Archive for ventriloquism

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 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 etc etc etc

Max Terhune: Western Ventriloquist

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd



Today is the birthday of Max Terhune (1891-1973). Originally from Indiana, Terhune was a ventriloquist, whistler, animal imitator, juggler and magician in the last days of vaudeville (early 1930s), occasionally performing with the Hoosier Hot Shots. But the most astounding thing he was, was a movie actor. Friendships with guys like Kermit Maynard (Ken’s younger brother) and Gene Autry got Terhune picture work, notably in the Republic and Monagram western serials  The Three Mesquiteers and The Range Busters. 

These films were where I first became aware of Terhune, and not just aware, but entranced, dumbfounded, slack-jawed. For in these movies, he is never to be seen without his ventriloquial dummy “Elmer”. The reality in which this situation takes place is MOST ambiguous, to say the least. Is Terhune’s cowboy character also an amateur ventriloquist? A professional one? Is it just completely meta, and he is just an actor, not a cowboy? Or is it the opposite, as it often seems? In other words is Elmer a sentient entity with his own action and volition, an actual character? I’ve seen episodes where Elmer gets kidnapped and cries for help with no ventriloquist around! (Warning: do not watch if that is your idea of nightmarish horror). The other characters talk directly to Elmer, laugh at his jokes, and never acknowledge that Terhune is the ventriloquist making him talk (except for the occasional films where Terhune plays a literal ventriloquist).

Terhune continued to be featured in B movie westerns through 1949, usually with the character name “Lullaby” or “Alibi”. Through the first half of the ’50s he got some work in TV westerns and bit parts in films (his last was Giant, 1954). After this, he continued to perform ventriloquism and magic live for a number of year in Hollywood area venues like the Magic Castle and the Corriganville Movie Ranch. 

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop: An Appreciation by Carla Rhodes

Posted in Comedy, Television, TV variety, Ventriloquism & Puppetry, Women with tags , , , , , on January 17, 2015 by travsd
MJS Shari Lewis
Today is the birthday of Shari Lewis (Sonia Phyllis Hurwitz, 1933-1998). This influential puppeteer and ventriloquist was such a ubiquitous and comforting presence on tv when I was growing up that even now, 16 years after her death, it’s kind of hard to believe she’s not around anymore. Lewis first caught the show business bug from her father, an amateur magician, who taught her what he knew of his craft and encouraged her. She received her first serious instruction in ventriloquism from the pathbreaking African American performer John W. Cooper. In 1952 she won first prize on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, which led to local television, which led finally to her first national children’s show in 1960. Thereafter she and her puppets (especially her famous sock puppet Lamb Chop) were beloved national figures. In addition to this, I think we can all agree that she was the most gorgeous ventriloquist in the history of mankind.
Lewis left an amazing legacy, not the least of which is one of my favorite living performers, “rock ‘n’ roll ventriloquist” Carla Rhodes. Carla was very generous in sharing her thoughts and memories of Lewis with us this morning:
shari 1
by Carla Rhodes
Shari has undoubtedly had the biggest influence on my life. I was introduced to her through my tv set when I was 8 years old in the early 90’s. I instantly connected with her and wanted to be part of her world. I was head over heels in love with her talent – and wanted to be just like her. Therefore, I taught myself to be a ventriloquist by watching her every day after school. Shari, Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy felt like my best friends! I quickly learned all of their voices and purchased puppet likenesses, so I could have lengthly conversations. Then I found out she’d had some form of a tv show for decades! There were tons of cool items to collect. Even a retired early puppet from the 1950s called Wing Ding!
I felt so connected to Shari I began writing her many letters detailing my budding ventriloquism talents, mundane school work and existence of a pre-teen in the South. Lo and behold, she started to write back! We were pen pals, and I eventually got to meet her numerous times. She was so lovely, warm and encouraging. The last time I saw her she insisted we have a chat alone and bent my ear about my future and show business. I’ll never forget that moment. She taught me at a very young age dreams CAN come true. She believed in me and said I had a real fire in my belly for the business. I cherish all of these memories with her and feel so lucky to be mentored.
Today is her birthday and not a day goes by that I don’t think about her effect upon my life. She started performing as a young teen and worked so very hard. I feel she’s often overlooked in the world of show business when she should be adored… She could sing, dance, write books, conduct orchestras, had a TV record that stretched 5 decades, and do ventriloquism?! I certainly picked the best female role model to admire while growing up. What a strong, amazing woman!
As a ventriloquist, her influence strongly shows in my work. I feel like she broke boundaries with ventriloquism, and I like to think I am too. I dedicated my pilot “The Plight Of Cecil” ( to her and I’d think she’d be quite proud. Her daughter, Mallory Lewis executive produced the pilot, and I know Shari was looking down on us, grinning. Mallory also continues the life of Lamb Chop, and we should all be very grateful!
Happy Birthday Shari! I’ll never forget you or your massive artistic influence on myself and the world

