Whereas Mayor Jacob Frey has declared March 27 Fancy Ray McCloney Day in Minneapolis;
Whereas Mayor Melvin Carter has declared March 27 Fancy Ray McCloney Day in St. Paul;
Whereas Fancy Ray McCloney is releasing his debut album, “The Best Looking Man in Comedy,” on March 27;
Whereas Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has ordered social distancing in Minnesota due to COVID-19;
Fancy Ray McCloney hereby declares a party of one to celebrate all of the above.
“In this time right now, with all this confuuuusion in the air, this album is an opportunity to make you feel good,” Fancy Ray proclaimed with preacher-like zeal and rock-star volume. “What I’m trying to do is lift your vibration and make you feel better. Whenever you see Fancy Ray, know one thing: God is winking at you.” (He's having a listening party at 11 a.m. Friday on his Facebook page.)
Fancy Ray is an overflowing fountain of uplift. He’s been selling untempered optimism in the Twin Cities since P.J. Fleck was in middle school. He’ll pick up spirits even if the world is shut in, shut out and shut down.
Fancy Ray was supposed to be a celebrity grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day parade this month in Minneapolis. When it was called off due to the coronavirus pandemic, he simply put on his louder-than-day-glo-green shamrock-pattern jacket, hopped on his bicycle with its extra-large wheels and rode down Nicollet Mall as a one-man parade, waving to the brave souls who ventured downtown.
That’s Fancy Ray — a parade of one, marching to the beat of his own drummer, a proud peacock of positivity.
“The party,” he smiled, “is under my shoes.”
Like Bob Dylan and Prince, Fancy Ray has a mural painted on a building in Minneapolis — Lake Street Gifts and Oils, 2933 E. Lake St. But unlike those two musical icons, not everyone knows what Fancy Ray does — other than being locally famous. And fancy.
“He looms large in the collective psyche of the Twin Cities,” said Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody, a former City Pages columnist. “When I moved to Minneapolis, my friends were eager to school me on the local celebrities. One of them said, ‘You’ll love Fancy Ray.’ ”
Even though she’s never met him or seen him do stand-up, Cody fell so hard for Fancy Ray that she wrote the liner notes for his album.
“I love bombastic characters,” she said last week from Los Angeles. “What he does is subversive. He’s a nontraditional, nonconformist guy who’s positioning himself as a societal ideal. It’s the magic of self-love. His shtick is almost like a spell. You believe it.”
On TV daily
Since 1989, Fancy Ray has done stand-up comedy. In the ’90s, he hosted a local cable-access show with surprisingly big-name guests, including Whoopi Goldberg and Gloria Steinem. He emcees fashion shows and fundraisers. But he’s best known as a TV pitchman for such under-the-radar businesses as So Low Grocery and Lickety Split sex shop.
“I’ve been on TV every day since 1989 in one capacity or another,” he boasted in a recent interview. “The TV show, the run for governor [in 1998], the wide range of products that I have sold in this city. Lots of car lots, but I’ve done everything from adult bookstores to homeopathic health food stores and everything in between. This week, we’re on CNN, BET, VH1, OWN, TMZ.”
Not only is he the pitchman, but he writes, produces and directs the commercials for his one-man ad agency, Chocolate Orchid Productions. He’s done ads in Phoenix, Memphis, Jacksonville, Fla., and other markets. He even got Stand Up! Records to hire him to put together a TV spot for his own album.
Holding up two different colored vinyl LPs in the ad, he barks: “It comes in two flavors — dark chocolate and milk chocolate. My, my, my!”
That’s Fancy Ray in a nutshell. Loud and lighthearted, cutting up about race and himself.
On a rainy afternoon last week, Fancy Ray, umbrella in hand, walked into Elsa’s House of Sleep, a St. Paul furniture store that’s one of his clients. Before he could collapse the umbrella, he lit up the store with his loud proclamations, extra-big smile and baby-I’m-a-star bling.
He has an on/off switch, but he’s always on in public. Invariably dressed for a night on the town, he doesn’t own any jeans. He wears his running shoes only in the gym and while hiking. He gets his hair done twice a week. He does his own makeup. And he accessorizes every outfit — whether a colorful suit or stylin’ nightclub shirt — with his star pendant, star earring and star pinkie ring.
The youngest of four boys from north Minneapolis, he wasn’t loud in high school at Central, Marshall University and West. He was a shaved-head bodybuilder into reading philosophy, writing poetry and exploring spirituality, perhaps on a path to being a minister.
