There’s more to St. Louis native Dick Gregory than meets the eye.
The comedian, social activist, social critic, writer and entrepreneur has been an inspiration to many using his performance skills to both white and Black audiences to portray his political messages on civil rights. And his satire helped change the way white Americans perceived Black American comedians since he first performed in public.
He’s now set to appear July 19-20 at the Rrazz Room in New Hope.
Blessed with a sense of humor but never seeing that talent as a viable career choice, it wasn’t until he entered the Army in 1954 that his commanding officer urged him to try out for several talent shows, which he won.
“In hopes of performing professionally, I moved to Chicago when I was discharged,” Gregory remembered.
Once there he became part of a new generation of Black comedians that included Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby and Godfrey Cambridge. Breaking with the old minstrel tradition, Gregory drew on current events, especially racial issues for much of his material. An early example: “Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision were the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”
Gregory performed as a comedian in small, primarily Black-patronized nightclubs, and was one of the first Black comedians to gain widespread acclaim performing for white audiences.
But it wasn’t until 1961 that his fortune began to change. “Hugh Hefner came into the club one night, and obviously liked what he saw because he offered me a chance to perform at his Playboy Club. He was going to give me $50 a week. I didn’t know there was that much money in the world.”
Because of that exposure and a large article in Time Magazine, Gregory was next approached by people from “The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar.”
But Gregory turned them down after learning something that shocked him. “I found out that Black comics were allowed to perform on the show but were not allowed to stay after their performance to sit on the famous couch and talk to Jack.”
So Gregory declined the invitation and was soon contacted by Paar himself who wanted to know why. “I told him, and thanks to him, when I did agree to appear on this show, I was invited to sit on that couch when my act was done. After that, my salary went from $250 a week to $5,000.”
Today, Gregory, the father of 10, continues to delight audiences, despite the sometime controversial issues he tackles on stage. Among other appearances, last year Gregory gave the keynote address for Black History Month at Bryn Mawr College. His take away message to the students was to never accept injustice.
“I’ve been in this business for almost 60 years,” he concludes, “and my greatest joy is making people feel something, and joining in the Civil Rights movement!”
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