The Big Picture of Business – Tribute to a Great Mentor. Remembering Cactus Pryor.

One never forgets their first mentor. I have had several great ones, who in turn taught me the value of passing it on to others. That’s why I advise businesses, write books, speak at conferences and more.

That first great mentor sticks with you always. Mine was legendary humorist and media figure Cactus Pryor. He died August 30, 2011 at the age of 88.

I started working for him in 1958, at KTBC Radio in Austin, Texas. A new show had premiered on TV entitled American Bandstand. I was 10 years old and wanted to be the Dick Clark of local media. Cactus was the program director and morning radio personality. His show, filled with humor, humanity and music, was the natural lead-in to Arthur Godfrey Time, which we carried from the CBS Radio Network.

Cactus was 34 at the time that he began mentoring me. He had grown up around show business. His father, Skinny Pryor, owned a movie theatre and entertained audiences with comedy routines during intermissions. Cactus was inspired by all that he saw. He joined KTBC as a disc jockey in 1945, becoming program director. When the station signed on its TV station on Thanksgiving Day, 1952, Cactus was the first personality on the screen. He welcomed viewers and introduced the first two programs, the University of Texas vs. Texas A&M football game, followed by the Howdy Doody Show from the NBC-TV Network.

Cactus had been doing his morning show from his home, with his kids as regulars, with the repartee being similar to Art Linkletter interviewing children. Early in 1958, he was doing his morning show back in the studio. I started as his regular on Saturday mornings, and he gave me segments to do.

From him, I learned several early valuable lessons:

  • You cannot be a carbon copy of everyone else. He wanted me to like and respect Dick Clark but not become a clone of him.
  • Being one of a kind is a long quest. He wanted me to set my own tone and not be labeled by others.

From Cactus Pryor and a 24-year old newscaster named Bill Moyers, I learned that if you take the dirtiest job and do it better than everyone else, you will be a solid expert. In the good old days of regulated broadcasting, stations had to keep logs of the music, to avoid the hint of Payola (a growing controversy at the time). I kept the logs and learned about the music, the record companies, the composers and much more.

Stations also had to perform Community Ascertainment by going into the community, inquiring about issues, and assuring that broadcasting addressed those issues. That’s where I learned to file license renewals. That’s where I learned the value of public service announcements and public affairs program, which deregulation precluded broadcasting from doing. From that mentoring, I fell in love with the non-profit culture, the organizations and the client bases affected by them. That early Community Ascertainment lead me to the lifelong championing of not-for-profit groups and their fine works. From that experience, I still advise corporations to set up non-profit foundations and do good deeds.

The early days of television were creative. Cactus hosted a local variety show on Channel 7. He interviewed interesting locals, showcased local talent and did comedy material. One of his advertisers was an appliance store and, while showing the latest TV sets, Cactus kicked their screens to demonstrate their rugged qualities. When the station left its first temporary home at the transmitter atop Mount Larson, Cactus was carried out in the chair in which he was sitting, a symbol that the variety show would move to the new studio at the corner of 6th and Brazos.

Cactus began developing special characters, with unique personas. That first year in which I worked with him, he created a puppet, Theopolous P. Duck. It was inspired by Edgar Bergen’s characters. Mr. Duck delivered jokes with a cultured accent. He appeared in comedy spoof segments on local KTBC-TV shows, such as Now Dig This (hosted by Ricci Ware), Woman’s World (hosted by Jean Covert Boone) and the Uncle Jay Show (hosted by Jay Hodgson).

During that time, he developed a famous sign-off phrase. Network stars had their own, such Garry Moore’s “Be very kind to each other.” Cactus used the phrase: “Thanks a lot. Lots of luck. And thermostrockamortimer.” He joked that his made-up term meant “go to hell.” But really, he wanted to tantalize people into thinking bigger thoughts and being their best.

Cactus loved to play on words, giving twists to keep the listeners alert. He used turns of phrases such as “capital entertainment for the capitol city” and “that solid sound in Austin town.” In talking breaks for our sister station (KRGV), he said “that solid sound in the valley round.”

He taught me how to deliver live commercials and to ad-lib. In those days, we would do live remotes for advertisers, inviting people to come out, get prizes and meet us at the external location. Doing such remotes got us appearance fees, and they really drew for the advertisers.

Through the remotes, I learned how to feed lines and develop the talent to speak in sound bites, as I do for business media interviews to this day. I was with Cactus at a remote for Armstrong-Johnson Ford. The out-cue was to describe the 1959 Ford model. Cactus said, “It’s sleek and dazzling, from its car-front to its car-rear.” That was a cue for the studio DJ to play a commercial for the Career Shop, a clothing retailer. Today, when I use nouns as verbs and place business terms out of context to make people think creatively, I’m thinking back to Cactus Pryor.

One remote on which I joined Cactus was for the fourth KFC franchise in the United States. We got to interview Colonel Harlan Sanders on his new business venture. Little did I know that, 20 years later, KFC would be a corporate client of mine, and I would be advising them how to vision forward, following the Colonel’s death.

Music programming was important to Cactus Pryor and, thus, to me. Mentees of his understood and advocated broad musical playlists, with the variety to appeal broadly. Under a “service radio” format, different dayparts showcased different musical genres. He believed that virtually any record could be played, within context. One of the programming tricks that I taught him was to commemorate Bing Crosby’s birthday each May by playing “White Christmas” and other holiday hits out of season, which got the listeners fascinated.

In those days, you could play rock n’ roll hits from the KTBC Pop Poll, a list that was circulated to local record stars as a cross-promotion. There were also positions in the “clock” devoted to easy listening artists, instrumentals, country cross-overs and what Cactus called “another KTBC golden disc, time tested for your pleasure.”

