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Dressed to the nines in a flowing white pants outfit and jewel-encrusted turban, resplendent in a rattan papasan chair adorned with pink flowers, before a standing-room-only crowd that numbered in the hundreds, Martha Buckley was every bit the queen of the evening at her 90th birthday party Jan. 17 at the Oceanview Pavilion in Port Hueneme.

With music provided by the big band Swing Shift, Buckley laughed and applauded as friends and fellow musicians performed a program of old classics.

“She just said she was happy, just grinning from ear to ear. She was exhausted; we were both pretty tired,” daughter Colene Riffo said.

One of the highlights of the evening was when Buckley’s three great-grandchildren — Avery, Nolan and Seth Spencer (ages 11, 9 and 6, respectively) — went to the stage to offer a sarsaparilla toast to their great-grandmother. “I love you and am excited I can spend your 90th birthday with you,” Avery said.

In addition, Buckley’s grandchildren Janene Spencer, Bettina Riffo, Clint Riffo and Carrie Roslan were at the party, as was her other daughter, Lyn Roslan.

Colene Riffo said she and her mother were delighted that so many people braved the rainy weather to come to the birthday celebration.

“Martha was impressed that all the people came out in the rain. It meant a lot to her and me and made us very happy,” Riffo said.

A friend in music

The birthday party was the latest colorful chapter in a very colorful life.

As a lonely young girl traveling with her mom from town to town to sell elixir, Martha Buckley found a friend in music.

“I think if I hadn’t had music in my life ,” she said in an interview last month. “It was the one thing that kept me going.

“I memorized every arrangement and every word from the beginning of time. The radio kept me company while I was growing up.”

Music has been at the center of Buckley’s life for as long as she can remember, from her days traveling with her performer mom, whom she described as a beautiful woman who looked like silent screen star Clara Bow, to later in life when she rediscovered her singing, earning acclaim locally for her big band renditions.

Buckley was born Jan. 17, 1920, the middle child to Elise Cooper and Hugo Tilton.

“My mother was an entertainer all of her life; she played piano at the silent movie theaters,” Buckley said.

That’s where she met Buckley’s father, but the marriage failed, and her parents divorced, with her father taking her older brother and younger sister and her mother taking young Martha.

“My mother explained that I clung to her skirts and wouldn’t let go. I suppose the baby, who was about 2, was too young,” Buckley said.

Her brother was sent to an orphanage, her sister was given to her father’s sister to raise, and Buckley has no memories of the father who abandoned her so young, barely able to even recall his full name.

Buckley went on the road with her mother.

“She would go through these little towns and sit on the back of an open truck playing the calliope,” she said. “It was the medicine show, and they’d erect the tents. It was a big thing in these little towns. The people had never seen anything like this in those coal-mining towns. They sold elixir.

“I was in the show. I was a little farmer and sang, ‘By Heck,’ and ‘I’m a little girl with raggedy clothes,’” she recalled. “I never had a mommy to rock me to sleep.”

Tough years

Buckley recalls when she came down with measles back in the days before inoculations, and her mother had to wrap her in a blanket to take on the train to the next performance; “the show must go on” was less an adage and more of a lifestyle for the little girl.

She recalls two years during her childhood when she went to live with her mother’s parents near Chicago; she described them as the best years of her childhood.

“I was living in a loving home with loving parents and grandparents and little friends to play with,” she said.

When her mother remarried, however, she sent for her daughter to live with her and her new husband.

Buckley recalls her mother entertaining at a speakeasy where she caught the attention of gangster Al Capone.

“He had big eyes for my mother,” Buckley said. “Even though she was married, he didn’t care. Whenever she would perform, he would give her pretty big tips.”

After the stock market crash of 1929, her parents’ work dried up, so they, like so many people of the era, decided to try their luck in California.

“We took old Route 66,” Buckley said. “We went back and forth about half a dozen times between Chicago and Los Angeles. They were still looking for a way to make a living, and I was just along for the ride.”

Eventually, back in L.A., they bought a sandwich stand right outside the Paramount Studio lot, but Buckley said neither was good with money, “so they lost it,” despite their star-studded clientele.

Her mother turned back to playing the piano and singing and entertained throughout the L.A. area.

A time for love

Buckley’s life settled down and then so did she — meeting the man of her dreams, Roy Buckley, at a high school dance in Silver Lake, where she said the kids would be “jitterbugging up a storm.”

“He (Roy) was just so cool. He always had a suntan and white teeth that sparkled. He was sexy,” she said.

She and Roy courted for six years before she married him. When he was sent to the South Pacific after Pearl Harbor, she said, she didn’t hear from him for two years.

“I didn’t care if I lived or died; I would cross the street and not even look,” Buckley said of those years. “I felt that I had fallen in love and it was taken from me and that was the end of me.”

Her heartbreak turned to joy when Roy reappeared and she realized the notoriously slow mail service was responsible for the silence.

Buckley, who had been performing with her mother, was able to get a job working at the MGM Studios cartoons department, where she started as an artist and was eventually made a supervisor.

During the war, she also kept busy doing USO shows.

Daughter Lyn was born in 1945 and seven years later, daughter Colene was born. In between, Buckley said, she had a number of miscarriages.

After the war, Roy went to work at Technicolor, and Buckley worked at smaller cartoon studios because the MGM cartoon division had closed.

She eventually ended up working for Hanna-Barbera, and her last job was working for Filmation Studios.

Life in the Valley

The Buckleys settled in North Hollywood in a housing tract where they bought a home for $10,000.

“We had so much fun living there,” Martha said. “We would have parties every weekend. We never locked our doors. If someone would need something, you would just call and go let yourself in and get it.”

After 17 years, they moved to Sherman Oaks. There, Buckley said, “we built a fabulous house. It was gorgeous on the hillside overlooking the San Fernando Valley and North Hollywood.”

After another 17 years, they decided to retire and buy a ranch near Acton because daughter Lyn was living there raising horses.

The couple lived in a trailer while they had their “dream retirement home” built, but, Buckley said, the entire process was “a nightmare,” taking two years and a couple of contractors to build.

By this time, she had colon cancer. Roy had prostate cancer and then a stroke, and, Buckley said, the added stress of caring for a working ranch and an ill husband was just too much, so the couple decided to move closer to the ocean and started looking for a place where they could have beautiful views and no maintenance responsibilities.

In 1992, the couple moved into a large top-floor condominium near the Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard.


Roy’s health continued to decline.

“It was very heartbreaking,” Buckley said. “We were married for 57 years and he was a tremendous worry to me. I became ill caring for him.”

Roy died in 1997, and Buckley found herself looking for a way to occupy her time.

“I heard about the Channel Cities Jazz Club. I wanted to get into singing to get my mind off my troubles,” she said.

Through her association with the club, Buckley — now also known as Martha B. — was able to start singing at various gigs in Ventura County, including the Pierpont Inn and the SideCar, both in Ventura.

“I have a new career going,” she said. “It boggles the mind at the late age in my life. It’s grown and grown and grown.”

She said she is grateful that she can still perform despite a gimpy knee and positional vertigo that always affects her.

“I’m doing relatively pretty well,” she said.

Through all, Martha B. has maintained her magnificent zest for life. Planning her 90th birthday celebration, she knew she wanted a big blowout. “I’m having as many people as I can invite,” she said.



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