More Creepy Ventriloquists: William Wood

Posted in Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, PLUGS, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , on October 24, 2014 by travsd


The current production the ventrilooquialcentric Dead End Dummy has prompted me to add to the ventriloquism section of Travalanche. We already have most of the best known ventriloquists of the classical show biz era represented (find them here),  but there is always more to add (although less will likely be known about them). Anyway, here is today’s installment…



William Wood (1862-1908) was an American ventriloquist and magician who began his career as an assistant to Harry Kellar. One of his most famous stunts (as depicted on these posters) was the spectacular levitation his wife Edna. By the last decade of his life he was considered one of America’s top ventriloquists.


While traveling on the Gulf of Mexico on tour, with his young daughter, a large sum of money and all his equipment including eight ventriloquist dummies he was lost at sea under mysterious circumstances. There was reported to have been a shipwreck, but (suspiciously) all of the crew survived, while Wood, his daughter and and their money ($20,000) all vanished. All that survived were four dummies, which washed ashore. They now reside at the Vent Haven Museum in Kentucky, where they are being preserved. Here is one of them:


These dummies were featured on a 2013 episode of Mysteries at the Museum on the Travel Channel.

But if you truly can’t get enough mysterious ventriloquism, please join us here!


10,000 Reasons to Visit Coney Island, CIUSA and “Dead End Dummy”

Posted in Amusement Parks, AMUSEMENTS, BROOKLYN, Coney Island, Contemporary Variety, Dime Museum and Side Show, Horror (Mostly Gothic), ME, My Shows, PLUGS with tags , , , , , on October 7, 2014 by travsd


I recently realized that June of 2014 marked the 25th anniversary of my first trip out to Coney Island.

When I made that venturesome daytrip in 1989,  I’d only been living in NYC for a few months, so it ALWAYS astounds me when I meet any New Yorker, let alone any theatre person, who tells me they’ve never been out there. You mean…you’ve lived in a city for YEARS, and you’ve NEVER been to its aquarium, its closest beach, its minor league baseball stadium, its amusement park, the annual bacchanalia known as the Mermaid Parade — or for god’s sake — THE SIDE SHOW??? Do I know you? Do we have ANYTHING in common? What precisely is it you HAVE been doing?


I am particularly confused about the theatre people. I don’t really hang with people who do straight, naturalistic dramas — I can see THEM not being particularly interested, I guess. But if your bag is alternative theatre, I ASSURE you that Brecht and Meyerhold would have INSISTED that you make visiting the nearby sideshow among your first action items upon inhabiting this city. And if your bag is straight-up show biz: again, Ziegfeld and Minsky would tell you the same. Orson Welles would tell you that! The great Charles Ludlam, who PERFORMED at Coney Island USA, would tell you that. What precisely have you been doing if you have NEVER been to a SIDESHOW that is a mere subway ride away???


OK, OK, I’ve calmed down.  But since I’ve gone out there practically every season for longer than some of our soldiers have been alive, I am apt to get tunnel vision. Not upset, but bewildered. What force field prevents you from SPRINTING towards the funnest place in New York at the earliest available opportunity? Are your feet NAILED to the sidewalk? Are you a coma patient? What the hell?

