|Richard Pryor at his Parthenia Home looking like he was about to go bicycle riding. This photo is from Pam Grier who had a relationship with him. There are hardly any photos of Pryor at his Parthenia home available on the internet. Image courtesy thegrio.com|
Richard Pryor was born in a humble and poor childhood far from normal life scarred by some of the worst things a child can experience like living in his grandmother's brothel where his mom practiced prostitution and eventually abandoned him at the age of 10 and was later raised by his grandmother who beat him. He would later be molested by a catholic priest and expelled from school at the age of 14.
But all of this suffering and pain would translate into a comedic career that Jerry Seinfeld called Pryor "The Picasso of our profession." He would win an Emmy in 1973 and five Grammy awards in the 70's and early 80's. Even though Pryor was successful, rich, brilliant, highly respected, and loved, his demons and troubles with drugs, alcohol, and sex would continue to haunt him till his death.
The opening paragraph of the article, Extinguishing Features: The Last Years of Richard Pryor by Julian Upton published in the May 2007 Issue 56 of Bright Ligths Film Journal best describes what happened to Richard Pryor on that quiet yet chaotic night on Parthenia street 33 years ago today (I added some details in parentheses):
Richard Pryor should have died on June 9, 1980. Early in the evening, out of his mind on crack cocaine (freebasing), the comedian covered himself in rum (151-proof) and set it alight. Before his guests could rescue him, he jumped out of the window of his house in Northridge, California, and ran down Parthenia Street in a ball of flames. Ignoring pleas from passersby, he staggered around the San Fernando Valley suburb for several minutes while his clothes melted into his skin and the flesh on his upper body bubbled and blistered like meat in a wok. Eventually, two cops managed to stop him long enough for an ambulance to arrive. Pryor was then taken to Sherman Oaks Hospital, where, it was generally thought (at least by his family and business associates), he'd be spending his last few hours alive. Obituaries were prepared. Unsympathetic acquaintances and certain family members started eyeing up his possessions. Indeed, some things were taken from his house in those first critical hours.
You have probably heard this story before of comedian Richard Pryor's close fate with death which leaves me in awe every time I hear or read about it. I am amazed for two reasons; that a person could do this to themselves and survive and the fact that Richard Pryor chose to live in a quiet ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles far from the extravagance and excesses of Hollywood which he would ultimately bring to Northridge of all places. However, for Richard Pryor the comedian, who appeared to never take anything seriously and joke would eventually turn this incident into one of his stand up comedy shows and movies stating "One thing I learned," said Pryor, "was that you can run really fast when you're on fire!" Wikipedia has more below:
Pryor incorporated a description of the incident into his comedy show Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip in 1982 (shown in the video below). He joked that the event was caused by dunking a cookie into a glass of low-fat and pasteurized milk, causing an explosion. At the end of the bit, he poked fun at people who told jokes about it by waving a lit match and saying, "What's that? Richard Pryor running down the street."
After his "final performance", Pryor did not stay away from stand-up comedy long. In 1983, he filmed and released a new concert film and accompanying album, Richard Pryor: Here and Now, which he directed himself. In 1986, he wrote and directed a fictionalized account of his life, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling which revolved around the 1980 freebasing incident.
It is this incident that Northridge and Parthenia St were placed on the map which was 14 years before the Northridge earthquake which was that other event that also put Northridge on the map. This area was always informally called Sherwood Forest (bounded by Nordhoff St, Balboa Blvd, Lindley Ave, and the Southern Pacific railroad) which was officially recognized last August 2012 and recently received its own zip code, 91325. This area was also famous for the replica home of Elvis' Graceland in Memphis dubbed Melody Land which no longer exists aside for the structure which was discussed on this blog. Everything else in this area is more or less cookie cutter, ordinary, bland, boring, quiet, and safe which is ultimately what every reasonable parent wants except for Pryor who brought his own style to this innocent area.
