Saturday, January 29, 2022 Jan 29, 2022
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Will Dallas’ merry prankster buffalo the world?
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And then there was the time George Toomer, all 275 pounds of him, was working for this ad agency. His ideas were good. His artwork was good. His attitude was bad, though. This was a place for 9-to-5 minds, the idea being that no matter how long you had worked on a project the night before, you would be at your desk by 9 the next day.

Uh-uh, thought Toomer. Not for me. If George worked late, he figured the company owed him some time the next day. The boss figured otherwise. This difference in philosophy had already produced several Toomer-boss confrontations. Mutual loathing was in the air, but Toomer and his wife and child needed the job.

One day Toomer came in a few hours late after pulling an all-nighter at the drafting table. In the interest of continued employment, he decided to negotiate the three floors to his office via the fire escape. Reaching his floor, he heaved himself in the window -so far so good -and turned to see his boss glaring at him from down the hallway.

Well, what would you have done? Of course. Toomer dropped into a gun-fighter’s crouch, pulled two imaginary six-shooters and yelled to his astonished employer: “It’s sundown and you’re still in town!”

Then he drilled the varmint.

That’s George Toomer, alias Buffalo George. He’s Dallas’ merriest prankster, the spaceman supreme, and he’s become a local legend for his brilliant scams, eccentric behavior and general weirdness. If something is outrageous, funny and has a layer of startling thought beneath its surface, Buffalo George probably has done it. If he hasn’t done it, he’s planning it.

For instance?

– A few years ago, Toomer wanted to organize a People’s Parade through downtown Dallas. This parade, he thought, would not honor soldiers or athletes or astronauts. Instead, the People’s Parade would spotlight ordinary working people. Toomer envisioned row upon row of garbage trucks, mail trucks and street sweepers led by marching phalanxes of construction workers, barbers, nurses and teachers. Restaurant and bar owners would be invited to enter floats.

But reality wouldn’t cooperate. City fathers were cool to the notion of a People’s Parade, and Toomer soon learned that security and parade cleanup would cost $5,000.

“They let tanks go down the street in parades, but they don’t want garbage trucks,” Toomer says of the incident. “If I was a Kid, id be proud to see my dad drive his trash truck in a parade.”

But Toomer refused to give up. He just reached into his imagination -which, like everything about him, is huge -and pulled out a new idea: a Fool’s Day Parade. On April Fool’s Day, hundreds of people gathered downtown for the event, which (April Fool’s!) did not happen. Not really, that is. Instead, Toomer and KZEW staff members broadcast the “imaginary extravaganza,” using Toomer’s hilarious script and taped crowd noises.

As grand marshal of the parade, Buffalo George kept the listening audience abreast of the bogus happenings: The Texas Rangers’ float was pulled out of the parade, and the Rangers were ticketed by police for impersonating a major-league baseball team; The Dallas Morning News float couldn’t complete the parade route since, according to Toomer, “it had never been able to make a left turn.” The Dallas Marijuana Society’s float was seen in hot pursuit of the Frito-Lay float, which carried several hundred pounds of munchies. A good time was had by all, except for those looking for the announced starting point of the parade -the “intersection” of two streets that do not intersect.

– Last summer, Toomer presented the Buffalo George One Man Show and Champagne Bus Tour, a benefit for the Allen Street Gallery. Rather than follow the orthodox format for one-man shows, Toomer did not exhibit his own work at all; instead, he invited several of Dallas’ leading photographers to produce “the intimate photography of Buffalo George.”

The brochure Toomer wrote to announce the event was vintage Buffalo George, promising “visual surprises that offer an insight into the everyday existence of this crypto-libertine. His intimate apparel. His favorite condiments. His electric bill and much more.”

The first 40 people to donate $25 to the Allen Street Gallery were also invited to join Toomer’s Champagne Bus Tour, billed as “an amusement park bus ride through Dallas and his life.” As the bus wound through the streets of Toomer’s youth and the guests were served champagne and snacks by an ex-Braniff stewardess, Buffalo George pointed out his favorite childhood hiding places, great spots for necking and views of the Dallas skyline that nobody had seen before.