Is it possible that you don’t think it is fun? Unfortunately when I ask people point blank why they haven’t been, they will repeat vague lies and rumors disseminated by certain attention-hounds and dishonest documentarians who have spread the the fallacious impression that Coney Island has deteriorated and there is nothing to see or do out there. As I mentioned, I have been going out there for 25 years, and I reiterate here what I have said on this blog again,  again and again: Coney Island RIGHT NOW is more vital, thriving, action packed, and full of incredible things to see and do than it has been in all those years. Is it as good as it was in 1912? No. But is it 100 times better than it was in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and oughts? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. You want a comparison? The Mad Marchioness and I took a little trip down Memory Lane this week and watched the 1998 movie Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God…Be Back By Five. Don’t trust me; trust your eyes. Relative to now, Coney Island was a shithole 15 years ago. Today it rules. Go, and be amazed.





At any rate, having been going to Coney Island for 25 years, and having (off and on) produced about a dozen shows and talks at Coney Island USA for close to 15, I had the thrilling realization about the nature of my current project. I had sort of known it, but it didn’t really click until I saw the pieces coming together over the last few days: “Oh my God…I am creating a Halloween Attraction in the amusement district of Coney Island!” I sorta want to pinch myself.  I consider this as much an important resume credit as any other on my profile. It’s not well known but haunted house attractions are among the broad family of popular amusements I have produced over the years. I was one of the co-producers of Nightmare NYC during its first two years of operation (2004-2005).  Producing a haunted house in my family barn at age 12 was my very first theatrical producing credit.  Many of the theatrical effects we achieve in Dead End Dummy make it the natural successor to those earlier projects.

Many people don’t know that Coney Island USA founder/ director Dick D. Zigun is a playwright with a degree from Yale. Coney Island USA grew out of his work in theatre and performance art. For many years, he ran the annual Creepshow at the Freakshow every October, a sort of hybrid haunted house and theatre event. he has now begun replacing the Creepshow with stage plays. Dead End Dummy has proven a perfect choice. Ostensibly an experimental play (and it is, formally as you will see), it has proven in practice something like a Coney Island thrill ride, full of bells and whistles. It’s a story about a vaudeville ventriloquist whose life is disrupted by the advent of Thomas Edison and the entertainment machines that kill live theatre. His story takes him on a sort of roller coaster ride through 20th century entertainment (vaudeville, silent movies, radio, television), with ups, downs, madness and destruction.

But here are the many elements I hope will add up to an amazing night in the theatre;

* The theatre itself…this atmospheric Coney Island sideshow at night, transformed into a creepy old vaudeville house by Kate Dale, Alix Martin and Patrick Wall

* The spooky backdrop painted by Marie Roberts and Africasso

* A 5D Sensurround Soundscape by the wizards who brought you Youthquake!


* A live music score courtesy Becca Bernard, ranging from brooding, expressionistic cello to honky tonk piano to the brightness of two ukuleles. She also takes a pie in the face and tap dances.


* Coney Island sideshow talker Scott Baker as an insane ventriloquist, with his pals Moe, Plugger and Handy, brings not only his vent skills to the table but chops wrought by long years on the boards, and even a couple of magic tricks.


* None other than Poor Baby Bree, who performs in the Delsarte style of the old melodramas, and favors us with old-timey song in her patented style


* Douglas Mackrell of the Royal Order of the Holy Mackerel, who plays Thomas Edison with suitable doses of disrespect and dazzles with his cartoon voice-overs

* Yours truly, Trav S.D. typecast as the smarmy host of a vaudeville nostalgia radio show — and I get to play my uke!

Rhiannon Schaefer and Arianna Geneson as the slinky, slippery shadows, ice cold creatures from another dimension who steal your souls if you let them get too close

*And Dick’s play which is full of tradition and heart, expert stagecraft and playful experimentation.


*And don’t forget the Freak Bar with its brand new (old) juke box, before and after the show!

We open this Friday. More information and tickets are right here:




A Short History of Evil Ventriloquists in the Movies

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Indie Theatre, ME, Movies, My Shows, Silent Film, Television, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2014 by travsd


Ah! The emotionally troubled ventriloquist and his scary dummy!

