IN THE BEGINNING - a Lord Buckley primer by Michael Monteleone
Lord Richard Buckley, the hipster’s hipster, was, arguably, the most original American comedian of the 20th Century. Tall, tuxedoed and mock elegant, his appearance, behavior and intellect belied the facts of his humble California Gold Country beginnings. His father, Bill Buckley, was the restless son of a wealthy Manchester, England race track family. His mother Annie Laurie Bone, was the daughter of immigrants from Cornwall, England and a born storyteller.
Dick Buckley grew up in the idyllic settings of California's Mother Lode country in a small town called Tuolumne (just twenty miles from Angel Camp the setting of Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County".) He was a natural mimic and by the age of three his mother was admonishing him not to imitate the neighbors when they came for a visit. It is said that he busked on the streets with his sister Nell, entertaining the colorful assortment of miners and lumbermen that frequented Tuolumne.
Entering show business rather by accident in the late 1920’s Buckley cut his teeth as an MC for countless Midwest dance marathons. It is possible that he also worked some of the last of the medicine shows. Eventually settling in Chicago, he worked in Vaudeville and Burlesque as well as Leo Seltzer's Walkathons at the Chicago Coliseum, and a number of gangster owned nightclubs. Mobster Al Capone loved Buckley's ability to handle hecklers and was quoted as saying “He’s the only guy who ever made me laugh.” Capone even bankrolled a short lived nightclub for Buckley called “Chez Buckley.”
In 1930’s Chicago, Dick Buckley, as he called himself, lived the high life hanging out with the hippest of Chi Town’s black and white jazz musicians. With his uncanny ear for dialect he picked up on the sounds, the rhythms and the cultural nuances of what was then called “hep” or “jive” talk. At the same time, he began to develop the persona of Lord Buckley, a strange but intriguing mix of a proper English peer of the realm and a street corner jive hipster. Though he still called himself Dick Buckley his manner and antics began to resemble those most closely associated with his final incarnation as The Lord.
Through the ‘30s and ’40s he continued perfecting a stage act that included hilarious gymnastic routines and a mad ventriloquist routine called “The Four Chairs” with selected audience members. During WW II he did countless USO hospital shows with Ed Sullivan who became a life long friend and patron. In his hay day on the Vaudeville circuit he was making as much as $1,000 per week (a kingly sum in those days.)
By wars end Vaudeville was on the ropes, atomic bombs had radically changed political and culturally assumptions and television was about to pounce. Dick Buckley, always hip and always ready to explore change, finally declared himself “Lord Buckley”.
Casting around for a new act, Buckley, at the urging of Lady Elizabeth, his sixth wife, began offering his audiences beautifully reimagined stories from history, literature and The Bible delivered in a black jazz patois. Originally these stories were used to entertain dressing room guests. But soon Jesus, Gandhi, Einstein, Nero and the Marquis D’ Sade found their way on stage with him. He called Jesus “The Nazz”, Gandhi “The Hip Gahn”, Einstein “The Hip Einie” and D’Sade “The Mark”.
From 1947 on, Buckley, like a hipster preacher, worked small jazz clubs and coffeehouses, with occasional gigs on TV. He appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show eight times. He also appeared on The Tonight Show, You Bet Your Life, House Party and a number of other local and network programs. But for all this exposure his new and brilliant work was not bringing much financial reward. He did his best work for his worst money.
Buckley was an unheralded seer, his work dealt boldly with civil rights and The Bomb. He advocated the radical notion of loving one’s fellow humans and struggled to alert a very square America to a precious resource: black culture. He carried on valiantly, always ahead of his time and always overflowing with life and almost always broke. He died in November of 1960 in New York City in a manner still controversial today.