, when Selden was a lad, and from that time on he was determined to become a performer. He turned to handsprings and stood on his head and went through horizontal bar acts on the rafters of the barn and chinned himself on the beams, with the hay as a net.
At length it became evident that the child was destined to become a circus acrobat. His father consented in 1907 to the plea that Arzeno might join the circus. His first job was with a small carnival, Frank Pilbeam’s amusement company, where he performed contortion and acrobatic stunts.
The next summer he joined Jack Kelly’s troupe, and under his tutelage laid the foundation for a successful circus career. Here he worked on the trapeze and learned considerable from the trained performers with whom he worked.
Two years later he joined the Great Lugar shows out of Ohio. As a contortionist, he was forced to bend backwards through a 15-inch ring and to sit on his head. That was in 1908.
In the summer of 1910, Selden made his first trip through the west. He had become a member of a wagon show owned by the Kennedy brothers which presented itself to the public view in small towns along the way.
The Kennedy brothers had one elephant. At times this elephant would break loose from its moorings and search out the cook tent.
It was on this fateful trip that the Great Kennedy brothers show broke up. A rancher at one stop-off had become overly attentive to the girls. Pearl Kennedy, one of the brothers, ejected him from the lot, only to have him reappear immediately armed with a shotgun. The Kennedy brother saw him first and killed the rancher. He immediately saddled a horse and rode to the sheriff’s office in the nearest town. The news traveled faster than he. The sheriff, who had heard of the affair, shot Kennedy from his horse without taking time to ask questions.
Here the show split up, and 1911 found Selden with the Bulgar-Cheney train show out of Wisconsin. John Robinson’s show followed in succession.
In the pre-war days of 1912, Selden joined with a unique boat show on the Mississippi river, called Crawford’s Southern circus. All trapeze work was done over the water. About 20 scows were towed along behind the boat, and the rigging was set up over these. Crowds lined the banks to view the unusual spectacle of the circus sailors, and it was the only show of its kind in existence.
But, as many shows have ended, so also did this one. During one night, while all members of the crew and troupe were soundly snoring, the barges broke loose from the towing lines, and swiftly floated down the Mississippi. By the time the loss was discovered, the scows were probably half-way to the Gulf of Mexico. The managers let them go, and abandoned the enterprise entirely.
During the winter months, Mr. Selden kept in shape by playing in vaudeville and winter circuses, and studying mechanical engineering. When the war broke, he went across the seas as a mechanical engineer. He spent two and a half years in service.
When he returned to the United States, he and his wife, the “Dainty Inez,” started Selden’s Big City Show. For six years he played fairs and indoor circuses with his company.
In this venture he became the youngest owner of a motorized tent show. He was only 24 years of age. With 30 people as performers, he toured Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana.
In 1930 Mr. Selden’s wife was killed when she fell to the floor in an act in which they had long teamed together. The performance consisted of 80-foot pole which was held in Mr. Selden’s belt. At the top of the pole “Dainty Inez” swung by a strap which she grasped in her teeth.
Through many acts she swung there safely; but that once she lost her grip and fell to an untimely death from paralysis. Although Mr. Selden felt the shock keenly, he continued in the circus business. And yet still he is determined that this shall be his life work.
Another big jolt came to him the next year. After years of work on the trapeze with but two serious accidents, he fell from the roof of his own house and fractured an ankle bone.
The catastrophe happened in Lansing. He had climbed to the roof to inspect the shingles. They were loose. He rolled from the roof to the ground, and was forced onto crutches for six months.
In 1932, while recovering from this fall from the roof, the stratosphere man devised his latest apparatus for circus performances, the 130-foot poll and trapeze. Since then he has featured this act almost exclusively.
Copied from The State Journal – Lansing, MI – Tuesday, February 13, 1951
Last “Slide For Life”
‘Stratosphere Man’ Dies in Florida
Arzeno Selden Had Monument Ready ‘Just in Case’
(Special to The State Journal)
Ft. Myers, Fla., Feb. 13 – Lansing’s “Stratosphere Man” has made his last “Slide for Life.”
Arzeno E. Selden, Lansing carnival performer, died in a local hospital Monday, a week after his aerial act had gone wrong. He had pitched 50 feet to the ground, breaking his hip, leg and several ribs.
The 63-year-old veteran performer lost his balance, sliding down from his self-designed 165-foot tower.
Strangely, Selden rallied after a delicate bone operation on the hip, and apparently was recovering. His doctor had not told him that he could never perform again.
Then, Monday afternoon, he suffered a heart attack and died quietly and suddenly.
Selden last performed before his hometown neighbors last summer, when merchants in North Lansing staged a mid-century centennial with their home town boy as the top attraction.
At that time, he erected his tower on one side of the Grand river and slid across the river twice daily during the two-week show.
While in Lansing last summer, Selden unveiled an eight-foot red granite monument to himself in Deepdale cemetery. An etching on the front of the monument shows the acrobat flexing his arm muscles. On the other side an etching depicts his “Slide for Life.”
Wanted It Ready
“I want it to be ready just in case I’m called without notice.” Selden explained at the time.
Lansing survivors include his brother, Leon A. Selden, and a sister, Mrs. Basil Jackson, who flew to Fort Myers the day after Selden was injured.
Funeral arrangements have not yet been completed, but members of the family said the body would be shipped to Lansing for burial there.
According to FamilySearch.org – World War 1 Draft Registration Card,
Arzeno Eugene Selden was born September 22, 1889 in Eagle, Clinton County, Michigan.
Copied from The State Journal – Lansing, Michigan – Sunday, February 18, 1951
Funeral services for Arzeno Selden, of 808 N. Larch st., who died last Monday at Ft. Myers, Fla., will be held at Estes-Leadley Colonial chapel at 1 o’clock Monday afternoon. Rec. William Blanding of the First Methodist church will officiate, with interment in Deepdale cemetery. Pallbearers will be Fred Jackson, Everett Sherman, James Reed, Orville Parks, Rollo Sickels and Artemus Taylor.
Transcribed by Timothy Bowman.