Something very strange was going down late one night at the Granville St White Lunch. Blessed if I can remember what it was, but it was deeply weird, and Alan Judge, the dean of our little nightly gathering, shook his head and muttered, “Too weird for Wally.”
I’d never heard that phrase before, but it was a White Lunch buzz phrase, used to pigeonhole anything that was, well, pretty darn weird!
Walter George “Riga the Clown” Price prided himself on maintaining a level of weirdness that humbled even the most eccentric White Lunch habitué. And that’s saying something.
When I finally met Wally a few weeks later, he turned out to be a hyper little guy who prattled on incessantly about his life as a circus clown, his earlier career as a major drag entertainer, and his run as a budding Hollywood child star. Most of his stories were so farfetched that one could only gape and listen. His time as Mae West’s secretary, his frequent letters from his “Uncle Vincent” Price, and his work with the famed circus clown Lou Jacobs, were woven together in an outrageous and obviously (we thought) imaginary personal history.
According to Wally, a cameo as a newsboy in a late-’30s movie had catapulted him to the MGM lot, where he took a feature role in several Little Rascals episodes. By his late teens he was touring with the Jewel Box Revue under the drag name D’Arcy Nelson, hitting such hotspots as Club My-My in New Orleans and Finocchio’s in San Francisco.
Then Wally literally ran off to join the circus, taking, he claimed, some sessions at the Ringling Brothers Clown College before hitting the circuit with his fellow stars of clown-face. This is where the penny dropped for someone one night at the White Lunch, who pointed out that the Clown College had been founded in 1968, which made it a good decade too late to have figured in any plausible timeline for Wally’s anecdotes.
So the entire tale began to unravel at the edges if details were examined too closely. And given that in the early ’70s Wally’s idea of fun was to chase two hits of LSD with a quart of vodka, you’ll start to understand the origins of “too weird for Wally.”
That and the fact that Wally lived in Burnaby, sleeping on the hide-a-bed in his elderly parents’ one-bedroom apartment, and that he had no photos or other memorabilia to back up his storytelling.
Another of Wally’s many claims to fame was his involvement in the LSD experiments at New Westminster’s notorious Hollywood Hospital, where a brief stint to dry out turned his world inside out and probably explains much about his essential weirdness.
As the years went by I learned to ignore the many blatantly untrue facets of Wally’s life story, clinging to the belief that there might be just a kernel of truth to some of the legend. Besides, he was the sweetest of guys, my mother liked him, and how could you not love someone who marked every year’s end by sending you a card saying, “My gift to you — the promise of my continued love and friendship for another year.”
Then sometime in the ’80s, the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to Vancouver, and Wally insisted I come with him to see the show and meet his “old pals” from back in the day.
Sure Wally, whatever you say.
Following the show, Wally dodged security and whisked me backstage, where I found myself face to face with the greatest circus star of our time, Lou Jacobs, who looked up as we rounded the corner, broke into a bright smile, and shouted “Riga, here you are! We thought you were dead!”
Riga, of course, was the White Lunch’s own Wally. So that part of the history must have been true. Or partly true. If that was so, maybe . . . well, we’ll never know!
I was a friend of Wally’s, usually at a fair distance, through to his death in a seniors home in Saskatchewan four or five years ago. A home where I’m sure they would relate to the phrase “too weird for Wally!”