“He’s always been funny, he’s always been curious,” said his oldest brother, Percy Wade, a Minneapolis high school social worker and basketball coach. “Starting at age 5 or 6, he’d sit in front of the mirror and practice his ventriloquism. Later, he did that with his lip sync and his Fancy Ray comedy. And I’d tell him if it was good, bad or ugly. I was encouraging him to do it.”
In the early ’80s, when a friend took him to First Avenue for a lip-sync contest, Fancy Ray took a turn onstage and never looked back. His Little Richard and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins routines won Twin Cities lip-sync competitions, landing him on the nationally syndicated lip-sync TV show “Puttin’ on the Hits.” He segued into stand-up — basically assuming a Little Richard persona telling jokes — but eventually found his own voice.
Fancy Ray — he borrowed the nickname from his grandfather William (Fancy) Wade — rattles off his influences with almost worshipful respect: Little Richard, James Brown, Prince, Richard Pryor, Muhammad Ali, 1950s pro wrestler Gorgeous George and ’70s radio evangelist Reverend Ike.
The self-described best-looking man in comedy, Fancy Ray acknowledges his narcissism as easily as his seriously studied influences. He still insists that he’s 29 years old, though he admits that he has a 25-year-old son and he’s been doing stand-up for 30 years.
It’s his legal name
“Fancy Ray is my legal name,” he points out in his act. “If you don’t believe me, write me a check for $100 and see if I don’t cash it.”
Working black (jokes about race) and blue (sex jokes), Fancy Ray recorded “The Best Looking Man in Comedy” in January 2014 at Secret Stash Studios in front of a small crowd. Dan Schlissel, founder of Minneapolis-based Stand Up! Records, was in the audience. When Secret Stash decided not to release the album, Schlissel picked up the project.
“Fancy Ray is of the classic ilk like you’d see on ‘Hollywood Squares’ like Paul Lynde, Truman Capote and Joyce Brothers,” said Schlissel, whose label has released more than 200 albums by the likes of Maria Bamford and Marc Maron. “No one knows his full story, but here he is fully formed.”
Hollywood insider Cody thinks Fancy Ray is quintessential Minnesotan in that he works hard. “I don’t see that a lot here in L.A.,” said Cody, a native of suburban Chicago.
But she believes he’s un-Minnesotan in that he’s trying to stand out. “He’s turned his persona into a lifestyle. He was ahead of his time, in a way,” she said. “Now we have a whole generation of Kardashians who are trying to brand themselves.”
In the ’00s, Fancy Ray tried his luck in L.A., appearing on “The Tonight Show” and “America’s Got Talent,” snagging small TV roles (pimps or preachers, he says) and doing stand-up gigs. But he kept commuting to the Twin Cities to work on commercials for his hometown clients. After five years, he moved back to Minneapolis for good.
In 2016, Fancy Ray landed his most high-profile commercial — a spot for Taco Bell that aired regionally during the Super Bowl. Still, it didn’t make him rich enough to upgrade from his classic Cadillac that’s showing a trace of rust.
Turning it off
Being Fancy Ray is a full-time job but he knows when to turn it off. That’s when it comes to his other side hustle — wedding officiant.
Since being ordained in the Universal Life Church more than 20 years ago, he has performed many weddings, including one at Two Creeks Clothing Optional Campground.
“I’m not always on. When I do a wedding consultation, I’ve got to plan their ceremony, give them the ceremony they want,” said Fancy Ray, who also conducts Easter and Christmas services at the nondenominational Center for Spiritual Living in Minneapolis. “If I’m at church or a synagogue, I’m there to listen and learn. There is a time for everything.”
And he never upstages the happy couple. For instance, three years ago on St. Patrick’s Day, he married a couple whose first date was seeing Fancy Ray at a Mankato comedy club. He donned a bright green shirt and tie with a subdued black suit.
Talk of weddings gets Fancy Ray all sincere. At Elsa’s, he burst into his love poem that’s often part of his matrimony ceremonies. “What does love got to do with it? I say everything,” he recited off the top of his head. “Love is our birthright. And we are all kings and queens. It’s love that created the mountains and makes the rivers flow. Love makes the birds chirp and the beautiful flowers grow.
“It’s love that keeps families together. Even when they’re far, far apart. It’s love that will send you to a strip mall in a snowstorm, to buy dog food from a PetSmart.”
Those are only the first two stanzas, but by the time he finished, there was a Fancy Ray of sunshine on a rainy day.
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719