At Toomer’s old high school, Woodrow Wilson, Toomer waxed nostalgic while the amazed travelers watched a gang fight in the schoolyard. At his Catholic elementary school, a priest held up a sign that read, “George Toomer was never confirmed.” Passing the home of his ex-wife, Toomer held forth about their amicable parting and the close ties he maintains with his ex – just as the lady emerged from the house to fling Toomer’s clothing all over the yard. It was that kind of a day.

Those who know Toomer and those who have only heard about his antics won’t be surprised to learn that Buffalo George has gone nationwide. He’s become the Junk Food Critic for the World, though he prefers terms like “convenience food” or “preproduced food.” This latest incarnation for Buffalo George began two years ago after he wrote a column on junk food for D. Before long, People magazine heard about the Buffalo and plopped him into the middle of an October 1980 issue (the one with “Torrid Teens on the Soaps” on the cover). Brandishing a chicken leg and looking out from a tableau of cheddar fish, Cokes and potato chips, Toomer told the nation: “Fruits and vegetables go bad, but Twinkies will last about five years on the shelf.”

Toomer hates puns, so he would never say that things sno-balled from there, but in short-order Buffalo George appeared on 20/20, The Today Show, Real People and The David Susskind Show, where the acerbic Susskind tried to use Toomer’s weight to score points against high-cal junk food. “What an idiot,” says Toomer, who by his own admission has never known a thin day. “I could have gotten fat from eating pheasant, for all he knew.”

Buffalo George appears frequently on Dallas’ edition of PM Magazine, and he has taped more than 70 segments of Baltimore’s Evening Magazine. Toomer has become a household face in the Baltimore area. In a typical Evening segment, Buffalo George, dressed in a tuxedo, arrives by chauffeured limousine at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant or the Baltimore equivalent of a Taco Bell. After buying a chalupa or some other dubious delicacy, Toomer proceeds to critique the meal for the television audience. For other Evening appearances, Toomer has even developed his own characters: Dressed as Swami Rotund, an Eastern fakir and all-purpose guru, he’s been known to plunge into the crowds of winos, hookers and would-be johns along the Block, a notorious Baltimore porno district. As he shakes hands and dispenses blessings to the masses, the camera crew follows, always a bit uneasy about these moments of cinéma vérité.

“He’s amazing,” says Linnea Anderson, a former Evening hostess. “He’s a celebrity in his own right, yet he doesn’t even live here. People ask him for autographs when he walks down the street.”

AN ORPHAN “born in Parkland and carried across the street to Hope Cottage,” George Toomer grew up in what he calls “the first golden age of advertising,” the Fifties, and from an early age set his heart on a career in commercial art. His foster parents had no other children and George had a weight problem, so he spent much of his time by himself reading, thinking and discovering his imagination. By the time he reached junior high, Toomer stood 5’11″ and weighed 210 pounds. He was shaving every day and had a tattoo. Like many precocious youngsters, Toomer found the school system to be the first of many hostile systems.

“I always felt singular and alone,” Toomer says. “I grew up in a world of adults and older friends. 1 was drinking in beer joints when 1 was 16. I was a confidante of my parents. Sometimes, that makes an only child carry emotional burdens he’s not really equipped for.” Those burdens led to Toomer quickly establishing himself as a misfit in school.

“I was always fat, and I always ran with rowdies,” he says. “There’s nothing more fun than a bunch of rowdies. I remember being in detention hall and summer school with guys like that. Some of them failed because they were dumb, but some of them just wanted to live for today.”

Toomer’s formal education ended with high school, and he admits he has often felt “slimy” because he did not attend college. “College provides people a nest somewhere between home and the world,” he says. “It’s another way of belonging. I always wanted to be in but I couldn’t – too fat or too shallow or whatever. I think that’s why I like to be in the spotlight.”

Instead of enjoying the halfway house of college, Toomer grew up fast in his late teens. He was married at 18, a father at 19. Though he had toyed with the idea of running off to join the beatniks, a dogeared copy of On the Road would be his closest approach to Bohemia. In 1960, people in Dallas didn’t talk much about finding themselves and realizing their potential; if a young man had a family, he put away childish things and went to work.

