"Will it play in Peoria?" was more than an alliterative showbiz catchphrase. Richard Pryor's hometown was the logistical stopover for vaudeville troupes and itinerant performers traveling between bookings in Chicago and St. Louis. As such, Peoria had more than its share of theatres for a town with a population of less than 80,000 people when his future grandmother and her fellow Louisianan migrants settled there after the first World War.
As silent movies became the rage, vaudeville performers could not help but notice that most of the new theatres were being built without stages, only screens. Then radio came along and killed vaudeville completely.
With the advent of radio, people could hear their favorite stars without even leaving the house. Milton Berle and Jack Benny entertained far more people in a single broadcast than they could have in a lifetime out on the road. Those who made the leap to radio found themselves suddenly flush with cash — and frantic to come up with new material every week (in some cases, every weeknight) while a seasoned vaudevillian could make a career off of one well-honed routine.
Such was the case with Clinton "Dusty" Fletcher (1897-1954) who thrived for more than 20 years performing a solo skit called "Open the Door, Richard." The premise: Fletcher's character returns to his rooming house late at night without his key. He pounds on the door and shouts for his roommate Richard to open the door. The audience never sees or hears Richard. He may not even be in there.
Jazz saxophonist Jack McVea had seen Fletcher, as an opening act in the early 1940s, perform the bit hundreds of times from his perch in Lionel Hampton's big band. On a rainy afternoon in Portland, Oregon, McVea set a simplified version of the skit to music. When he recorded the song with his own band in October of 1946, it went through the roof.
The song's refrain began cropping up in routines by Jack Benny, Phil Harris, Jimmy Durante, in Bugs Bunny cartoons, and ads for everything from ale to perfume. Its popularity made life miserable for anyone named Richard.
Time magazine reported that radio comedians "had only to mention the word Richard on the air to put their studio audiences in stitches." The phrase later became part of the early civil rights movement; for example, headlining an editorial in the Los Angeles Sentinel calling for black representation in that city's government. In Georgia, college students marched to the state capitol demanding the resignation of segregationist governor Herman Talmadge with banners that read "Open the Door, Herman."
With the song's success, Dusty Fletcher emerged from semi-retirement to claim authorship, claiming he had written the skit after seeing a drunk thrown out of a railroad station bar in South Carolina. The ejected patron, Fletcher recalled, stood out in the street and yelled for the bartender to let him back in.
Next, John "Spider Bruce" Mason (1895–1952) came forward claiming Fletcher stole the routine from him in the early 1920s. Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham (1904–1981) had made "Richard" part of his act in the 1920s and continued to perform it up through the 1960s. Markham claimed no authorship but offered up testimony that his mentor, producer and writer Bob Russell, had written the bit as early as 1919 for Mason to perform in a show called "Mr. Rareback."
When the legal dust settled, the sheet music credited the lyrics to both Fletcher and Mason (although it's virtually certain that neither penned the original) and the music to McVea and one Don Howell — a fictitious name inserted to garner a share of royalties for the publisher.
Within months of McVea's record, at least 18 discs were released by the likes of Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, Walter Brown with the Tiny Grimes Sextet, Dick Haymes, the Pied Pipers, Jo Stafford, Burl Ives, and Bing Crosby. Both Count Basie and nightclub trio The Three Flames had scored number one hits with the song. There was even a Yiddish version by a quartet known as The Yokels.
But, at the end of the day, the verdict must be that "Richard" belongs to Dusty Fletcher. All other renditions were mere novelty numbers, whereas Fletcher honed it to a work of art that rivals Richard Pryor's "Wino and Junkie" act and, at times, comes close to treading on Samuel Beckett's sacred ground. Although Fletcher recorded a slightly expanded version to McVea's medley in 1947, it's his stage performance that stands out, incorporating pantomime, pratfalls, and an acrobatic balancing act atop a freestanding ladder. Happily, it was captured twice on film, as a 10-minute short directed by William Forest Crouch and as a vignette in the Cab Calloway movie Hi-Dee-Ho.
Critic Jake Austen noted that Fletcher's work — like Richard Pryor's — dealt with "fairly horrifying subjects: abject poverty, extreme alcoholism, spousal beating, homicide, and other rib tickers." Unlike Mason or Markham, Fletcher portrayed the character as a drunk who mutters to himself in between shouts up to his unresponsive roommate. In each segment of the routine he peels back layer upon layer of a complicated man gamely soldiering on with his threadbare existence in a harsh and uncaring world.