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A man rose into the heavens for an extended, difficult mission in Downtown Phoenix at the height of the Sputnik-inspired Cold War space race with the Soviet Union. “Lonesome Long John Now in Orbit” proclaimed the business, which launched him, on its marquee. “New World Record,” it added optimistically.
But John Roller, aka Lonesome Long John, wasn’t an astronaut, just an aspiring country singer. He hoped to hit it big in the music industry thanks to publicity from his bid to set a new standard for flagpole sitting. Despite challenging living conditions, Roller managed some notable achievements before returning to Earth.
Flagpole sitting was a zany feat of endurance that began in the Roaring ’20s and had a resurgence in the 1950s. In Phoenix, a car dealership and country radio station 1480 KHAT decided to capitalize on the fad for marketing purposes.
The 28-year-old Roller, who grew up in Arkansas, landed the high-flying disc jockey job. He resembled Tennessee Ernie Ford, sounded like Hank Williams, and was “determined… [with a] heart as big as the country around him,” according to Folk and Country Songs magazine in 1959.
On November 15, 1958, Roller stepped into a dual hardtop-convertible Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner. As an automotive lift raised the car into the sky, he waved to spectators and secured it atop a stout, 40-foot pole over Read Mullan Ford’s used car lot at Third and Van Buren streets. The snazzy car would be his if he broke the flagpole sitting record.
“He worked 12-hour shifts, coming on every hour for about five minutes,” the late Ray Odom, the former owner of KHAT, said in a 2016 interview with the author. “He’d play guitar, sing a song, and talk about the weather up there. People would tune in to hear his updates.”
The car dealership received immense attention as Roller’s marathon became a local sensation. “People would hear John on the radio and drive 50 miles to see him,” Odom said. “They did really good business at the dealership.”
While aloft, Roller recorded a few tunes, including “Flagpole Rock,” with guitarists Al Casey and his wife, Corky Casey. The trio performed in the Ford, with the sound engineer on the ground.
“Al Casey told me about the frightening trip up to Roller’s car on a small wooden chair, attached to a pulley by a rope,” John Dixon, a music historian, says. “The rope was fastened to the bumper of a car on the ground, which moved to raise a passenger to the rear of Roller’s car. He and Corky then crawled into the Ford through the open trunk.”
On June 14, 1959, Roller triumphantly descended from the Skyliner after being aloft for 211 days and 22 hours, beating the previous record by 13 hours. The stunt didn’t bring him musical fame, but he was just glad to be out of the sky.
“I feel just like a man who’s been through a war,” Roller told The Arizona Republic. “It’s over, and I don’t especially want to go through it again. I never worked so hard in my whole life as while I was up there.”