Prince of the Playhouse

Jim Buckley: Cambria theater icon turning 100

Special to The TribuneNovember 14, 2012 

The twinkle in his blue eyes cannot be ignored. Jim Buckley has some mischief on his mind.
“Living to be 100 sometimes gets you into trouble,” he said with a smile.

Trouble or not, very few reach that century milestone. The trick, as Buckley’s longevity demonstrates, is to do what you love. “Why would someone get wrapped up in something they don’t enjoy?” he asked.

His life has been an incredible ride from his upbringing in New York, to stints in Paris, London and Beverly Hills. But, he is happiest in Cambria at the Pewter Plough Playhouse, the theater he founded 36 years ago with his wife, Olga.

Over the years, Buckley has directed, acted and designed sets, while his wife managed the box office. His wife, “Lady O,” died in 1998 after 50 years of marriage.

Buckley has produced some 200 plays at the theater and says he still does some directing.
His son, James, manages operations. Buckley is the theater’s artistic director, but it is run by a nonprofit board.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, they were preparing for an upcoming performance of “September Song,” a musical salute to Buckley’s 100 years. Sitting center stage, the elder Buckley offered some suggestions to cast members. Tapping his foot, he sang along with “You Do Something to Me,” the lyrics taking him back decades.

Buckley was born Dec. 4, 1912, in Manhattan, N.Y. His parents, James and Marie Buckley, raised him and his brother and sister on Long Island. His dad drove a Checker Cab around Times Square at night, and his mom helped out at a deli.

This was the Golden Age of New York theater, Buckley says, and his dad would arrive home at 3 a.m. with stories about the stars he’d picked up. “My earliest connection with the theater was through Pop.”

Growing up in New York, Buckley caught the theater bug early, attending as many Broadway shows as possible. But, when his mother took him to see Elmer Rice’s “Street Scene” in 1928, it was the stage setting by Jo Meilziner that sealed his fate.

He had designed huge billboards and scenic backgrounds for Gilbert and Sullivan productions at Bryant High School on Long Island and later earned a scholarship to attend Parsons New York School of Fine and Applied Art.

“I also needed a job to keep me going in New York,” Buckley said. He started working after school as a “flunky” in the fashion window display department at Bloomingdale’s.

“That was the theater I was evidently destined to begin with — my ‘sidewalk theater.’ ”

His creativity led to jobs at the major fashion shops in New York: Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue. The displays brought fame, including coverage in Time, Vogue and Life magazines, as well as a promotion to head up window displays at Saks in Beverly Hills.

That’s where he met his wife, Olga, who was working as a buyer for a costume designer at MGM. She came to work for Saks and wound up as his assistant. Romance blossomed, and they moved to Detroit for the opening of a new Saks store.

When World War II broke out, Buckley decided “it was silly to be doing windows.” He got a job with the War Department as a camouflage engineer in New York City, and he and Olga made another move. That’s when they decided to get married — before he was shipped out. 

Buckley worked with a couple of theater set designers on camouflage for the huge 16-inch guns guarding the Statue of Liberty at the entrance to New York Harbor — a job he described as “ridiculous to think that anyone would forget they were there.” Later, stationed in Paris, he made terrain models of European battlegrounds for the Army.

At war’s end, while waiting to be shipped home, Buckley ended up at American University in Biarritz, and was chosen to direct “Yes is for a Very Young Man,” by Gertrude Stein.

He was in rehearsal for a couple of weeks when Stein canceled the play.

Olga, in the meantime, had petitioned the Red Cross to bring her husband home. On his way home via Paris, he dropped in on Stein to “tell her what I thought of her.” He ended up having tea with Stein and Alice B. Toklas and learned that a rift with the Army led to the play’s demise. “Gertrude Stein turned out to be a great gal,” Buckley said.

Back in California, he got a job as an art director for NBC’s Matinee Theater, broadcast live on television.

“It was a fun time,” Buckley said. His son James was born in 1948.

Buckley went on to design Tomorrowland and other early Disneyland attractions and then enjoyed a long career creating interiors for hotels and restaurants around the U.S. He also wrote “The Drama of Display,” a textbook on visual merchandising techniques published in 1953.

In the mid-’70s Buckley and Olga moved to Cambria. They bought property on Main Street, where the Pewter Plough sits today, and opened an antique shop. Instead of opening a museum, they decided to open a little theater.

“It had great acoustics,” he said, and besides, Cambria didn’t have a “proper theater at the time.”
The Buckleys opened the 61-seat theater in 1976 with a cast from Los Angeles performing “Look Homeward, Angel.”

In a letter he wrote to the community that year, Buckley said:

“The Playhouse will be a house where we can see a play and spend a pleasant afternoon or evening relaxing from daily chores and challenges. Or it will, in its most satisfying, poetical guise, be a place where we will be shocked into remembering what a magnificent voyage this short time we have can be.”

And so it has.

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