Archive for Ventriloquist

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 historyconsult 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

Stars of Vaudeville #1026: Max Terhune

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

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MAX TERHUNE: WESTERN VENTRILOQUIST

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.

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

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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:

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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….

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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!

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VentriloquistTwo plays by Rick Mitchell (2012): I wrote the introduction to this book! You can buy it here.  http://www.bookdepository.com/Ventriloquist-Two-Plays-Rick-Mitchell/9780983925590

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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.

Stars of Vaudeville #863: Jules Vernon

Posted in British Music Hall, 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.

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

 

 

Magic

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , on December 31, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Sir Anthony Hopkins (b. 1937). I can’t believe I didn’t get it together to do a post on him today for my Hall of Hams — but it’s on the calendar to do so for next year. Meantime, I thought of an excellent thing to celebrate. While he’d been in a ton of tv movies and historical costume dramas by this stage, it wasn’t until 1978’s Magic that Hopkins began to come into his own as a Hollywood movie star. Always creepy, and  a bit Asperger-y, Hopkins was perfectly cast as the demented ventriloquist in this horror thriller, directed by Richard Attenborough. Now the “Psychotic Ventriloquist” plot was already a well established genre even by 1978 — viz, those Twilight Zone episodesMagic turned things up a notch by merging it with slasher type horror, which was just beginning to come into its own. Hopkin’s character “Corky” is driven to do very bad things by his ventriloquist dummy “Fats”. And look — he even comes between Corky and his love interest Ann-Margaret (literally!)

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Magic had one of the best trailers of all time. Indeed, it was one of the very first poems I ever learned by heart. That says something about me, or our culture, or both.

Stars of Vaudeville #821: Fred Russell, Father of Ventriloquism

Posted in British Music Hall, Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Fred Russell (Thomas Fredick Parnell, 1862-1957) often known as the Father of modern ventriloquism (he is often said to have been the first to use a dummy on the knee, but it seems to me I have seen pictures of countless vents doing so prior to him and have indeed written about them here).

Russell was originally a London journalist and newspaper editor, dabbling in ventriloquism as a hobby, He became a professional on the music hall stage in 1886. His wisecracking partner “Coster Joe” was a definite pre-cursor to the likes Charlie McCarthy. He also published one of the first books about ventriloquism in 1910 Ventriloquism and Its Kindred Arts. He toured throughout the world for decades (including American vaudeville), even into the early television age, performing into his 90s. Russell was one of the founders of the British variety guild known as the Water Rats, inspiration for the American White Rats. He was made an Officer of the British Empire in 1948.

To find out more about vaudeville past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable 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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On the Artistry of Don Knotts

Posted in Comedy, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television, TV variety, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , on July 21, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Jesse Donald Knotts (1924-2006).

Our big revelation is contained in the photo above. A West Virginia farm boy, Don Knotts began his performing career as a ventriloquist! With his wooden partner Danny “Hooch” Matador he entertained fellow students at the University of West Virginia and  troops in the South Pacific during World War II (where he finally ditched Hooch, declaring him “MIA”).

Another revelation: his first major break was on a soap opera! He was on Search for Tomorrow from 1953 to 1955. Nothing has ever made me want to watch a soap opera more than that knowledge.

From here, three major well-known career peaks:

* He was part of Steve Allen’s legendary comedy ensemble (with others such as Louie NyeTom Poston and Bill Dana) starting in 1956. This is where he first developed his “nervous” character for Allen’s “Man on the Street” interviews.

* Knotts crafted what remains one of television’s greatest comedy performances as Deputy Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show as a series regular from 1960 to 1965, with occasional returns to the role thereafter. Fife, while broadly comical, is an amazing three dimensional creation, ranging from slapstick to moments of genuinely moving straight drama. He picks up a paradigm pioneered by Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason and takes it further for later greats like Tony Randall and Shelly Long to explore. The arc was always one of Fife getting carried away, acting out, and causing all sorts of trouble in his enthusiasm, sometimes coming from a good place, sometimes from a bad one. And in the end, always the final beats of regret and self-recrimination. These are beautiful little vignettes. For me, tv at its best.

* His series of late classic comedy films for Universal studios: The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), The Reluctant Astronaut (1966), The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968),The Love God (1969) and How to Frame a Fig (1971). It seems to me these films get better with age, and become increasingly interesting as time goes on.

His later career (for me anyway) not so much. After Universal he went over to Disney. The films he made with Tim Conway, aimed at the children’s market, are unwatchably dumb and there’s little Knotts can do to redeem them.

And likewise his stint on Three’s Company from 1979 to 1984 replacing Audra Lindley and Norman Fell as the lead characters’ landlord Mr. Furley, whose little turns in the crudely written scripts left him little scope to show what he was capable of. Knotts was always in demand though and he continued to work right up until his death in 2006.

Here’s a hilarious bit from The Steve Allen Show where his character is forced to wing a tv weather report when he is caught without any data from the National Weather Service:

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult 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 check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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