Jim Buckley can trace his lifelong love of theater to the time his mother took him to see Elmer Rice's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Street Scene" on Broadway. The 15-year-old so dazzled by Jo Mielziner's groundbreaking set design that he resolved to work on the stage.
"The setting was so fascinating," recalled Buckley, who longed to create his own fantastic worlds. Unfortunately, his dreams "didn't get a chance to become reality" until roughly half a century later, he said.
In 1976, after a career designing department store displays, museum exhibits and movie sets, Buckley and his late wife, Olga, opened the Pewter Plough Playhouse in the cozy coastal hamlet of Cambria. Now an integral part of the thriving local arts scene, the Pewter Plough - an intimate space once hailed by the San Jose Mercury News as the "Jewelbox of Community Theatres" -- stands as a testimony to Buckley's passion and perseverance as an artistic director, actor, director and designer.
"I guess I always felt I was in the theater," said Buckley, who received a Distinguished Merit Award from the American Association of Community Theatre in 2008.
The Pewter Plough Playhouse's latest production, "September Song," will pay tribute to the man known by friends and fans as "J.B." - interspersing selections from the Great American Songbook with anecdotes about Buckley's long and fascinating life. (He turns 100 next month.) The musical revue, which opened Sunday, runs through Dec. 31.
"Jim is everything in that darn theater," said Cambria resident Art Van Rhyn, who's served as an actor, set builder and stage manager there over the past 25 years. "He's a genius...It's just amazing what he's been able to do."
Born in Manhattan and raised in Queens, Buckley went to work at age 13 in the lobby of Loew's Astoria movie theater. After graduating from high school, he spent a year at what is now New York City's Parsons The New School for Design before taking a full-time job as a window dresser's assistant at the original Bloomingdale's department store.
It was as a window display designer for the likes of Macy's, Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue - first in New York City, then in Beverly Hills and Detroit - that Buckley first revealed his flair for the dramatic. Buckley, who met his wife while working at the Beverly Hills Saks store, even penned a book on the subject: "The Drama of Display: Visual Merchandising and Its Techniques."
Buckley, whose window displays ranged from the sophisticated to the surreal, dubbed his artistic tableaux his "sidewalk theater." One of the elegant displays he created for upscale department store Bergdorff Goldman, "Chopin Cycle," featured sheet music-clad mannequins flying out of a baby grand piano.
When World War II broke out, Buckley signed up with the U.S. Army's Special Services branch as a camouflage designer. Before heading overseas with a model making unit to scope out the north coast of France, he made sure he married his sweetheart; Manhattan minister Norman Vincent Peale, author of "The Power of Positive Thinking," did the honors.
Buckley remained in Europe after the war ended, enrolling at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London on the G.I. Bill. He came close to his Broadway dream when a friend asked him to direct Gertrude Stein's final play, "Yes Is for A Very Young Man," at the American University in Biarritz, France, but the playwright canceled the production after weeks of rehearsal due to a dispute with Army brass.
Back in the states, Buckley's design career flourished. He served as an art director on NBC's "Matinee Theatre," worked on the Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park and designed exhibits at Disneyland's Tomorrowland attraction in Anaheim.
Buckley also worked as a set decorator for MGM, although he found furnishing pre-fabricated rooms "rather dull." Still, his time at the studio - cut short by a strike -- allowed him to purchase a number of screen treasures at auction, including Gloria Swanson's swan bed from "Sunset Blvd" and the title vessel from the "Tugboat Annie" movies. (The latter served as the centerpiece of a Noah's Ark-inspired animal park next to Pea Soup Andersen's inn and restaurant in Buellton.)
In the mid-1970s, the Buckleys purchased a two-bedroom house and retail shop on Main Street in Cambria's West Village and opened the Pewter Plough antique store. "People came in and they were very enthusiastic about seeing these wonderful old things that were not for sale," said Buckley, who decided to build a museum to house his collection of movie memorabilia.
Once he finished construction, however, he saw the space's true potential. "I thought it would be much more sensible to have a community theater," Buckley recalled, with the living room serving as a stage, the garden becoming a 59-seat auditorium and the antique store acting as a 50-seat café, pub and longue.
The Pewter Plough Playhouse opened its doors on Dec. 9, 1976 with a production of "Look Homeward Angel" featuring Los Angeles' Colony Theatre Company. According to Buckley, producer Terence Shank, told him that "If you are crazy enough to ask me, I'm crazy enough to say, 'Let's see what we can do.'"
Over the years, Buckley has amassed a loyal following on the Central Coast, including a small army of volunteer cast and crew members. (He established the nonprofit organization Pewter Plough Players Inc.in 1999 to run the theater and allow tax-deductible donations.) His son, James Buckley, spent a quarter century working in the New York City publishing business before moving back to California in 1998 upon his mother's death to work behind the scenes.
Art Van Rhyn's late wife, Pat, was one of Buckley's favorite leading ladies, appearing in "practically every role an actress would want," her husband said, including "The Gin Game," "Grace & Glory" and "Love Letters." "She was the prima donna at that theater for 20 years. That's the main reason I hang around now.... I owe that theater a lot for what they gave my wife."
Cambria resident Nehemiah Persoff, who's directed a few Pewter Plough productions, said the theater fits perfectly with the community's cultural vibe. "Cambria is a great place for anyone who has an inclination to operate in any branch of the arts," he said, whether it's acting, painting or writing.
"People in Cambria probably see more plays than people in New York because it's available (and) it's reasonably cheap," said Persoff, a retired actor whose film credits include "Some Like It Hot," "Yentl" and the "American Tail" animated movies.
"We've had a wonderful outpouring of playgoers that has built up over the years," James Buckley said, noting that longtime patrons know to book their tickets by name. Each plush director-style chair bears the embroidered name of an entertainment legend -- Mae West, Ethel Merman, the Marx Brothers, even Buckley's late wife, "Lady O."
That's not to say that the Pewter Plough hasn't weathered a few hardships during the past decades, from natural disasters to financial troubles. Three or four feet of floodwater filled the theater in March 1995, surging over the stage.
In February 2010, the theater was forced to shut its doors for 10 months to install a long-delayed fire-suppression sprinkler system required by fire and county officials - a project made possible only after securing a $35,000 loan from a playhouse supporter. Buckley, who was among the local investors whose personal finances took a hit with the collapse of Paso Robles' Estate Financial Inc., simply couldn't afford to make the repairs himself, his son said.
After all, James Buckley said, community theater isn't exactly a money-making business. "How many people would have purchased a piece of property like this on Main Street and ended dedicating it to live theater for 30-plus years?" he asked, adding that his father has often dipped into his own pockets to keep the Pewter Plough in the black. "It's been a real gift to Cambria over the years."
Top Image: Jim Buckley, who celebrates his 100th birthday next month, channeled his lifelong passion for theater into the Pewter Plough Playhouse in Cambria. | Photo: Chris Daly.
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