Olympia History: Human Flies Climb Tall Buildings in Washington’s Capitol

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During the first half of the 20th century Americans were fascinated by Human Flies, who thrilled crowds by free-climbing tall buildings and doing acrobatic tricks across the United States and North America. Four of these daredevils visited Olympia during this period to climb its tallest buildings, the Old State Capitol and Hotel Olympian.

Human Fly Jack Williams, 1918

Jack Williams was the first Human Fly to visit Olympia. Like many of them, his backstory is ambiguous. According to his daughter his real surname was Frazier. He’s quoted in the February 12, 1918 issue of Alabama’s Huntsville Daily Times claiming, probably not truthfully, that he got into the work after climbing a burning building to rescue an elderly woman in Detroit. “That fellow isn’t a man,” he heard a bystander say, “he’s a human fly.” In 1917 Williams even climbed the Woolworth Building in New York City, then the tallest building in the world.

Now in the Northwest he was performing in support of World War I fundraisers. On September 4, 1918 he ascended the 42-story Smith Tower in Seattle while out on bail for a speech he made in Boise that attacked the patriotism of a local Nonpartisan League leader while claiming to be an active-duty member of the U.S. military. His manager was also arrested. While he had made the speech, the military part seemed to be a misunderstanding.

By the time of his Olympia climb on October 1, 1918, all these matters had been cleared up and forgotten. Williams’ destination: the State Capitol Building, now known as the Old State Capitol, at 600 Washington Street SE.

Built in 1891 as the Thurston County Courthouse, the building was bought by the state for a capitol building in 1901. Williams climbed to the top of the flagpole atop its 150-foot-tall clocktower. 25% of the money collected from the crowd watching went to the War Community Service, which had sponsored the climb.

Newspaper clipping showing Jack Williams climbing a building with the caption 'The Human Fly will climb Capitol Bldg. Tonight at 7 o'clock'
Jack Williams, Human Fly, climbed the Old State Capitol in 1918. Image from the October 1, 1918 Morning Olympian. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

Human Fly Babe White, 1924 and 1932

On May 2, 1924, Babe White was the first Human Fly to climb to the top of the Hotel Olympian, 116 Legion Way SE. Built in 1918, the hotel was a symbol of civic pride. White climbed buildings across the United States, such as the Woolworth Building and the Smith Tower. He also visited Mexico, climbing the cathedral in Mexico City, earning the nickname there of “El Hombre Mosca.”

With over a decade of daredevil work experience behind him, he climbed the Hotel Olympian at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., performing stunts both times. Wearing bright colors, a searchlight was pointed at him during his evening climb.

Babe White returned to Olympia on July 19, 1932 to climb the Hotel Olympian again. This time he only scaled the building once, at 7:30 p.m. and performed mid-air trapeze stunts. A group of five girls were even hired to sell commermative tags at his climb and the Olympia Creamery Company used his image to endorse their Olympus-brand butter.
After his death-defying climb he performed stunts on stage at 9 p.m. at the Liberty Theater as part of family-friendly “Treasure Chest Night” variety show that included a chance to meet a “chubby pirate” and catch the film “Symphony of Six Million,” a drama about a struggling young Jewish doctor in New York City.

White was killed the next year, falling three stories before a horrified crowd of 2,000 in Santa Monica, California.

Old newspaper ad that says 'See the Human Fly Thursday 7:30 p.m. Olympian Hotel, the Human Fly recommends Olympus Butter Ice Cream and Milk for their health building qualities. Olympia Creamery Co.
The Olympia Creamery Company used a publicity photo of Babe White to endorse their Olympus-brand butter and other products in this ad from the July 17, 1932 issue of the Daily Olympian. Photo courtesy: Washington State Library

Human Fly Johnny Woods, 1928

The next Human Fly to visit Olympia was Johnny Woods. Born in Atlanta and dismissed by his teachers as a clown, he began his climbing career early. He performed in Canada, United States and Mexico, ascending landmarks like Seattle’s Smith Tower and the Woolworth Building in New York City.

The newspaper lauded his daredevil courage. “Even though he defies any wall to stop him,” enthused the Daily Olympian, “he fears no harm, for he depends upon physical strength and control to keep him safe.”

Hailed as a “skyscraper climber” by local reporters, Woods made his ascent of the Hotel Olympian on July 4, 1928. He went up the building twice, at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. He even made the last climb blindfolded. He appeared at the Liberty Theater at 3:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. to perform what the newspaper termed “wonderful feats.”

Human Fly Henry Rolland, 1930

D.D., or Henry Rolland, was another Human Fly to visit Olympia. He climbed many of North America’s tallest buildings of the era, such as the Chrysler Building in New York City. He also ascended Seattle’s Smith Tower in 1928.

Rolland made a total of four climbs of the Hotel Olympian, 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., on both September 4 and 5, 1930. Each time he performed new stunts, including ones he had done for the film “Safety Last,” where he had doubled for the film’s lead Harold Lloyd. Olympia’s Ray Theater had shown the film in 1923.

On the hotel’s roof, Rolland was joined by his wife Blannis, a former United Artists Studio stuntwoman, to perform additional hazardous tricks on the roof’s edge to thrill the crowd. Seven years later he fell to his death during a trapeze act in Tennessee.

black and white photo of the Hotel Olympian
Human Flies Babe White, Johnny Woods and Henry Rolland scaled the Hotel Olympian during the 1920s and 1930s. Photo courtesy: Susan Parish Photograph Collection, Washington State Archives, Southwest Regional Branch

The Human Files Legacy

Much has changed in Olympia since the Human Flies visited. The downtown State Capitol has become the Old State Capitol and home to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, losing its tower in a devastating 1928 fire. The Hotel Olympian has been transformed into businesses and housing. But during the dark days of the Great Depression these daredevil Human Flies thrilled audiences with their death-defying climbs. If they could do the impossible, what more could ordinary people do?

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