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Señor Wences: S’Alright

Posted in Television, TV variety, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2017 by travsd

Born today in 1896 in Salamanca, Spain: the great ventriloquist Wenceslao Moreno, better known to American audiences as Señor Wences. After having written about a couple of thousand variety artists, actors and other performers over the past 8 years, it seems a shocking lapse that I haven’t written a proper post about this key 20th century performer until today. He fell through the cracks! I had initially made a very cursory post (he arrived in the U.S too late for American vaudeville, my initial focus here), and then afterwards I kept assuming I had done one, but I hadn’t yet. Today we redress the lapse.

Señor Wences was nearly 40 years old and a well-polished veteran of the music halls, cabarets and night clubs of Europe prior to his first arrival in the U.S. in the mid 1930s to perform at New York’s Club Chico. By this time, the American vaudeville circuits were dead, so the word “vaudevillian” when applied to him, while accurate, is true only in the broader sense. He played night clubs and resorts in the U.S.in his early years.

His best known character, Johnny (above) was created by drawing a face on his hand, and then attaching a body below it. A lot of humor was generated by the fast interchanges between himself and the character, as well as by his thick Spanish accent, and his treating of Johnny, with his falsetto voice, as a mischievous young child. In 1936 he created his second best known character, Pedro, essentially just a head in a box, when one of his dummies was destroyed on the way to a gig:

Another favorite bit had him answering a telephone and providing the voice at the other end. As you can see, his act was very original — he had great fun using all manner of offbeat props and “partners” that were quite different from the typical ventriloquism dummies, which probably becoming quite tiresome and “old hat” to audiences by the mid-20th century. He also did juggling and plate spinning.

His great boon was the advent of television in the late 1940s, and he started to become a familiar and regular sight on all the variety shows and talk shows: Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, and Jack Paar all had him as a guest, and his catchphrase: “S’alright? S’alright!” become universally known. He was still popular on tv in my own time, and I saw him places like The Mike Douglas Show, The Muppet Show, Late Night with David Letterman, and a very popular series of Parkay Margarine commercials.

Señor Wences was still performing well in the 1980s, and passed away in 1999 at the age of 103.

To find out more about vaudeville history and performers like Senor Wencesconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Wayland Flowers and “Madame”

Posted in Comedy, Drag and/or LGBT, Television, TV variety, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , on November 26, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Wayland Flowers (1939-1988). I got an earful from the makers of a ventriloquism documentary a few months back when I opined that Flowers was unjustly excluded from their story. Not having watched him in action for over two decades, I’d forgotten that he wasn’t a vent, but a puppeteer. Because he was always on stage with his creations, the visual impression was similar to a ventriloquist, but he generally didn’t speak himself at his appearances, and he made no attempt to provide an illusion that he wasn’t supplying the puppet’s speech. This technique worked very well on television, because they could just cut to a close-up of the puppet and we wouldn’t see Flowers at all.

His most famous creation (by a wide margin) was “Madame”, a hilarious old pistol of a broad with some kind of vague show biz past and a wicked sense of humor. While Flowers had developed the character in the 60s, it was really during the 2nd half of the 1970s that the pair seemed to be ubiquitous on television variety hours and game shows: especially Hollywood Squares. They were regulars on a 1975 summer replacement series called Keep on Truckin’ . In 1982, Flowers had his own syndicated sit com Madame’s Place. 

Sadly, Flowers was taken at age 48 of AIDS related cancer. But there is a legacy! Check it out: In this 1980 clip from Solid Gold, Dionne Warwick does a pretty excellent job feeding lines to Madame:

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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