On Sept. 20, 1982, three men climbed a billboard along Route 22 in Whitehall Township, Lehigh Valley, to begin a radio promotional contest that ultimately lasted a staggering 261 days. The prize? An $18,000 mobile home for the person who could stay there the longest.
The contestants stayed through bad weather, holidays, and purported pressure to end the contest due to bad publicity. Only one headed down early, and that was because of a marijuana-related arrest that he says was a police setup.
Now, 36 years later, people are still talking about the stunt, thanks in part to Billboard Boys, a documentary from Philadelphia-born filmmaker Pat Taggart and producer Frank Petka. The film is currently available to stream via iTunes and Amazon. What's more, there is even interest from Hollywood to create a fictional adaptation of the story. Local filmmaker Zeke Zelker will premiere his own version, Billboard, in November in Allentown.
Known as the "You'll Love to Live With Us" contest, the promotion was for station WSAN-AM, which at the time was undergoing a format change from country music to nostalgic hits. Station owner Harold G. Fulmer III, a millionaire businessman, hoped the event would get WSAN some attention. It worked, but not in the way anyone intended.
Instead of promoting the station, the billboard contest became a story that symbolized the economic struggles of the early 1980s. High interest rates and significant levels of unemployment made the dream of owning a home seem unattainable for many blue-collar workers — including Dalton Young, Mike MacKay, and Ron Kistler. If they had to sit on a billboard, so be it.
Young, fresh out of the Army at the time, was 22 and got roped into the contest by his mother. Once he realized he might be able to get in the Guinness Book of World Records, he was hooked, but the prospect of owning a home that early on in life didn't do much for him.
"I was 22 when it started, and I wasn't really looking ahead," Young, now 58, says.
Kistler, on the other hand, was 24, unemployed, and looking for work. With the economy weighing on him heavily, the contest was a chance for him to get his name out there for potential employment, and get a home, to boot. "I thought trucking would be a good industry for me, but I didn't have experience," Kistler, now 61, says. "I didn't have experience sitting on a billboard, either, until then."
MacKay was 31, and he took part because he saw it as his only chance to own a home in his lifetime. The billboard's resident showman, MacKay was also in it for the celebrity, which he hoped to parlay into longer-lasting stardom. That never happened, and he died of heart complications in 2006.
"He liked all the attention," MacKay's ex-wife, Linda Johnson, 64, says. "And if it wasn't enough, he would figure out a way of getting more attention for the billboard."
At the time of the contest, mortgage rates hovered around 18 percent, and unemployment stood at around 12 percent, thanks to the early 1980s economic recession, the Morning Call reports. In September 1982, the same month the contest started, Billy Joel highlighted the Lehigh Valley's economic troubles with "Allentown," which still rubs some locals the wrong way today.
That economic anxiety seems to be why the story still resonates. Many millennials aren't buying homes, and some worry they will never be able to afford to. In that sense, Taggart says, younger viewers may feel a connection to Kistler, MacKay, and Young.
"They had no shot at getting a house otherwise," he says.
The trio spent most of their time on the billboard answering phone calls on private phones that had been installed, chatting with visitors on the ground, and waiting for one of the other guys to crack. The stunt was a test of psychological endurance, so boredom was par for the course — heightened by the lack of television, alcohol, or drugs, which were prohibited. Because it was a competition, the guys didn't talk much.
Kistler had daily visits from his girlfriend, Sue, who is now his wife, on almost every one of the 261 days he was up there — save for the day it snowed two feet, causing road closures. MacKay pressed the flesh of anyone willing to come by and played pranks on the other contestants, like when he hid under his bed as a ruse to make it look like he had given up. Dalton took daily, on-air calls from Jon DeBella, who was at WMMR at the time, thanks to an 'MMR T-shirt he had worn the day the contest started.
The monotony was shaken up some on Dec. 9, 1982, when the Wall Street Journal published an article about the contest. From then, stories in major publications like Rolling Stone followed, as well as features on programs in Japan, Germany, Australia, and France.
"After that, the reason to stay was international publicity," Young says. "Time, People magazine, all these things — it's enough to keep somebody involved."
Young's days in the contest, however, were numbered. On day 184, he was arrested after selling marijuana to someone he believes was an undercover cop, and he was removed from the billboard. Kistler and MacKay came down on day 200 to testify at Young's trial, and were rewarded with a shower and breakfast before heading back up.
Though his lawyer argued entrapment, Young was found guilty of delivering a controlled substance, a felony, and was sentenced to six months of probation and a $100 fine. Whether the incident was designed to get him down or to somehow end the contest, as some rumors say, he maintains today that it was a setup.
"How else could you explain it, really?" Young says. "This guy showed up with an agenda, obviously. Now I am hearing even more conspiracy theories. They talk about the township wanting to shut it down, and they say they looked at this as a way they could do it."
If the rumors are true, the intended effect didn't happen. Kistler and MacKay stayed on the billboard for 77 more days and demanded in that time that they both get homes and cars for remaining in the running as long as they did.
By June 8, 1983, WSAN relented. About 150 people were on hand to watch the contest end. The station reportedly did not get a bump in business from the contest, and today it's a Spanish-language sports talk station.
"I think it's someone else's turn," MacKay said when his feet reached the ground. "I've tied Ron with the record for 261 days. If anyone else wants to break that, they're welcome to try."
Kistler lived for 20 years with Sue and their daughter in the home he won in the contest. Fulmer even gave him a job as a maintenance worker. Today, the Kistlers still live on the same Lehigh Valley plot they bought for their WSAN home in 1983, but they've traded up to a bigger model since.
"He was the same person the day he came down as the day he went up," Taggart says. "He went up there to accomplish a goal, and he accomplished it."
MacKay continued searching for the celebrity he'd enjoyed at the height of the contest but never found it. Much of the world forgot about the billboard contest shortly after it happened, Kistler says, and with the U.S. invasion of Grenada in October 1983, many of their scheduled television interviews were scrapped. MacKay, Johnson says, was crushed.
"It put him into a depression. He was really upset," she says. "He counted on a lot of promotion and TV shows and stuff. Since none of that happened, the bottom came out from underneath him. He went back to selling vacuum cleaners and stuff like that. It was not a good picture."
Young also still lives in the Lehigh Valley, where he works as an addiction counselor. His attitude toward owning a home hasn't changed much since 1983, considering that he still rents.
"I kind of like renting," he says. "The people take care of everything for me — I just have to show up, basically."