There are enough movies, plays and tv shows about this ancient schizoid character that it constitutes a minor subgenre all its own. It’s not surprising that terror is an offshoot of this ancient discipline. Its roots, like the roots of all theatre, go back to caveman times, and no doubt the supernatural was part of the original dodge. Like clowns, ventriloquists and their dummies are uncanny — they seem to be acting out some dream. If you’ll check out the ventriloquism section of this blog, you will find biographies of all the major vents going back to the mid 19th century . Some of their photos, especially in the early days are quite disturbing indeed. Moreover, there is something about having a little “mini-me” that psychologically encourages the ventriloquist to pour his negative energy into it. The dummy has permission to say all the things that a person would usually censor himself from saying. Even relatively light comedy acts like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy had that feature. Charlie says all the wicked, lecherous, rude things — and Edgar’s role is to scold him and apologize to the audience. Meanwhile, it’s been Bergen who’s really been saying those nasty things all along! It’s downright diabolical!

And we are far from the first to notice. So here are some notable evil vent stories of stage and screen from the past century. Just in time for Halloween.


The Unholy Three (1925 and 1930): But of COURSE Tod Browning and Lon Chaney inaugurate the genre…except they almost don’t.  Based on a novel by Tod Robbins (the same guy who wrote the story which Freaks is based onThe Unholy Three does indeed cast Chaney as a criminal ventriloquist (whose best job is making pet-shop parrots seem to talk), but he also goes around in drag, and is in cahoots with a midget (Harry Earles) who pretends to be a baby, a strong man (Victor McLaglen) and a sexy vamp (Mae Busch). So the vent stuff gets tamped down a little, it’s not the main focus. Still, it counts! I give two dates above because there was both a silent version (1925) and a talkie remake (1930).


The Great Gabbo (1929): I saw this one for the first time the other night — what sheer unadulterated delight. Based on a short story by Ben Hecht called “The Rival Dummy” and directed by James Cruze (best known for his silent epic The Covered Wagon) , the film stars Erich Von Stroheim as a cruel, fascistic ventriloquist who browbeats his lover and assistant (Betty Compson) and is only able to demonstrate tenderness through his dummy. After she leaves him, he is only able to relate to his dummy…and that’s a little weird. Towards the end, when they meet again, he mistakes the girl’s kindness for a rapprochement. When it proves illusory, he goes completely insane, and that my friends is worth watching. As are the very bizarre comedy routines with Stroheim’s German accent in falsetto telling the jokes, and the eerie silences that follow them (this being one of the earliest sound films). The movie is also a strange hybrid…at least 50% musical comedy, fairly unrelated to the plot.


Dead of Night (1945): One of the terrifying classics of the horror anthology genre, Dead of Night tells six stories, one of which casts Michael Redgrave as an insane ventriloquist named Maxwell whose dummy Hugo gets him into some very bad trouble. In the end, Max does what must be done. Here’s the famous, chilling climax:


The Twilight Zone: Episode: “The Dummy” (1962):   Cliff Roberston is a down and out ventriloquist. His fear of his dummy has caused him to develop a drinking problem. Determined to fight, he decides to replace the current dummy with a sillier one. But Willy (the current one) tricks him and torments him. In the end, they have traded places. Willy is now the ventriloquist and Robertson’s character is the dummy….


The Twilight Zone : Episode: “Caesar and Me” (1964):  Jackie Cooper plays an Irish ventriloquist who is having a tough time making a go of it. His fully sentient dummy convinces him to commit robberies. When he does so and gets caught, and tries to demonstrate that the dummy put him up to it, the dummy falls silent. He is led away in handcuffs.


Devil Doll (1964)

This may be my favorite in the genre now for many reasons. One is that it takes the ancient idea of the “Uncanny” all the way back to its primitive origins. The Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday), a magician, had gone off to the mystic East to study the secrets of the swamis. When he returns he succeeds in imprisoning the soul of one of his partners inside the ventriloquist dummy. His dummy can not only think and talk on its own, but it can walk by itself…and that is a mighty creepy sight indeed. Tod Browning also made a film by this name (originally called The Witch of Timbuktu), which while not a ventriloquist film, plays similarly with this ancient folk terror of the dollikin or manikin…the tiny evil imp who will sneak up on you in your sleep. In the end, Vorelli goes too far and his dummy Hugo (his name no doubt a nod to Dead of Night) turns the table on him. Look for more on star Bryant Haliday here in future. He grew up in a monastery in Rhode Island, did art theatre in the Boston area, and made several British horror films in the 60s. His is a most interesting profile.


