One of a kind
Cactus Pryor died Tuesday. He was 88 years old and living out his years with Alzheimer's in Buda.
Pryor was a Texas legend in many ways — as a humorist, a television personality, a radio host, film actor, dinner speaker, roaster, and perhaps the nicest man to ever walk the streets of Austin.
He was the first person ever to appear on Austin television. It was 1951 when KTBC signed on the air, and it was Pryor who welcomed the city to a new technology. He would do commentaries for over 30 years both on KTBC and on KLBJ radio. He is a Texas broadcasting legend, but broadcasting only scratched the surface of his life.
"Sometimes you just know what you are supposed to do. I really believe I was put on this earth to try to make people happy."
His friendship with Lyndon Johnson began in 1944 when he started working at Lady Bird's new radio station in town. That friendship took him to the the President's "Western White House" often to emcee parties for dignitaries and movie stars. He loved to tell stories of escorting Raquel Welch and Lucille Ball to events with the President. Never brash, always humble and self-effacing, Pryor loved his life in Austin and despite many opportunities to leave for New York or Los Angeles and national fame, he always chose to stay.
Walter Cronkite, the late legendary CBS anchor once said, "Cactus Pryor has given his native Austin a rare gift that few cities can claim — a real live humorist with the sharp eye, the quick tongue, the educated pen, and, most important, the warm heart to record in sometimes hilarious detail its fashions and foibles. Cactus himself is one of a kind."
I had the great privilege of knowing Pryor. I started my media career at KTBC as a photographer back in 1983. He was a fixture at the station then with his brother Wally. He never cared how big the audience was, he was nice to everyone, and funny as hell.
He appeared in two films, both starring John Wayne who became a good friend — Hellfighters and The Green Berets.
He was a native Austinite, born January 7, 1923. According to his biography, his grandfather helped build the Texas Capitol. His father was Richard “Skinny” Pryor, who performed vaudeville and owned one of the first movie theaters in Austin called The Cactus, the origin of his nickname.
Before he died, he wrote a short biography and recorded it for posterity:
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"Sometimes you just know what you are supposed to do. I really believe I was put on this earth to try to make people happy. After all, it’s what my daddy did. My older sister, Mary Alice, played the piano, made people happy also. So I guess it just came naturally.
Before I was old enough to go to school I stood on stage at my father’s picture show, The Cactus, and pitched the upcoming shows, soaking in the audience response, measuring their approval, feeling their happiness vibrating in my bones. Oh the joy of a good audience! It is the best tonic for my spirit."