Jim Buckley, founder and driving force behind Cambria’s Pewter Plough Playhouse for nearly four decades, died Wednesday afternoon at the age of 102.
Rebecca Buckley announced her husband’s death on her Facebook page: “He slipped away easily, no struggle, no pain.”
She did not state a cause of death, but Buckley had been in declining health in recent months. According to longtime friend and playhouse Treasurer Viv Goff, he had spent about the past three months in hospice care.
“His body just was breaking down in every way,” she said. “His body failed him, but his mind never did.”
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Rebecca Buckley asked that no one telephone or visit the family home.
An early start
Jim Buckley founded the Pewter Plough Playhouse in Cambria’s West Village in 1976. It continues to stage regular productions at 824 Main St., including six shows this year.
“For many years, Jim was the artistic director at the Plough and was responsible for some of the most interesting and innovative sets seen on the Central Coast,” said Anita Schwaber, publicist for the playhouse who has also directed plays there regularly.
“He had a larger-than-life personality and never failed to bring his artistic and eclectic touches to the theater, which has been dubbed ‘The Jewel Box of Community Theaters.’ ”
Jim Buckley was born Dec. 4, 1912, to James and Marie Buckley in New York and got an early start in show business, going to work in the lobby of Loew’s Astoria movie theater at age 13.
But Buckley made his mark in show business himself as a designer. He began his path by creating window displays at Bloomingdale’s, and his growing expertise soon landed him other jobs in New York’s major fashion shops. Pretty soon, his window designs were visible up and down the city’s main retail row.
“There were 50 to 100 windows, and each window was different and created by Jim,” Goff said. “People would stand behind ropes at Christmastime just to see his work.”
Buckley met his first wife, Olga, at Saks Fifth Avenue, where she was working as a costume designer.
'He did everything'
Buckley served in World War II with the U.S. Army as a camouflage designer.
After the war, he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and later, he was a set decorator at MGM and for NBC’s “Matinee Theatre.”
He utilized his expertise beyond the stage, as well. After moving to California, he worked on designing exhibits for Disneyland’s Tomorrowland.
He also developed the overall set design of Movieland Wax Museum, Goff said, as well as a zoo for crippled and sick animals at Pea Soup Andersen’s in Buellton.
During his career, Buckley purchased a large selection of movie memorabilia, some of which wound up in Cambria when he moved there with his wife in the mid-1970s.
It was there that he opened the Pewter Plough, an antique store in Cambria’s West Village, and displayed some of his cinema keepsakes.
His inspiration to build a separate museum to house those treasures, however, was sidetracked when he came up with a better idea: using the space as a theater.
The 61-seat Pewter Plough Playhouse opened in 1976.
“He acted in almost every play,” Goff said. “He directed a lot of them. He did everything. He was phenomenal.”
'A magnificent voyage'
The year the playhouse opened, Buckley wrote a letter to the community, explaining his vision:
“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.”
For Buckley’s son, James, the voyage was far too short: James Lee Buckley died of a heart attack in December 2013 at age 65. The younger Buckley had spent more than two decades in the publishing business in New York before moving to Cambria when his mother died in 1998. He became actively involved in the theater, bartending at the piano bar and handling publicity and other operations.
Jim Buckley stepped down as artistic director of the playhouse in August 2014. One of his last public outings was in April, when he attended the Cambria Historical Museum’s Vine Dining fundraiser.
“He was a genius, absolutely,” Goff said. “The love of his life was the playhouse. He was very set in what he wanted, and he was in charge. He was a terrific artist.”
Goff will be arranging a memorial service “in a few weeks” at the playhouse.