Timing is everything. Having been born in the mid 1960s, I initially only knew Paul Winchell’s voice, instantly recognizable on children’s programs (most of them animated) such as The Banana Splits, The Hair Bear Bunch, Wacky Races, Dastardly and Muttley and Their Flying Machines, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch, and Goober and the Ghost Chasers. He was Mr. Owl in the classic “How many licks?” Tootsie Pop commercial, and “Sam-I-Am” in the 1973 TV production of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. You could also hear him in many Walt Disney specials and features, such as The Aristocats (1970), The Fox and the Hound (1977), and the many iterations of Winnie the Pooh, in which he had the plum role of Tigger. People slightly younger than me will know him as Gargamel on The Smurfs. Winchell’s raspy, energetic voice sounded like nobody else’s, no matter what character he played. Little did I dream that decades previously Winchell had been one of the most beloved and emulated ventriloquists in the land, and the star (with his wooden partner Jerry Mahoney) of his own children’s tv shows.
Winchell was too young for classic vaudeville. Born on this day in 1922, he’d taken up ventriloquism as a child when laid up with polio. At age 15, he debuted on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour and was such a hit that he was booked to tour with Bowes’ traveling road show for five years. In 1949, he was booked for Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town — the first of countless appearances by Winchell and Mahoney in the Second Coming of vaudeville. Other variety shows he appeared on included Cavalcade of Stars, Your Show of Shows, Saturday Night Revue with Jack Carter, The Milton Berle Show, The Colgate Comedy Hour, Kraft Music Hall, Arthur Murray’s Dance Party, The Hollywood Palace, and The Tonight Show with Jack Paar.
He had a couple of popular TV shows his own, The Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Show (1950-56) and Winchell-Mahoney Time (1965-68). In addition to Jerry, his other characters included Knucklehead, Ozwald, and others. An excellent entre into Mahoney’s pathbreaking work during these years can be found in the documentary I’m No Dummy, reviewed here.
Rare for a ventriloquist, Mahoney’s facility with funny voices and accents also got him cast in on-camera appearances without his wooden friends. One of the most memorable of these roles was commercial director “Skip Farnum” on The Brady Bunch. You could also see him in guest shows on Love American Style, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Lucy Show/Here’s Lucy, The Flying Nun, Nanny and the Professor, even the occasional movie, such as Jerry Lewis’s Which Way to the Front (1969).
Here’s an interesting thing: a frustrated doctor (money troubles had prevented him from getting a degree) Winchell is also credited with patents for several medical inventions, including a design for an artificial heart!
Starting around 1990 Winchell reduced his workload, and performed almost exclusively as Tigger. He passed away in 2005. His daughter April Winchell is also an actress, radio host, and voice-over performer.
To find out more about variety artists like Paul Winchell and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.