So Toomer worked, and with a vengeance. He led the straight life of a budding commercial artist, working as a pro-duction artist for Sanger Harris, Titche’s and the Bloom Agency, and later as an assistant art director for Evans, Young and Wyatt. He did free-lance artwork for debutante balls and for the Neiman-Mar-cus Fortnights (Stanley Marcus remains a Toomer cultural hero). He even became a director in the Jaycees.

As the Sixties went psychedelic, Toom-er’s commercial artistry began to make him a name in Dallas and around the Southwest. In 1966, he earned the first of the more than 200 awards he would receive in various graphic arts and media shows. He was making money, too -lots of it. “I had a sports car, neat suits, fancy sunglasses,” Toomer recalls. “I was really the gray-flannel guy.”

But underneath the gray flannel, Toomer knew that he was not fitting into the 9-to-5 world, and he was increasingly unsure that he wanted to. In a sense he was living a double life, helping to sell products and services during the day and playing drums for blues bands in the evenings and mornings. Often, he would draw all day, play in a club until midnight, then continue drawing until dawn. Toomer is reputed to have been a first-class drummer, good enough to play with the likes of Jimmy Reed.

In between these moments of glory, Toomer played a string of beer joints and roadhouses all over Texas. Rough places, these. At clubs like the original Cellar in Fort Worth, the bouncers searched you for a gun or a knife. If you didn’t have one, they gave you one. One night, when Toomer’s band was backing stripper Sherry Lynn in a Fort Worth club, a neon beer sign that hung a foot from Toomer’s head exploded. A bullet was found buried in the wall. Seems that two gentlemen in the parking lot had decided to settle a little dispute in the Texas tradition. The stray bullet had entered through an open window near the bandstand.

Another night, another close call, this time at the Top Rail Club. An odd fad called “jumping naked” had gripped the area, causing otherwise demure young ladies, after a few too many, to shuck some of their clothing as they danced. On this night, a very drunk blonde in gold lamé pants was dancing (by herself) when it came time for a Toomer drum solo. In nothing flat, the tempestuous beat melted the girl’s remaining inhibitions.

“She had just started to slip off her blouse when in comes this Little Abner-sized guy,” Toomer says. The giant made for the dancing queen and felled her with one punch to the jaw. As the band’s bass guitarist swung around to see what had happened, his guitar knocked over a customer’s beer, sending the cold liquid cascading into the “brain” of the group’s sound system. When the beer hit the glowing tubes of the brain, everything exploded. The music ground to a halt.

“When 1 came back the next day, there were pigs’ feet and broken bottles all over the place,” Toomer says. “I just told the guy I needed to pick up my brother’s drums.”

Finally, the contradictions of Toomer’s life stretched him too far. He reached his breaking point in 1968, that turbulent year that saw the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and riots at the Chicago Democratic convention. Toomer was driving himself toward success, often working three or four days without sleep, propped up by stimulants. That year, three of his largest free-lance accounts went bankrupt within a 60-day period. All three owed Toomer substantial amounts of money.

“I’d already started dropping out then,” Toomer says, “but 1 needed the money. I had a studio, a van and alternative friends, but I also had a middle-class family. I was really torn.” He was also beginning to wonder whether happiness lay at the end of his labors. “When I first started out, my goal was to do a four-color illustration in a magazine. Three years later, I was sitting there with orders for five four-color jobs that had to be done in 36 hours. And I wasn’t happy.”

In his own words, George Toomer “cracked” in 1968. After being fired 11 times from 11 different jobs over the years, he was through working for others. He made what he calls the irrevocable commitment, the decision to follow his own road in life. Looking back, he talks about what was wrong -still is wrong, he says -with the system. “They don’t just want good work from you, they want the right attitude. They want your mind.”

Toomer has a favorite parable to explain his feelings about the disordered priorities of the workaday world:

“There once was a country in which all the yards were filled with rocks. This one guy really enjoyed working as a rock mover, and he would work hard all day long moving the rocks out of people’s yards. He loved his work, so all day long he would whistle Brahms’ Lullaby.

