A nod today to ventriloquist Ronn Lucas (b. 1954).
El Paso native Lucas has been a professional vent for nearly 50 years. Judging strictly from video clips, he just might be the most technically proficient performer of his craft I have ever seen. That guy’s lips DON’T move. Like, he can do an AUCTIONEER routine, with his face immobile. And he has all sorts of clever and interesting bits (some traditional, some original) in his act that dazzle. The muffled voice in the trunk, of course. He makes the microphone itself a talking character. He uses members of the audience as ventriloquist dummies.
As a personality, he’s much too “slick” and “clean” for my tastes (reminds me a little of Bob Eubanks), both in manner of presentation and in his material, which I don’t personally find very funny. His oldest dummy partner is “Buffalo Billy”, a cowboy, devised when he went on tour to promote Billy the Kid Clothing as a young man. His other main characters show a laudable attempt to be contemporary, though a conservative sensibility prevents him from getting quite there. A couple of them, Scorch (a dragon), and Tillie (a troll), mix ventriloquism with “Sword and Sorcery” fantasy, which is like a perfect storm of nerd-dom. This was very current when Lucas was coming up in the ’70s and ’80s. He also has a punk character named “Chuck”, which is a very good idea, although the routine is too lacking in edge to fulfill its promise. (I’m remembering fondly today Gretchen Van Lente’s “Sid and Nancy” Punch and Judy show, as well as the haunted doll Chucky from the Child’s Play films…and come to think of it Jay Johnson’s Soap character Chuck, whose evil dummy partner was named Bob…and David Strassman has an edgier character named Chuck Wood. That’s a lot of Chucks out there. But anyway Lucas’s one is probably the mildest of the lot. But I hasten to point out the obvious: he’s performed for the Queen of England and several U.S. Presidents and is a popular headliner in Las Vegas. He’s not going to drop F bombs in his act and break bottles over his puppet’s head just for me.)
The peak of Lucas’ career was 30 years ago, when (believe it or not) he had his own sitcom on CBS. It was called Scorch (1992), and starred his eponymous puppet, in a not too subtle bid to fill the yawning void left by the cancellation of ALF in 1990. Only six episodes of Scorch aired, however. More successful was the British variety program The Ronn Lucas Show, which debuted in 1990. He’s done lots of other television before and since: he was on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Circus of the Stars, Night Court, the 1988 Smothers Brothers reboot, L.A. Law, Match Game, The Late Show with David Letterman, Nip/Tuck and several editions of the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon (even getting do some bits with Jerry. He’s also in the movie I’m No Dummy, which I wrote about here. In 2007 he wrote the book Better Living Through Ventriloquism: How to Say What You Shouldn’t And Get What You Want. In 2015, he made headlines when he claimed that the winner on America’s Got Talent had plagiarized his act. Want to know what he’s up to now? His website is here.
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To learn more about the variety arts, including television variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous;
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