This area was mostly inhabited by white folks who enjoyed living on their large ranch lots which represented the old valley as one of the last areas to remain un-subdivided. It still continues till this day although there have been attempts by some to subdivide. In any case, you still can get a feel of this area from the early 80's when Pryor almost killed himself. Every time I drive down Parthenia St, I try to imagine what it would be like to hang out with Pryor in Northridge during those crazy party days. His daughter Rain Pryor (an actress that you may recognize from the ABC series Head of the Class and the Showtime series Rude Awakening) captured some of those memories in her 2009 book, Jokes My Father Never Taught Me (excerpt is from Google Books) which I grabbed a quote below (the rest can be read at the bottom of this post):
When Daddy got home, and I complained, he told me to stop whining. "My house is a much more stable environment than your mother's house," he said. We were interrupted by the arrival of a hooker. "Hey, baby, come on in," he told her, salivating a little. "You look hot!" Then he turned back to me: "Your mother's always going through crazy shit, so this is the right place for you."Pryor's home on Parthenia street was a sprawling ranch that had everything; an Olympic sized swimming pool, guest house, boxing ring, North-South tennis court, an orange grove (I believe), and a playhouse for the kids. Pryor was also a big animal lover and supporter who had a land tortoise named Myrtle, a miniature pony named Ginger (a gift given by producer Burt Sugarman when Richard was doing the The Richard Pryor Comedy Show shown below), monkeys for a brief period of time, and of course resuce dogs. On top of that, the home was full of people that were Pryor's entourage, help, lovers, family, and close friends. I doubt there was ever a dull moment at the house as the quote from Rain Pryor above demonstrates. His home was like a frat house with constant people surrounding him and entertainment. I wonder how he ever got any work accomplished when at home.
|Pryor's pet pony, Ginger. Image courtesy The Pet Press.|
Pryor was a huge influence to the top comedians of today including Dave Chappelle, Martin Lawrence, George Lopez, George Carlin, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Chris Tucker, and Robin Williams to name a few. In 2004, he was voted #1 on Comedy Central's list of the 100 Greatest Stand-ups of a All Time. He was awarded posthumously the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 and the animal rights organization PETA gives out an award in Pryor's name to those who have done outstanding work to alleviate animal suffering.
We will now look at the homes where Pryor lived in the SFV. The Movieland Directory does a good job of archiving the addresses of Pryor's homes which started in West Hollywood when he rose to fame.
|Entrance to Parthenia home on Parthenia St. Image courtesy Laist.com|
|North View of Parthenia home. Image courtesy Google Maps|
|West View of Parthenia home. Image courtesy Google Maps|
|Parthenia home in 1959. Image courtesy Historicaerials.com|
|Parthenia home in 1980, the year of the infamous burning incident. Image courtesy Historicaerials.com|
|Image courtesy Google Maps|
|Image courtesy Google Maps|
You can read more SFV history here.
Life with Richard Pryor: An Interview with Jennifer Lee Pryor by Nellie Killian. Published on February 13, 2013 at Bam Blog.
Extinguishing Features: The Last Years of Richard Pryor by Julian Upton. Published on May 2007, Issue 56 at Bright Lights Film.
Kinky's Celebrity Pet Files by Kinky Friedman. Published in 2011 by Simon and Schuster (book).
The Neighborhood Project: Northridge by Elise Thompson. Published on August 28, 2007 at Laist.com.
The Rumors of His Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated by Nelson George. Published on January 17, 1999 at The New York Times.
Jokes My Father Never Taught Me by Rain Pryor. Published in 2009 by Harper Collins.
Slideshow: The Life and Career of Pam Grier by the Grio. Published on May 26, 2010 at thegrio.com.
Time to Laugh, Time To Cry by Teresa Wiltz. Published on December 6, 2006 at The Washington Post.
Richard Pryor. Pryor's Convictions: To Stop Animal Abuse by Nora Fraser. Published September 2001 at The Pet Press.
Below are excerpts from Rain Pryor's 2009 book, Jokes My Father Never Taught Me (Google Books), describing life at the Parthenia St home for your reading pleasure.
About a year after the first fateful meeting, Daddy bought a big house on Parthenia street, in Northridge, about thirty minutes from the old place, and took his entourage with him. I loved that house even more than the one in the hills above Sunset, and for the next eight years, till I was thirteen, it was home to me.
When you arrived at Parthenia Street, you had to wait for the automatic gates to swing open, then you made your way down a long driveway, through a sprawling citrus orchard, till the big, ranch-style house came into view.
It was a low, Spanish-style structure, built around a central courtyard, and you entered the house through a read door that led to the kitchen--which was the heart of the house, especially when Mamma was around, cooking up her soul food storms.
Dad had two full-time caretakers--Mercedes, the housekeeper, and Raul, the groundskeeper and all-around handyman--and a full-time cook. There was also Rashan, a strong, quiet man who served as both a bodyguard and spiritual adviser. Whenever we kids were there, Rashan would teach us tai chi and try to get us to meditate. W didn't learn much--we were just kids, afer all--but we laughed and had fun.
The house had a big dining room, and a living room that was twice the size of the one in the old place. Dad had brought over all of his huge, comfy couches, and all of the groovy African art, and he had an enormous fish tank installed. I could watch those fish for hours.