“Now everyone saw that this man was making lots of money, so other rock movers and people in other jobs began to whistle the Lullaby as they worked. Eventually, Brahms’ Lullaby became a requirement. When people would interview for jobs, they’d be asked to whistle the Lullaby. Nobody cared how well they did their work; what they all wanted to hear was the Lullaby.

“My deal is this,” Toomer says. “I can do a hell of a job clearing your yard for you. I can do it in eight minutes flat. But I don’t do the Lullaby. I detest lullabies.”

In 1968, Toomer also formed the Image Group, a loosely knit coalition of artists and designers who solved advertising and marketing problems for nationally known companies. Toomer also began contributing artwork to underground publications such as the Berkeley Barb and Dallas’ Iconoclast. Later he became co-publisher and art director for The Claxon, a Dallas alternative newspaper. Under the pen name of Fat Ralph, Toomer created the satirical “Captain Redneck,” a hypocritical sadist who crammed “the U.S. of A. Way” down the throats of peaceniks and other traitors. But, Toomer insists, he was never an “underground” artist. “At the same time, I was doing work for Lincoln Properties and Dr Pepper,” he says. “All I ever wanted to be then was a commercial artist.”

But commercial art proved too confining for the talents of George Toomer. Today he describes himself, when he has to, as a comedy writer, marketing consultant, advertising man and television personality – not necessarily in that order.

“It’s a real mistake to call George a ’graphic artist,’ ” says Ira Lipson, a friend and client of Toomer’s. “That misses so much of what he does. He’s also a brilliant designer, one of the funniest writers around and a great orchestrator of co-medic life. He just sits back in his chair, puffs that stogie and comes up with the most outrageous realities.”

That love of creating new realities may be a key to understanding Buffalo George Toomer. Really, Buffalo George is just one of the images Toomer interposes between himself and the world. Like a magus or sorcerer, he has spent much of his life creating new selves. For a decade, as Dallas’ premier image maker, he’s reshaped the public identities of restaurants, radio stations, manufacturers, businessmen, charities, actors -in short, anyone with a product, cause or personality that Toomer believes in. When people come to Toomer with an image problem, they get a fresh perspective on their business, whatever it is. They get results, if he’s interested in the work. And they usually get some laughs in the bargain.

Toomer is understandably reluctant to discuss the clients he has helped with their corporate identities. He will admit to being the artist who drew Frito-Lay’s Frito Bandito and the Shakespeare Festival’s Bard-with-bandanna logo. He has done work for Seagram’s, American Airlines and Quaker Oats, among other national accounts. Some smaller jobs have given him great pleasure, too. He recalls the time that a Dallas restaurant was showing unacceptable losses from employee theft. Toomer told the distraught manager to give each employee a bottle of inexpensive champagne with each paycheck. The theft stopped almost immediately.

Recently, Toomer agreed to help a large and quite successful radio station revamp its image in order to attract another segment of the listening audience. He was blunt with the station’s marketing manager: “The only reason anybody listens to you is because you’re big,” he said.

Toomer can afford such candor now. He no longer solicits business; he works only with clients who are doing something that intrigues or inspires him.

“With most ad people, their job is to keep the account. Since I didn’t ask for the account in the first place, it’s different. I’m always equal to my clients, not under them. I’m like a doctor or lawyer or any professional person. You come to me to save your ass. You don’t go to a doctor and say, ’I want a 3-inch incision right here.’ “

Toomer is now flying around the country courtesy of a well-known fast-food chain, doing taste tests and making recommendations. His “commercial lip” has helped him eat his way into a lucrative sideline: sampling new recipes for local restaurants.

Like much else in his life, Toomer’s work as a consultant and image-maker is a form of play. “I love to pretend,” he says. “I’d love to be a truck driver or a race car driver, but I can’t go through the right channels to get there. That’s what I love about consultant work. I don’t want to run a restaurant, but I love to help them do it. I like to know that if I had to, 1 could sell electronics. That way I don’t have to do it. I love to be presented with some bizarre problem in an area I don’t know anything about.”

“If George is working on a project that he’s interested in, he’ll just throw away the clock,” says a local radio personality who has often sought Toomer’s advice. “And there’s no telling how many projects he’s done for charitable organizations at a fraction of his usual rates.”

