Life on high with a view of Route 22
For those who remember, the early 1980s were a time of economic hardship, with a recession hanging over the country like a dark cloud. For those who remember, the late 1970s and early 1980s marked the heyday of wacky radio gimmicks and disc jockey stunts that, to some extent, prefigured the reality-T.V. craze.
One such stunt was cooked up by the minds at WSAN 1470-AM in Allentown, Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia. In 1982, the station sponsored a promotion that would see three contestants live on the WSAN billboard in town, with the person who stayed the longest winning an $18,000 mobile home. The closing of Bethlehem Steel had recently rocked the region, so the recession was particularly hard on its residents.
For Ron Kistler, Mike MacKay and Dalton Young, the contest was more than just a lark; it was a mission. No one, least of all the people at WSAN, expected them to stay any longer than 30 days. But they didn’t count on the sheer determination of the three men, who remained bound to the billboard for six months, despite punishing winter weather and, according to an archived article from 1983 by the United Press International, one drug-related arrest.
The event coincided with the release of Billy Joel’s hit song “Allentown,” inspired by the city’s economic travails. “Allentown” remained on the Billboard charts for over 20 weeks. The “Billboard Boys” remained on the billboard even longer.
Now, this “Rust Belt Fairy Tale” comes to life in a feature documentary titled, appropriately enough, Billboard Boys, produced by Owl Town Productions, which is based in Philadelphia.
For producer Frank Petka and director Pat Taggart, the principals of Owl Town, this story was simply a faded memory from their childhood. The filmmakers have been friends for over 20 years and production partners for over 10. In this exclusive interview with YES! Weekly, they’ve chosen to answer collectively as opposed to individually.
“We were just kids when the story took place,” they said. “And while Allentown was just a short ride from our homes in Philadelphia, we were wrapped up in cartoons – not current events. We learned about the Billboard contest when a local newspaper did a 30-year (retrospective) article. We read it, were fascinated, and dove in head-first.”
Having produced television programming, short films and features (most notably the 2011 romantic comedy 99 Percent Sure), this would be their maiden voyage into documentary filmmaking.
“It was a lot of fun and a great education to navigate those waters together,” they said. “Frank worked tirelessly to locate and then earn the trust of anyone intimately connected to the contest. Obviously, the two most important relationships that needed to be built were with the surviving ‘billboarders,’ (as Mike MacKay died in 2006), Young and Kistler. Once they got on board, the project had legitimacy.”
For its time, the story of the “Billboard Boys” proved surprisingly popular, with attention extending beyond the Philadelphia area to Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, and even international coverage. Phil Donahue devoted an entire show to the event, which as time went on became something of an embarrassment for WSAN’s management, with even the contestants airing their grievances – from atop the billboard, naturally. (Ironically, for all that attention, WSAN’s ratings and revenue didn’t improve much.)
“We like to think of this as a documentary that plays like a narrative, so first and foremost we just want audiences to enjoy the ride,” the filmmakers said. “Also, we hope that people admire the persistence of these three men as much as we do, and realize that they became symbols for so many other people in America at the time. And, finally, we want viewers to ask themselves: ‘How long could I have lived up there?’”
The filmmakers said they were very proud and grateful to have had the opportunity to tell a story that needed to be told. “People Magazine called this ‘a perfect story’ for a reason; every element of a truly great tale was in place and needed zero fabrication,” they said. “It’s a slice of Americana that sat on a shelf collecting dust for over three decades, and like the contest – which made waves around the globe – we want to share our story with the world.”
The film is available on DVD and Blu-ray through the official website.