Cactus liked rock n’ roll but wanted to see that easy listening records got proper attention. He would indicate his interest in notes on the green shucks that encased the records. As a write this section, I’m holding “Many a Time,” a 1958 release by Steve Lawrence, an easy-listening star who was beginning to also be considered a teen idol. Here’s the dialog from this record jacket: “Plug hard as hell. Experiment to see if we can get it on the Pop Poll. Cactus.” One of the DJ’s wrote, “How hard is hell?” Cactus wrote a reply, “Hard, ain’t it hard.” Steve Lawrence would subsequently have many teen hits (Pretty Blue Eyes, Portrait of My Love, Go Away Little Girl, Walking Proud, etc.).

Humor was the beacon over everything that he did. Cactus began recording comedy records, such as Point of Order on the Four Star Label and still others for Austin-based Trinity Records. He began writing a humorous newspaper column, Cacti’s Comments.

Besides his radio work, Cactus Pryor got bookings as an after-dinner speaker. In the early years, he gave comedy monologues and historical narratives. Always lively and entertaining, he inspired audiences to think the bigger ideas and look beyond the obvious. I follow his tenets in delivering business keynotes and facilitating think tanks and corporate retreats.

His gigs got more humorous. Cactus created different personas, replete with costume and makeup. His first was a European diplomat who had the same voice and inflection as Theopolous P. Duck. He would deliver funny zingers, often touching upon political sacred cows. Then, he would peel off the mustache and ask, “Ain’t it tacky?” He would then divulge that he actually was humorist Cactus Pryor from Austin, Texas. The act was well accepted and perfected during the era when our boss, Lyndon B. Johnson, was President of the United States.

Cactus did national TV variety shows. He was the “other Richard Pryor.” He continued developing characters and entertaining audiences up through the 1990’s, when his son Paul had begun doing the circuit as well. Paul is a funny satirist as well, something that I had known back when he was a school buddy of my sister Julie.

John Wayne called Cactus “one of the funniest guys around” and invited him to appear in two classic Wayne movies, The Green Berets and The Hellfighters. I recall visiting Cactus on the set of The Green Berets in Benning, Georgia, and seeing him keep stars John Wayne, David Janssen, Jim Hutton and Bruce Cabot in stitches in between shots and poker games.

Though national fame beckoned, he kept his roots in Austin, claiming, “There is no way to follow laughs onstage but with pancakes at City Park.” He stayed in his beloved Centex community. He did write books on Texana and history. There were contributions to the news-talk stations. He kept active until the Alzheimer’s.

These are some lasting business-equitable things that I learned from my first mentor (Cactus Pryor), and I’ve shared them with corporations and audiences all over this world:

  • A great mentor, teacher and role model need not be from the same strata as those whom he-she inspires.
  • Top executives must set standards that others aspire to…including themselves. We train people to be trustworthy.
  • A Body of Work takes time, energy, resources and lots of heart to produce. This holds true for any company-organization and for any person.
  • Defining what is good taste is a matter of judgment, perspective and experience.
  • The process of sharpening and amassing life and professional skills is ongoing.
  • As an integrated process of life skills, career has its place.
  • Whatever measure you give will be the measure that you get back.
  • Getting and having are not the same thing.
  • One cannot live entirely through work.
  • One doesn’t just work to live.

And these are some of the insights that I have developed, inspired by his early mentoring:

  • Never assume that people place high priorities on anything other than meeting their immediate needs. After they’ve used you, they’ll forget you.
  • Set boundaries soon and often. Otherwise, it haunts you for the rest of your life and clouds your productivity. Too much focus is on what you wish you would have said, done and accomplished.
  • See through showboaters. Those who brag about contacts rarely have a clue. Dreamers and schemers are allowed to get by because of other people’s gullible, undiscerning and unsophisticated natures.
  • Learn to say no without apologizing. Say it neutrally and strongly. Mean it.
  • Put things in a crisis mode to illustrate your points. That’s what lawyers do. Couch planning as the only way to avert a crisis. Expect the best, but prepare for the worst. 85 percent of the time, proper planning averts crisis.
  • Etiquette is a direct reflection of what people were/were not taught. Their trustworthiness is reflected in the way they handle themselves, through walking etiquette, elevator etiquette, telephone etiquette, meeting etiquette and networking etiquette. People who we think should know better often do not.
  • Don’t make the margin of profit too low. Once you set low perimeters, people see them as the top ends. They will cut and skim. They will see you as the low-cost provider.
  • People get what they pay for… always have, always will.
  • Senior corporate executives, especially those who rose to the rank of CEO, have had to adapt more in their careers than young people who never rise past mid-management. When young people want it all now and think they know enough, older people are wise enough to see the longer perspective.
  • Things are never simple for one who must make decisions and policies. Many factors must be weighed.
  • One cannot always go the path that seems clearest. One who thinks differently and creatively will face opposition. With success of the concept, it gets embraced by others, who claim to have been visionary all along.
  • Shepherding good ideas and concepts does not get many external plaudits. The feeling of accomplishment must be internal. That is a true mark of wisdom.

Those of us who have known and worked with Cactus Pryor will never forget his humor, his sense of fairness, his encouraging ways, the twinkle in his eyes and the lasting impacts made on our later successes.

About the Author

Hank MoorePower Stars to Light the Business Flame, by Hank Moore, encompasses a full-scope business perspective, invaluable for the corporate and small business markets. It is a compendium book, containing quotes and extrapolations into business culture, arranged in 76 business categories.

Hank’s latest book functions as a ‘PDR of business,’ a view of Big Picture strategies, methodologies and recommendations. This is a creative way of re-treading old knowledge to enable executives to master change rather than feel as they’re victims of it.

Power Stars to Light the Business Flame is now out in all three e-book formats: iTunes, Kindle, and Nook.

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