“People want my advice because they know I’m going to be honest with them,” Toomer says. “I rarely ever miss with what I say. And I don’t have a ’next, please’ attitude. I won’t deliver the project if I don’t like what I’ve done.”

DESPITE HIS success as a molder of images for others, consultant work does not fulfill George Toomer any more than commercial art. “I really enjoy getting inside people’s lives,” he says, “but now, I want something I can claim for my own. All the other times it’s been for these other people. Buffalo George is my claim.”

The evolution of Buffalo George is really the story of Toomer’s realization that he had a product of his own to sell – namely, himself. At first, in the early Seventies, Buffalo George seems to have been nothing more than a convenient scapegoat for any Toomer scams that went awry. It was not until 1975, Toomer says, that he realized the potential of the Buffalo. That was the year of the Golf Ball Breeder, Toomer’s hot-selling novelty item. The Breeder consisted of a small cardboard box with carrying handle and two golf balls separated by a partition. Toomer’s “Official Golf Ball Breeder Manual” told the new owner what to do: After naming the balls and filling out the enclosed marriage certificate, the owner merely removed the partition and let the newlyweds go to it. How to tell male from female? Easy. Just drop the balls. The female, of course, would have more bounce. Instructions for the care and feeding of the young golf balls were included.

An entrepreneur, of course, must have a company name. In 1975 Toomer became a conglomerate, the Buffalo George Empire Inc. Other novelty gimmicks followed, among them the Hobo Cookie (with a bite missing), junk-food sheets (“gives kids nightmares”) and the Love Mates, a spin-off of the Golf Ball Breeder. The Love Mates “Contented Tennis Ball Training Manual and Cheating Handbook” told frustrated tennis buffs how to win. The secret: contented tennis balls, kept happy because they’re lovers. And how to tell them apart? Again, drop them. The female ball will say, “Not tonight, Lewis. I have a headache.”

The Buffalo George Empire struck out, at least temporarily, when a dock workers’ strike in Taiwan made it impossible for Toomer to get the tennis balls he needed. The timing could not have been worse: One department store chain had ordered 70,000 units. Buffalo George could not keep up with his orders, resulting in a $42,000 hemorrhage for the Empire. (If this isn’t true, it sure makes a good story.)

Later, the Buffalo George Empire spawned a subsidiary, Fat Chance publications. Under its auspices, Toomer has written, published or at least thought about several literary ventures, including four screenplays. One sold to River Entertainments; another was optioned to Stuart Margolin, who played Angel Martin on The Rockford Files. Toomer’s appearances on Baltimore television led to a pamphlet called Buffalo George’s Diet Guide, which, in turn, inspired Buffalo George’s Losers’ Book, now in progress. Should the Losers’ Book find a publisher, it may revolutionize the diet book genre. It’s an angry, eloquent manifesto, an outcry against what Toomer calls the “template mentality” of America. It could do for the overweight what The Feminine Mystique did for women.

One of Toomer’s most endearing characteristics is his ambivalence, at least when it comes to his increasingly public life. “Routine is the hobgoblin of small minds,” he says, mangling Emerson. So is consistency, and Toomer will have little of it. In one mood, he’s confident about his future and that of Buffalo George; a minute later, the ego seems to deflate and a self-deprecating humor takes over.

Toomer I: “If I can just come out of this article as wonderfully mysterious, tragically sensual and hilariously witty, with 6 inches more hair, I’ll be satisfied.”

Toomer II: “You want to know what fame is like? I’ll tell you. The first time I was supposed to be on TV, I’d been out to a bar by myself. My relationship at the time was on the rocks. I had a hamburger and decided I’d go on home. I washed my hair and was sitting there drying my 16 strands when I decided to turn on the TV. I broke into the last half of 20/20 and saw myself walking off looking like a truck. That’s fame.”

George Toomer often calls himself the “Midnight Mayor of Dallas,” the city’s Man About Town. In a supermarket, in a restaurant or walking through a mall, he is constantly hailed by old friends and new acquaintances. “It’s really hard to even drive down the street with George,” says longtime friend Ken Badt of the Dallas Observer. Badt attributes much of Toom-er’s popularity to his honesty and fairness with people over the years. “I wouldn’t believe it if 1 was told that George screwed somebody around in a deal,” Badt says. “He’s not capable of crossing anybody.”