Soap (1977-1981) On this ABC sit-com soap opera parody Jay Johnson played a guy named Chuck who was never without his wooden friend Bob. This was probably the first major, mainstream ear-pulling of the evil ventriloquist genre. Though it was a comedy, Bob WAS evil. He said and did things far worse than your Charlie McCarthys and your Jerry Mahoneys. Bob drew blood, and Chuck couldn’t control him.


The Ventriloquists Wife (1978) The great comic playwright and actor Charles Ludlam had an off-Broadway hit in 1978 with this play about a murderous ventriloquist dummy and the toll he takes on the life of his hapless partner. This script plays with the evil ventriloquist genre on its own terms (by being dark) but unlike all the classic movies and Twilight Zone episodes up until that time — the comedy routines are actually funny. This makes it unique within the entire genre. The gorgeous Black-Eyed Susan was the titular wife.


Magic (1978) This may well be the best known evil ventriloquist movie of all, and it’s a strange one. Anthony Hopkins plays true to type as a very ill-at-ease young man who finally manages to break out of his shell by augmenting his magic act with ventriloquism. The dummy “Fats” is crude and makes a lot of dick jokes, which passes for humor in the film in a way I don’t find creditable. (Hopkins characterization is interesting to me — reminds me a bit of Jay Johnson’s in Soap. Young, longish hair, and that nerd look, sweaters, sneakers, shirt tails hanging out…did he base the character on Jay? Or Chuck, rather?). Anyway, Hopkins’ character proves to be about as stable as Norman Bates. There’s no hint of the supernatural in this film; he’s  just a natural psycho. Oddly he does very little actual killing in the film by horror movie standards, making the film a bit of a head scratcher. What is it? A character portrait of no one who ever existed? But it sticks in the craw.


Tales from the Crypt: Episode : “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” (1990): SPOILER ALERT!  yes, this one proves not so much to be an evil ventriloquist dummy movie as an evil parasitic twin movie, which is an even better act! Bobcat Goldthwait plays a young ventriloquist; Don Rickles, the older one with a…secret.


Cradle Will Rock (1999) Bill Murray is a down and out ventriloquist now out of work because of the death of vaudeville. He has a secret which gives him a breakdown. This is a subplot in Tim Robbins’ larger movie about Orson Welles’ rocky attempt to mount the Marc Blitzstein musical of the same name. 


Dead Silence (2007) I was shocked at how much I enjoyed this film, and how original it is. I was expecting a retread of a story we’ve seen many times. Directed by James Wan, and written by Leigh Whannel, Dead Silence takes place entirely in a fairy tale realm, the ghost story space…the only realistic beats are in the film’s first five minutes. A box containing a ventriloquist dummy shows up unexpectedly at a young couple’s house….leading to a journey to an entire town where the leading citizens are murdered by the ghost of a ventriloquist. It is (so far) the only movie in which there’s not just ONE, but over ONE HUNDRED evil ventriloquist dummies  on the loose! In a haunted old theatre! Boo!


VentriloquistTwo plays by Rick Mitchell (2012): I wrote the introduction to this book! You can buy it here.


The Plight of Cecil Sinclair (2014):  My old pal “rock and roll ventriloquist” Carla Rhodes just launched her exciting and hilarious and creepy new web series. Watch it here.

Jules Vernon: A Blind Ventriloquist

Posted in British Music Hall, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 2, 2014 by travsd

 Jules Vernon

Today is the birthday of Jules Vernon (1867 – 1937). Vernon was an Oxford educated music hall and vaudeville performer who specialized in ventriloquism. His act consisted of him interacting with seven different dummies simultaneously, rapidly and abruptly switching from character to character. In 1920 he lost his eyesight, although he continued to perform for several years, using a hidden black thread to guide him around the stage.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


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 etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500



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