Like most people in the entertainment industry, Bucks Burnett used a celebrity's name to wedge his foot in the door. His name is Mister Ed.
The world's most famous talking horse had a primetime CBS sitcom from 1961-1966 and ran in syndication on UHF channels and cable networks like Nick at Nite throughout the 1980s and '90s. Burnett, a record store owner and occasional Dallas Observer columnist, launched the Mister Ed Fan Club in the mid-'70s.
The club started as a joke but ended up serving as Burnett's introduction to the music industry. Eventually it would have members including Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend and the members of Monty Python.
Last night, the cable network RIDE TV aired an interview with Burnett about the fan club as part of their equine-bio documentary series This Old Horse. "It went a hell of a lot further than it should have," Burnett says.
In 1975, Burnett was watching watching the local PBS affiliate KERA conduct its annual pledge drive. KERA was the first to air Monty Python's Flying Circus in America, and they were interviewing the British comedy troupe as part of the drive.
Burnett was a huge fan so he called into the show in the hopes that one of them would answer to take his donation. Python member and animator Terry Gilliam did.
"He said, 'Do you want to sign up for a membership,' and I said, 'No, I wanted to know if they wanted to join my club,' and I said the first name off the top of my head: the Mister Ed Fan Club," Burnett says. "[Gilliam] says, 'Do you mean the horse?'"
The call, which was live on air, so amused Gilliam that he shared Burnett's offer with the rest of the Pythons.
"Looking back, I think I was just trying to think of something clever and surreal for them to relate to and they were just laughing and shouting things at me," Burnett says. "John Cleese asked what they would get if they joined. I told Gilliam to tell them I would not send them a Mister Ed T-shirt. Graham Chapman said, 'Great, tell him we won't wear it.'"
After the call, Burnett carried the joke further by using the Mister Ed Fan Club as his return address on all of his mail and starting a two-page newsletter called The Horse's Mouth that focused on music interviews and reviews, and Burnett's original cartoons.
The club also held "meetings," which were just convenient excuses to throw wild parties with live music. In 1982, the growth of Burnett's underground club attracted the attention of the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald, who did a feature on him for their entertainment section.
"The writer said I could pick the restaurant and we ate at this really cool Mexican joint in Oak Cliff and his first question was what was my favorite episode of Mister Ed?" Burnett says. "I said, 'How would I know? I've never seen the show.'"
The story was published on the front of the Dallas Times Herald's entertainment section and news wire services circulated it all over the world. Money started arriving in the mail with letters asking for memberships despite the fact that Burnett had told the newspaper that "lifetime memberships were for $1 and they wouldn't get a T-shirt."
"It had gone out internationally as a wire story with my address included," Burnett says. "I was getting five-pound notes from England saying I could keep the change."
Burnett decided to turn his little joke into a career and quit his job as a graphic designer for a local oil company. In a memo, the company announced to the other employees that Burnett was leaving to "devote himself full-time as the president of the Mister Ed Fan Club," he says.
Despite his promise that there wouldn't be any T-shirts, Burnett hired Austin artist Guy Juke to design one to sell for $10. He also expanded the club's newspaper to a 16-page music fanzine that included interviews with some of the world's most renowned rockers.
Burnett says asking musicians like Alice Cooper drummer Neil Smith, Eric Clapton, Iggy Pop and all four of the Talking Heads to join the Mister Ed Fan Club became a way to differentiate himself from all the drooling fanboys when he met them.
"That's when I became a groupie and I thought that was so much fun that I want to meet all of my heroes," he says. "In fact, I'm still doing it and I've met about 90 percent of them."
Burnett upped the ante once more in 1984 when he created the music festival Edstock. He rented the famed Bronco Bowl on Fort Worth Avenue and lined up acts like T Bone Burnett, Joe Ely, the Stardust Cowboy and Tiny Tim (whom he managed) to headline the show.
The concert was rowdy and went till 2 a.m., but all in all it was a failure. The venue's capacity was 3,000 and Burnett only sold 300 to 400 tickets. He walked away saddled (no pun intended) with $20,000 in debt.
"It was my Titanic and I went down with the ship," Burnett says. "In a way, it was horrific and scary and for years, I was paying people back, but I did not file bankruptcy. I paid it all back and it took many, many years. I'll always be proud of what I accomplished because I put on a great show."
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And the show did have a silver lining: It's where Tiny Tim recognized Burnett's initiative and creativity and resolved to hire him as his manager, a relationship that lasted until Tiny Tim's passing in 1996. In his time working for Tiny Tim, Burnett also became friends with Alan Young, the actor who played Wilbur on the original Mister Ed.
The fan club came to an end right around the time of Edstock. In its later years, it approached 1,000 members, who began to drive the focus more toward celebrating the famous TV horse and away from music. Burnett is glad his joke came to a conclusion before he lost total control.
"It was more fun when it had nothing to do with the horse but once it was about the horse, it was still fun," Burnett says, who recently opened 14 Records on Garland Road. "Who knows where it would have gone from there? More horse jokes or a bigger magazine. I'm way glad it didn't go much farther than there."
Learn all about Mister Ed and Bucks Burnett's Mister Ed Fan Club on This Old Horse on RIDE TV. Check your local listings for time and availability.