The bedrooms were in one wing of the house. Dad's room was all dark browns and deep maroons, and it had an enormous bed with black sheets on it. He had a big-screen TV in his room---though not a flat-panel, since those hadnt been invented yet--and sometimes we'd pile onto his bed to watch movies. He had tons of movies--VHS tapes were piled all over the place--and he'd let us hang out till all hours. But sometimes, in the middle of a movie, Dad would stumble into the room, drop onto the bed without worrying about landing on us, and pass out.
I loved his bathroom, too. I had never seen anything so luxurious and opulent, all done up in fancy black marble. There was a shower stall with lots of shower heads, and the biggest Jacuzzi tub I'd ever seen in my life. It looked like Daddy could have held parties in it, and--now that I think of it--he probably did.
Outside, beyond the big yard, beyond the orange and lemon trees, there was a one-bedroom guesthouse that Daddy reserved for Mamma, who often came from Peoria to visit. It wasnt fancy, but it did have its own sauna.
Also near the guesthouse, Daddy hired someone to build a little playhouse for us kids. We used to go there to get away from the adults, but sometimes there were spiders in it, so we went very carefully.
Dad's favorite part of the house was the remodeled garage, with its full-size boxing ring. He was a boxing aficionado, and I'm sure that's what first sold him on the house. Wherever there was a fight on cable TV, Dad would throw big parties, and everyone would gather round the TV set and drink and get stoned and holler till they were hoarse. Dad's two favorite fighters were Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Lenoard.
On those nights that I slept over, which were becoming increasingly frequent, I always stayed in the main house, in the green-tiled guest room, just up the hall from where Mercedes slept. If Elizabeth was around, we shared the room, but when she wasn't there I stayed there by myself. On those nights, I often sneaked down the hall to visit Mercedes and watch Spanish soap operas in her room, on her small TV. I would pretend I understood Spanish, because I wanted Mercedes to like me, and looking back on it I realize that this was simply another way in which I was insecure.
There was also a smallish second floor that Dad had turned into his office. It was lined with plaques and posters highlighting all of Dad's achievements and it was where he did "business"--whatever the hell that entailed.
He kept his Emmy there, and, in the years ahead, his many other awards, including his Grammys, a couple of things from the Writers Guild of America, and a little plaque from the American Academy of Humor. I don't think I realized that my father was also a writer, but he was. He wrote his own material for his live concerts, of course, and he also wrote for film and television. He got writing credits on a number of hit films, including Blazing Saddles, Car Wash, Silver Streak, and Blue Collar.
I dont think Dad liked being alone. There were always people around, and usually lots of them. They would sit there drinking and smoking reefer, and passing the pipe, and whenever Daddy told a joke everyone would laugh--a little too hard, it seemed to me. But he liked it, I guess. He liked sitting there with his friends and with the hangers-on, sipping his Courvoisier from his tall, thin glass, and telling stories. That's what he was all about: stories. The man liked having an audience. He was most alive when he was on.
For us kids, however, one of our favorite places was the Olympic-size pool in the back of the property, where we'd play until our finger looked like prunes. Our favorite game was inspired by an episode of Twilight Zone we'd seen, in which a husband and wife told their kids that they were getting a divorce, and the kids didin't want to hear it, so they dove to the bottom of the backyard pool and emerged in a beautiful, peaceful world that was far, far away. In that world, families stayed together, and everyone was happy. I guess it doesn't take a psychiatrist to figure out why we were intrigued by that particular game.
pages 68 - 69 were not available so the next is page 70....
found absolutely terrifying. Daddy knew we were watching horror movies, even though he'd forbidden it, but he got a kick out of watching us run back up into the house, wide-eyed and screaming, so he let us get away with it.
Life on Parthenia Street was very pleasant for those first few years, but before long Daddy began to exhibit some of the erratic behavior that plagued him for most of the rest of his life. I think it must have been the drugs. he would explode for no reason, and he would beat us until his arms were too tired to go on. An hour later--probably once he had his fix--he'd come looking for us again, all sweetness and light. Needless to say, we were forever in a state of imbalance. Dad was many things, and most of all he was completely unpredictable.
When Mamma was around, however, he usually tried to keep himself under control. That was one of the reasons we loved having her come out from Illinois to visit. She ran the house like clockwork, and we got home-cooked meals instead of take-out and frozen pizza. As for Dad's drug use, it continued, of course, and she turned a blind eye to it, and he lover her all the more for it. Other women game him shit, but Mamma never did.
Mamma would also help him host dinner parties and barbecues, and one time we even had a big roller-skating party that spilled out into the street. One of the guests was Michael Jackson, but I didn't even talk to him.
My father had other celebrity friends, and they were there from time to time. Over the years I met everyone from Bill Cosby to Robin Williams, from Quincy Jones to Diana Ross, from Muhammad Ali to Arsenio Hall, but they didn't seem like celebrities to me. The were just Dad's friends, and I didn't know anything about them or what they did, and they didn't strike me as any different from any of his other friends.
Mom had a few celebrity friend of her own, like Melvin van Peebles, who'd been hanging with her and Daddy forever, and Lily Tomlin was funny, also like Daddy, and that was good enough for me.
At one point, when I was about eight or nine, Mom began leaving me at Dad's house more and more frequently. She said she wanted me to bond with him, and maybe she meant it, but I think she was going through another one of those periods where she was trying to make sense of her life. Nothing seemed to be working out for her, though. She had started out with such promise, and she still had absolutely nothing to show for it.
By this time I really liked hanging out at the Parthenia house. Dad wasn't much good at fatherhood, and he knew it, but he made up for it by entertaining us in other ways. He was always buying us pets, for example. I had a land tortoise, Myrtle, that lived on the property for years and years, and for a while we had miniature pony, named Ginger--until the dogs tore her apart (literally). We even had a couple of monkey's, briefly, but they tried to fuck anything that moved, including visitors, and one day they were simply gone.
"Where'd the monkeys go?" I said.
"Monkeys?" my dad said. "What monkeys?"
"The two monkeys we had?"
"Ain't no monkey here but you kids!"
He was only fooling, of course.
The only time I was unhappy at his house was when he wasn't there and I was left alone with the staff. It's not that I didn't like them but it didn't make any sense. He would go off for a week or two, and I'd have no one to play with, so it was a real drag. I could talk to Mercedes, of course, and in the morning I could chat with the chauffeur who drove me to school, but it wasn't the same. I never did understand why my mother just left me there. I imagine she was dating at the time, and hoping for a fresh start, but I was big girl by then, and if she had asked nicely I would known how to make myself scarce.
When Daddy got home, and I complained, he told me to stop whining. "My house is a much more stable environment than your mother's house," he said. We were interrupted by the arrival of a hooker. "Hey, baby, come on in," he told her, salivating a little. "You look hot!" Then he turned back to me: "Your mother's always going through crazy shit, so this is the right place for you."
Then he looked at the hooker again and his eyes got wide and happy. It was time for pussy, and pussy was Dad's favorite thing in the whole wide world.
There were so many hookers coming in and out of the house that I accepted it as a fact of life, as my father had done in his own youth, and their comings and goings resulted in an incident some years earlier that became part of the Pryor family lore. It was Thanksgiving. Dad had a lot of friends and family there, including Mamma. He also had a couple of girls stashed in the bedroom, who were still recuperating, and it seemed like they were taking their sweet-ass time about going home.
Finally, Mamma called everyone to the table. I remember walking past Dad's bedroom, and hearing the girls saying they were waiting on their money, so when I go to the table I sat down and immediately turned to look at him. "Daddy," I said. "The whores need to be paid."
For a moment, everyone looked at me in stunned silence, then they all burst out laughing. I didn't know what they were laughing about. And, truth be told, I didn't know what a whore was. But I knew whores had something to do with fucking, and fucking was fun, as my Daddy had assured me, so whores were a good thing. And they had to be paid! Just like the chauffeur and the groundskeeper and the man who took care of the pool. Hell, I'd seen Daddy pay them, and he always pad with wads of cash.
When the laughter died down, Daddy went off to pay the whores, and then we had ourselves a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner.
Whores were part of our lives, I guess, and they'd always been part of Richard and Mamma's lives, going back to the old days in Peoria. Daddy had lived in a whorehouse then, and in some ways he was still living in a whorehouse. Or, to look at it another way, he'd been carrying that whorehouse on his back his whole life--brought it with him all the way from Peoria.
Years later, I would think back on all of the shit I endured at my father's hands--the abuse, the endless sream of whores, the hostile ex-wives and even more hostile girlfriends, the loneliness, the exposure to drugs--and I wondered why I wasn't angrier with him. But I never felt anger. The motherfucker had a hold on me, and I couldn't help but love him.
Also, when you put it into perspective, I learned a lot about parenting from him. If I'm ever lucky enough to have kids, I'll do exactly the opposite of what my dad did to me, and I know they'll turn out fine.