Sagebrush Comedian: The Passing of Cactus Pryor

Jason Mellard

Last week, Texas media personality and humorist Richard “Cactus” Pryor passed away at the age of 88.  A number of fitting tributes to the man have since appeared in Austin.  Many of these attest to Cactus’s role as a pioneering media presence who defined the city’s voice on radio station KLBJ since the mid-1940s, and as program manager of Austin’s first, and for a long time only, television station, KTBC.  Incidentally, Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson owned both stations, placing this regional humorist on an interesting historical stage.  Unlike many of the tribute writers over the past week, I did not come to know Pryor by growing up with his iconic voice and image, listening to his narration of Austin’s civil defense films in the 1960s or watching his weekly shows on UT football with Coach Darrell Royal.  Rather, I first encountered him in the archives of the Briscoe Center  for American History at the University of Texas, finding in him an associate and contemporary of Texas regional folklorists and historians J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, Roy Bedichek,     and Alan Lomax, and as the funny face of LBJ’s political machine in Central Texas.  Some of my most enjoyable experiences in archival research, actually, came in a packet of correspondence between Pryor and humorist John Henry Faulk.  Faulk, like Pryor, is an Austin icon whose career had many phases.  He studied under Dobie, conducted some of the only existing recorded interviews of ex-slaves in the Library of Congress, moved to the East Coast for a career in radio before being purged for supposed Communist associations, won one  of the largest libel suits in U. S. history based on those charges in 1962, and, late in life, ran for Congress and had a recurring role on Hee Haw.  The two men were close, and I wanted to take this opportunity to share a nugget or two from their correspondence speaking to the issue of humor.

I’ll begin with the tragic moment that upended Pryor’s life, as it did so many others.  More or less a local dj at the time of the JFK assassination, LBJ’s ascent to the White House suddenly changed Pryor’s points of reference.  Cactus had been slated to emcee Kennedy’s dinner in Austin after his visit to Dallas.  Instead, he suddenly saw his immediate social circle transform into a locus of American politics.  In a letter to Faulk in early December, 1963, Pryor wrote:

You won’t want to miss the rest of the story

(including a monkey on a dog),

please click to see:

“You see the faces of people you’ve known for years standing casually by the President of the United States and you wonder if it’s really happening.  Bill Moyers was formerly my traffic manager at the radio station.  I kicked his ass out of the control room one time for tossing a firecracker inside while I was on-the-air.  Jack Valenti (the owl-eyed man in the background during the swearing-in on the plane) was in my office two weeks ago discussing such monumental problems as whether the KTBC caricature to be used in promotion should wear a western hat.”

To this time, Pryor had unofficially served as master of ceremonies for Senator and then Vice-President Johnson, entertaining dignitaries who came out to visit his ranch in the Hill Country west of Austin.  Pryor had worked up a High Texas aesthetic that met the imagined expectations of LBJ’s guests, a role that picked up steam once Johnson became President. Here are a few thin slices of description from such events:

Johnson “was never more ‘ranchy’ as he was this morning.  He wore an authentic cowboy jacket as featured at Neiman-Marcus.  His khaki riding breeches were casually caught in the tops of his smartly weathered Lou Casey boots.  His khaki shirt was open at the collar devoid of such affectations as Kentucky colonel string ties or red bandana kerchiefs.  Atop the Vice-Presidential head was a carefully seasoned Stetson . . . soiled enough for authenticity but not to the extent of offensiveness.  Good clean Texas dirt without the stain of sweat.”

That same day, “one could hardly escape the traditions of Texas.  They were unavoidable.  You had but to turn around and a member of the Travis County Sherriff’s Posse would come charging up on a palomino to volunteer his services. . . whatever the hell they may be.  There was a real western band playing the old cowboy songs of Texas.  I know they were real cowboy songs because I spent half the preceding night teaching them to our ‘real western band.’”

The gathering also featured a gallery of bluebonnet paintings, J. Frank Dobie, free Stetson hats for all attendees, barbecue (on election night 1964, Pryor parodied Goldwater with the quip:  “LBJ barbecue.  In your mouth, you know it’s right.”), a bullwhip demonstration by a UT co-ed, a sharpshooting team that made the Secret Service awfully nervous, the folk-country-comedy duo the Geezinslaw Brothers, and a sheep dog and monkey act.

Which brings me to Pryor’s first rule of funny:  “I deduced that a monkey on a dog chasing sheep is international humor.”  I would hold that this proposition remains true, and, with some transpositions of species, accounts for a good deal of youtube traffic.

 

Pryor’s second rule of funny has a bit of a sharper edge.  In 1966, Cactus appeared as a comedian in front of a Texas Public Relations Association dinner in Dallas.  The most prominent of the movers and shakers there was one H. L. Hunt, amongst the state’s most influential oilmen and one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest, individuals in the world at the time.  Hunt had also been a close associate of Senator McCarthy, a central figure in funding the incipient New Right, a staunch supporter of the John Birch Society, and founder of a right-wing media network with his projects Facts Forum and Life Line.  Pryor decided to make this evening about the defense of free speech in general and Faulk in particular against charges of leftist subversion.  Faulk had won his lawsuit on the matter four years previously, but this was one court of public opinion in which progressives like him remained suspect.  Pryor wrote:

 “I cracked about 15 minutes of additional one-liners and then swung into a portion of the speech I do on American humor.  I explained how our humor symbolized the American Revolution.  I stressed the importance of Twain and Rogers to America as they epitomized democracy with emphasis on freedom of speech.  I lamented the absence of a Twain or Rogers today expressing doubt that our modern society would tolerate one.  I recalled the lack of satirical chastisement of McCarthy observing that when we don’t speak up—that when sacred cows become too sacred the crackpots take over.  I then listed your case as an example of what a group of crackpots can do to crush freedom of speech.  I told the whole story in capsule form ending with the opinion that you had gone a long way toward restoring the tradition of Twain and Rogers and insuring the survival of freedom of speech in America.  I then hit them real hard, talking right to Hunt, on the need to keep our guard up against those who would use the mass media to intimidate and poison the air with half-truths.”

H. L. Hunt said it was the best presentation he’d ever heard and asked for Pryor’s contact information, for what purposes Cactus does not say.

I might conclude with Cactus’s prescient words on media half-truths and the critical role of American humor.  In Austin, we can only wish that some new Molly Ivins will arise to wield humor in the face of our state’s latest presidential aspirant. Right now, though, we are also praying for a little rain amidst the wildfires.  And so, to provide yet another layer to Pryor’s illustrious career, I will close on a wet note with one of Cactus’s many novelty recordings from the 1950s, “Cry of a Dying Duck in a Thunderstorm.” Next time you curse at the half-truths of manipulated media, envision a monkey on a dog chasing sheep, or merely wish to strangle a duck in the storms of modern life, give a thought and a chuckle to Cactus Pryor, dear departed Texas humorist.

Jason Mellard is an instructor with the University of Texas Extension.  He recently served as a research fellow at the Clements Center for Southwest Studies of Southern Methodist University where he completed a book manuscript on representations and experiences of Anglo-Texan masculinity in the 1970s.

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