My wife and I have been binging Seinfeld re-runs for the sheer pleasure of it in recent weeks and I caught a “Farfel” reference in one not long ago. Of course, the origin of that name is a Jewish food, but on the show it was the name of a dog, so I knew that the inspiration was a certain star puppet in the repertoire of ventriloquist Jimmy Nelson (1928-2019).
It’s taken me unconscionably long to pay tribute to such a major figure in the ventriloquial field. He passed away two years ago, and as an expedient, I repurposed my review of the 2009 documentary I’m No Dummy as an obit. That would have been a logical opportunity, but I must have had something else going on. Why so long in doing a post on him? Well, he came along too late for vaudeville (the original starting point of this blog) and his heyday was before my time, so I have fewer memories of him than, say, Baby Boomers (like Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David), might. I absolutely saw (and/or his characters) in Nestlé commericials, but had not been around for his peak time as a national TV presence in the 1950s.
Nelson became a vent at the age of 10, when given a dummy as a Christmas gift. School performances led to entertaining at social functions, which led to prizes at talent shows at movie theatres. At 17, he got his first custom, professional dummy, whom he named Danny O’Day, continuing the tradition established by Edgar Bergen (Charlie McCarthy) and Paul Winchell (Jerry Mahoney) of making his little fellow Irish in name if not in accent. His other characters included Farfel the Dog, Humphrey Higsbye, and Ftatateeta, a cat who talked kind of like Ed Wynn.
Originally from Chicago, Nelson’s professional career took him to nightclubs and resorts all over the country. In 1950 he made his debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, the first of many. From 1951 through 1954 he was a regular on The Milton Berle Show. Throughout the decade he also appeared frequently on Cavalcade of Stars, Your Show of Shows, The Kate Smith Hour, The Arthur Murray Party, and The Jackie Gleason Show. He was only in his 20s through most of those years! In 1960 he hosted his own local kid’s show on channel 13 in New York. In the ensuing decades as variety tv died out, he would appear on talk shows like those of Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, and Bob Braun, in addition to his schedule of live appearances, and the Nestles’ commercials, which as I mentioned were still going in the 1970s and ’80s, making him one of the longest-lasting product pitchmen in broadcasting history. He also hawked a variety of other products over the decades.
Nelson also recorded popular record albums, including instructional records for aspiring ventriloquists, which many still speak of as being a major influence. His participation in I’m No Dummy was one of his last screen credits. He was 90 when he passed away in 2019.
To learn about the roots of variety entertainment, including TV variety, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous
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