On a typical evening at one Dallas nightspot, Toomer is approached and embraced by no less than five attractive women within an hour. But he waves off suggestions that he is the city’s next sex symbol. “It’s all part of the myth,” he says. “Women like me because they know I’m harmless. I’m like a big brother to them.”

Toomer admits that his appearance – Jerry Rubin, pre-stockbroker -is a bit dated for the Eighties. He estimates that he loses some $40,000 a year in business because of his hair, beard and blue jeans. Still, he’s reluctant to change. “When I grew my hair out, I was refused service at Phil’s, Lucas B&B -places I’d been going all my life,” he says. “It’s cost me, and when you’ve paid that much for something, you don’t want to give it up.”

SOMETIMES AT night, when the phones have stopped ringing for the day and his friends have gone home, George Toomer must be alone. Perhaps that’s when he thinks up his next tour de force and plots the next step in Buffalo George’s conquest of America. Toomer spends less time at old hangouts like Joe Miller’s since he quit drinking, primarily in an effort to lose weight. A big man, he once drank in a big way but quit cold last March and has not had a drink since. He’s 67 pounds lighter now, down from the 325 pounds that had endangered his health for years.

From the windows of his Cole Avenue home/office, Toomer has a dim view of the further development of Dallas, the city he has engaged in a lover’s quarrel for most of his 40 years. The renovation of the Cole-Quadrangle area has leveled most of Toomer’s neighborhood. His friends kid him about the value of his property and warn him to watch out for fires. The mirrored Vineyard Centre building across the street seems to stare at Toomer’s “little house on the prairie” with supercilious amusement, as if asking, still here?

Toomer is still here, living in a house that is as much museum as home. At the top of the stairs, a wide-eyed marlin gapes from its place on the wall, no doubt sur-prised to find a Coke can impaled upon its sword. Nearby, a Flexible Flyer sled waits for the first snow. An ancient wheelchair … a parasol from the 1936 Texas Centennial. . . decoupaged ashtrays from World War I… horsehead lamps… a homemade jackalope.. . a wonderland of kitsch.

Toomer does not object to the word. “I love kitsch,” he says. “That’s why I like yard art. When somebody puts out 50 cacti and 10 pink flamingoes in his yard, that’s a gift to the people.” Toomer has a theory that what many call “bad taste” may save the world. “You see the same yard art in Pennsylvania as in Maine as in Texas,” he says. “When we realize that black people and Russians have the same problems we do in decorating for a kid’s party, then we’ll start to get along.”

His visitor picks up a tiny statue of a buffalo, prompting Toomer to mention, between puffs on a cigar, the time he posed for a picture atop a live buffalo. He was 5 years old. Friends often tease him about the name, saying he took it because he looks like a buffalo, but Toomer, who can laugh at himself, says that’s not the reason for the name. He points to an old book, a first edition by Buffalo Bill himself, William Cody.

“Buffalo Bill refused to change,” he says. “He kept on doing what he loved doing despite the dying of the Old West. I’m like that. I’m not going to change.”

Remember, though, this disclaimer comes from a man whose favorite movie is The Great Imposler. That’s the problem with trying to pin down George Toomer: He’s a man with a thousand faces. Does he like holding court at the Stoneleigh P or the 8.0 Bar? Sure. “I have a hard time just enjoying life,” he confesses. “It’s hard for me to just sit at a party. I have to be the center of the party.”

So he thrives on the crowd, huh? Not really. “There’s a playground in McKinney where I like to go, especially when I’m with a woman,” he says. “In the summer, you can hear the sounds of baseball games from the park.”

And again: “Sometimes I just get in my car and drive an hour and a half in some direction. Then I’ll stop and spend the night in some little town. Or I’ll go to downtown Decatur at midnight and just walk around.”

Buffalo George in downtown Decatur? Did he say midnight mayor or midnight magus? If art is an expression of human feeling, perhaps George Toomer’s whole life is a work of art. You figure it out. And remember, “buffalo” can be a verb.