Thursday, September 24, 2020

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: An Entertainer Like No Other

My good friend of more than half a century, Dudley Riggs,
has passed away at 88 in Minneapolis. He was an entertainer,
and later impresario, like no other --- and whose life story is
a true wonder to read about.

In fact, you can read about some of it in his autobiographical
Flying Funny: My Life Without A Net, a 2017 book that tells
a good part of his fascinating story, especially of his earliest
yeas as a member of a four-generation traveling circus family.

After countless conversations  at lunches, dinners and other
occasions with Dudley, I can say that his whole story is even
more extraordinary.

I actually “met” Dudley years before we became friends when
as a little boy, my older brother took me to the circus in my
hometown of Erie, PA. One of the trapeze aerialists was young
Dudley Riggs. Years later, in one of our earliest conversations,
Dudley mentioned that he was in that circus that year.  When I
looked at the circus program I had saved  there was a photo of
Dudley on a trapeze.

Dudley’s experiences in the circus and vaudeville before he was
21 were enough for a lifetime, but for him it was only Act 1.
After a teen-age trapeze accident, and a hospital stay, Dudley
returned to the circus, including a 1952 appearance as a clown
with the first touring U.S. circus performing in occupied Japan.
Before an audience in Tokyo that included Crown Prince (later
Emperor) Akihito, Dudley was chosen for public relations
photos to meet the crown prince. Innocently, when introduced,
Dudley shook Akihito’s hand, breaking a thousand-year taboo
of not touching the emperor or his heir, and it caused a
national scandal until the emperor published a letter saying
the old tradition was abolished. (Reportedly, the last time
someone touched the emperor, he was beheaded on the spot!)

Act 2 for Dudley was coming to Minneapolis for his college
education, majoring in psychology (a scholarly interest he kept
the rest of his life). He soon opened the first coffeehouse in
Minnesota serving espresso. His grandmother had introduced
him to espresso years before, and later in a stint as a waiter in
the famed old Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City he got the idea
of serving fine foods in a place of his own. But always the
entertainer, Dudley began presenting comedy improvisations
with the pastries and cappuccinos. This became known as
Instant Theater --- which along with a simultaneous effort at
Second City in Chicago was the genesis of improvisational
comedy in the U.S.

Among Dudley’s talents acquired in his youth was juggling, and
with a small troupe, he began performing nightly, with what
became his trademark provocative satire, and then he moved
his enterprise, now called The Brave New Workshop, to a new
location where hundreds of shows followed, and where he
trained and presented several generations of young performers,
many of whom went on to be stars in New York and Hollywood.
Saturday Night Live, Daily Show, Cagney & Lacey, Reba and
numerous other TV shows, Broadway plays and hit movies
featured Workshop alumni Dudley had trained and encouraged.

Dudley Riggs became a household word in the Twin Cities.
He opened a second theater with a new Cafe Espresso. Along
the way, he co-introduced pizza to the state, and was an
acrobatic consultant to many local theaters and dance
companies. This was Dudley’s Act 3.

Although he retired, his theater continues in a new downtown
Minneapolis location where he had emeritus status. His first
wife had died very young, but after some years, he remarried,
and with his new wife Pauline Boss, an internationally-known
psychotherapist/educator, enjoyed many happy years writing
and traveling in an active Epilogue, albeit with increasing
physical difficulty --- likely the toll of decades of so much
athletic activity as a performer.

We had many adventures together, including the year he ran
(satirically) for president when we went to a national
convention in Chicago where I was credentialed press
covering the “serious” politicians while Dudley poked fun at

For five decades I spoke frequently with Dudley, and I heard
about something new he had done or seen on almost every
occasion. In spite of being in charge of many employees in
his restaurants and theaters, and being so well-known, he was
unpretentious, accessible, caring, encouraging and always funny.

There are all kinds of lives led in our world, and everyone  has
a uniqueness, but Dudley Riggs had an incomparable life that
journeyed through what for  most everyone else would have
been several lifetimes --- and from the beginning he kept himself
and the rest of us entertained and laughing all the way.

Thank you, Dudley.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Barry Casselman. All right reserved.

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