Probably the first thing people noticed about Perry Stewart — beyond the prematurely white hair and beard he had by the time I met him in 1989 — was his voice. It was perpetually hoarse, the result, he told a couple of former colleagues recently, of being hit by a car when he was 8 and having a tracheotomy that left him with a permanent rasp.
Stewart, who died Sunday night at age 75 (according to driver’s license records, he was born Oct. 18, 1942), was already a witty raconteur, and that rasp added an extra touch to his oral storytelling. It was a voice that a lot of people in Fort Worth and Tarrant County got to hear often beyond the stories he told and reviews he wrote for print during more than 40 years contributing to the Star-Telegram, many of them doubling as theater critic and nightlife columnist.
UPDATE: Services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Grace United Methodist Church, 4105 Junius St. in Dallas
Stewart, known to friends and colleagues as “Perry Buck” or just “Buck,” grew up in Little Rock, Ark., as the son of a funeral director and one of Arkansas’ first women bankers. In a 1969 profile in the Arkansas Democrat, his mother talked about how Stewart underwent a series of surgeries and had to go to a special-needs school for years after the accident.
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He was an honors journalism student at Little Rock University and a reporter at the Democrat before moving to Fort Worth and graduating from TCU. He started at the Star-Telegram as a copy editor in 1965, and by 1966 he was the “amusements columnist” for the evening editions.
“This talented young man has moved up fast at the Star-Telegram,” said an ad announcing the move. “Read Perry Stewart’s columns on the Evening Star-Telegram’s amusement pages and you’ll see why he’s a ‘comer.’ ”
He and Elston Brooks, who worked at the Star-Telegram from 1948 till his death in 1991, provided a yin-yang of entertainment columnists during the era that they covered the beat together, with Stewart writing for the evening editions and Brooks writing for the morning editions.
Brooks retired from daily newspaper work in 1985, but continued to contribute a Sunday column. Similarly, Stewart continued to contribute to the paper after his own retirement in the late ’90s, even maintaining an office phone well after he was on staff at the paper (those of us who knew Stewart also knew that the office phone was the best way to reach him, even to set up a round of golf, and were familiar with his advice to “leave a message at the beep tone!” on his voice mail, which he changed daily, reflecting the weather conditions that day).
In Star-Telegram archives, his last byline as a correspondent appears in 2007. Stewart and Brooks appear to have had the longest-running tenures in the Star-Telegram’s Features department.
With a tenure that long, it would be difficult to mention the many things that Stewart covered, but among them were reporting on Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway during the North Texas filming of “Bonnie and Clyde,” a landmark movie released the same year he became an entertainment columnist; Fort Worth actress Betty Lynn Buckley’s Broadway debut (he traveled to New York for that); and the notorious punk-rock group Sex Pistols’ appearance at Dallas’ Longhorm Ballroom in early 1978.
In 2015, around the time “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was released, Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy looked back at Brooks’ and Stewart’s reviews of the original “Star Wars” in 1977: “Stewart, always understated, wrote thoughtfully and cautiously about how the movie is ‘a boy’s adventure yarn in the most traditional, unabashedly entertaining sense.’ ... Brooks’ column later in the movie’s run began with a bombastic: ‘Oh, wow!’ ”
After writing a deadline review of a play, Stewart would often stop in to the bar where the paper’s night-side denizens hung out, sharing anecdotes about the paper’s past.
When the Star-Telegram launched Encore, an overnight entertainment review/news section, it became one of the most aggressive eras for entertainment coverage (and an answer to the Dallas Morning News’ “Overnight” section): Encore began with a lot of space to fill, so we covered everything we could get to.
For Stewart, that meant local theater, and lots of it. He was the type of deadline writer editors dream of: concise, quick, clean. And he was a staunch defender of the local theater scene: He was about as ego-free as journalists get, but he would complain — often justifiably — if he thought a theater review got worse play than one of the many pop-concert reviews we wrote at the time, pointing out that audiences still had a chance to see the theater show, while the concert was (usually) a one-off thing.
At the same time, he covered local nightlife in his weekly “Nightcrawler” column for the Star-Telegram’s “Star Time” section, later DFW.com. Younger writers and page designers have commented about his mentorship in Facebook posts paying tribute to him, and that mentorship could include letting them know about a club or a restaurant they might not have heard of otherwise. Stewart’s hangouts included Paris Coffee Shop, Zeke’s Fish and Chips and other old-school Fort Worth eateries.
In 1997, I moved from an office to a desk adjacent to Stewart’s, which was quite possibly the messiest desk not just in Features, but in the entire building. Legend has it that when he retired, he found an uncashed paycheck when he was cleaning out his desk. I saw firsthand a coupon for a Fort Worth restaurant that had been closed for several years.
It’s odd that he didn’t cash the paycheck (if that’s not an urban myth) because he was known for his frugality. He would prefer looking for a parking meter that had leftover time on it to taking one closer to the building. Once, when I opened some mail and thoughtlessly threw a paper clip in the trash, he admonished me: “Don’t throw that away! That’s a perfectly good paper clip!” He once charged me when I asked to “borrow” a stamp.
But he was a good guy to play golf with — and a pretty good golfer, too — because, short of snorkeling, he wouldn’t give up on finding a playing partner’s lost ball. And he’d usually find it, and five more nearby. He was a fixture at the Colonial Country Club’s annual “Wide Open” media scramble to promote the annual Colonial PGA event; for a couple of years, the long white hair he sported in the ’90s, always neatly pulled back into a ponytail, and his white beard earned him a nomination for the Wide Open’s jokey “Howard Hughes” award.
Unlike Hughes, Stewart wasn’t a recluse, and he continued to get around in his own low-key way. Several years ago, he moved to Dallas, and he was often spotted by current and former Star-Telegram staffers who happened to be over there. In early October 2017, according to a Facebook post by churchgoers at Grace United Methodist Church in east Dallas, Stewart was struck by a car while crossing the street from church to get a friend some coffee.
He suffered a severe brain injury, and was at a Dallas nursing facility where the staff was helping him regain lost cognitive function. Colleagues who visited him — sadly, I meant to, but never made the time — said he appeared to be getting stronger, and his death Sunday came as a shock. His reach went way beyond the Star-Telegram, to the local theater, nightclub and music communities. We are not likely to see anyone like him again.
Star-Telegram staff writer Bud Kennedy contributed to this report.