By Jack Helbig
Playwright Charles Pike considers himself a member in good standing of the Lord Buckley cult, though the first time he heard of him was two years ago. He was driving with a friend listening to a compilation of beat poetry when suddenly he heard a peculiar voice. "I wasn't sure who it was," Pike says. "I wasn't sure what he was saying. I thought it was Scatman Crothers at first. And he was talking about the 'ding-ding players' and the 'wang-dang players' and the 'reed heads' and the 'lute heads' and the 'hip Gan.' As I started to get used to his language, the effect of listening to him and the message he was saying and the words he was using--it was as if the top of my head opened up like a sun dome and the sun shone in the dark corners. And I became obsessed with Lord Buckley."
Pike began collecting information about the man along with any recordings he could find. He says that when he played one of the cassettes for his friend Scott Vehill, cofounder of Prop Theatre, "Vehill started jumping around. 'Ohmigod, ohmigod! It's the missing link! You found the missing link!'" He meant the link between the stream of consciousness writing of Joyce and that of the Beats, the link between the 20s and the 50s.
Vehill talked Pike into turning some of the material he'd collected into a play, Seven Ply Gasser, which will be performed in a workshop production later this month at Prop Theatre's second annual Midwest New Play Festival and Workshop. The play will get its first public reading this Monday night at the Bailiwick Arts Center.
Richard Buckley, who was born in 1906 in a small mining town in California, worked as a dishwasher, truck driver, and lumberjack before forsaking the regular world of work for life on the road. In the early 30s he landed in Chicago, where he worked as an emcee at the notorious walkathons. People would walk around a track for hours, even days, competing for prizes, and the emcee's job was to keep the audience entertained with stories and jokes. "Lord Buckley would split the duty with Red Skelton," says Pike. "Skelton developed many of the characters he later performed on radio at the walkathons."
In his free time Buckley hung out with jazz musicians and strippers, performed comedy in local speakeasies, and made friends, he always claimed, with the likes of Al Capone. One day he visited a bankrupt circus with a friend who was thinking of buying it, and he found an elephant-sized robe encrusted with costume jewelry in a wardrobe trunk. "He put on the robe," Pike says, "and suddenly he has a vision. He says, 'Yes, your lordship.' Bows down. And when he stands up he's Lord Buckley."
He was Lord Buckley from that point on. He carried a throne with him wherever he went--even his VW bus had one built into it. Everyone in his life was given a title. His wife became Lady Elizabeth, and those around him became prince this or prince that.
For years Lord Buckley, who also got arrested plenty of times for drunkenness and disorderly conduct, worked in nightclubs. He didn't tell jokes, though his routines were funny. He wasn't a poet, though his shtick depended heavily on the playful use of language. He specialized in giving lectures clotted with jazz and hipster slang. Jesus became the Nazz, Shakespeare became Willy the Shakes, and Mark Antony's speech from Julius Caesar became "Hipsters, flipsters, and finger-poppin' daddies, knock me your lobes! I come to lay Caesar out, not to hip you to him."
Occasionally Buckley appeared on his friend Ed Sullivan's TV show, performing safer, blander shtick, most notably a mild parody of Amos 'n' Andy. Mainstream America didn't get Lord Buckley. Eventually he was relegated to the margins of the entertainment world, performing mostly in tiny jazz joints and strip clubs, sandwiched between the acts people paid their money to see.
Then he met Del Close, who in 1960 concocted the idea of an evening of stand-up comedy at Second City featuring work by Close, Severn Darden, and Buckley. "Del opened the evening with a stand-up act about the life of inanimate objects," says Pike. "Darden followed with a character called Walter Wander Vogelfinder, who was a 16th-century philosopher. Darden would come out and explain the nature of the universe. That would take the show into the cosmos. And then Buckley would come out and take everyone really out there."
Pike laughs. "The first night of the show Buckley goes out for his set, and Del and Severn can't get him off the stage. There are supposed to be two shows that night, people are lining up outside, and Buckley is still onstage talking away. They turn the lights out on him, and he's going on and on. Finally Del and Severn have to go out onstage and physically lift him up and carry him offstage so they can start the second show."
The show turned into a cult hit anyway, moving from Second City to the Gate of Horn, where it ran as a late-night show. Then it went to New York, where on opening night police arrested Buckley for not having a valid cabaret license.
Buckley immediately became a cause celebre among New York City's intelligentsia, who'd long been irritated by the licensing law, and a committee that included everyone from George Plimpton to Norman Podhoretz was formed to protest it. But before Buckley's license could be reinstated he died under mysterious circumstances.
"Lots of people have lots of theories," says his biographer Oliver Trager. "The people I've talked to over the years talk about everything from foul play to a voodoo curse to the guy was so heavy he fell off the face of the earth to a jewelry heist gone awry to a counterfeiting ring. There are all these stories." When pressed, Trager offers a more mundane theory: "He was in bad health. This was a guy who drank, smoked, abused his body for 54 years, and the stress of the situation may have pushed him over the top. I don't think he was quote unquote murdered, though I don't rule the possibility out."
"Lord Buckley was an incredibly complex person," says Pike. "He was a scam artist, he was an alcoholic, he was a philanderer. But when he put on that elephant robe and changed from Dick Buckley, emcee, saucy comedian, to Lord Buckley--Del Close called that the most important transformation in 20th-century comedy."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lord Buckley, 1958 uncredited photo.