Rickie Layne and Velvel

We’ve written about many ventriloquism acts that were identity-based: English, Irish, African American, female, gay, etc. but surprisingly, I think Rickie Layne (Richard Israel Cohen, 1924-2006) is the first vent we’ve come upon to agressively work the Jewish angle.

Born and raised on Brooklyn, Layne began doing Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor impressions when he was 9. When an uncle gave him a dummy as a gift, he tried out a ventriloquism bit as an encore and it quickly became the main focus of the act. The dummy was initially named Willie Gladstone, but his eventual name became “Velvel”. Layne became a mainstay at Catskills venues like Grossingers, and toured with revues. His big break came in 1955 when he was appearing on a bill with Maria Cole (Nat King Cole’s wife) at Ciro’s on Sunset Strip. Nat went to bat for Layne to get him booked on The Ed Sullivan Show. He was such a smash that Sullivan (whom Velvel called “Ed Solomon”) booked him over three dozen times over the next decade. The TV spots upped Layne’s bookability, and he began to work tony nightspots like the Copacabana in New York, Chez Paree in Chicago, the Fountainebleu in Miami Beach, the Orpheum in Los Angeles and Caesar’s Palace in Vegas.

I note that after Layne did spots on Merv and Mike Douglas, his appearances on Sullivan’s show stopped. Coincidence? I wonder. Sullivan didn’t seem like a vindictive guy, but many he wanted the monopoly on the act and figured Layne owed him. Exclusivity is not a rare demand in show business, although it is rare that anyone maintains it. In later years, Layne got some acting gigs. He did two episodes of The Jimmy Stewart Show, got a bit part on The North Avenue Irregulars (1979). In 1986 that inveterate lover of show biz Harry Anderson put Layne on an episode of Night Court. That was his last screen credit.

To learn more about the variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous