The Gift That Kept On Talking
Stand-up comedians aren’t normal. As a rule, most of us had bad things happen to us as kids, or grew up in less-than-perfect circumstances. Adversity builds character, or so the adage goes. It also creates problems and eventually might send you to therapy. Many of the best comics are the most screwed-up folks on the planet. Some end up with guns in their mouths, or at the least, don’t function like “normal” folks. You’ve probably heard the stories. But life’s trials fuel a comic’s twisted mind, allowing him to look at the world a little differently and make observations that average folks don’t piece together. Sometimes when I hear a great comedian I think, “Wow, he’s funny. Wonder what screwed him up.” This of course isn’t every comic, but a lot of them, admittedly, could have had happier childhoods.
I don’t envy the guys who grew up with a great deal of strife, but many of them have been able to mine their early years for comedy gold. Fortunately or unfortunately, that’s not me. I’ve had to work really hard at being funny because pretty much everything for me as a kid was positive, uneventful, and almost boring. Sure, Lady Godiva and William the Conqueror are somewhere in the Dunham lineage, but I was adopted. That means wacky ancestors don’t count, right?
My parents, Howard and Joyce Dunham, adopted me a few months after my birth in April of 1962. I had a happy, drama-free youth, growing up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Dallas, Texas. The only thing that was slightly unusual compared to most of my friends was that I was an only child. . . . I don’t think that’s why my parents gave me a dummy, at least they’ve never copped to it.
Walter: If your parents only knew then what they know now. . . .
Jeff: What’s that supposed to mean?
Walter: Wonder if it’s still too late to return you and get a refund.
My father was the sole proprietor of the oldest real estate appraisal firm in Dallas until he retired a few years ago. My mother is a housewife. They are solid church-going Christian folk, and my mother still gets upset when one of my characters uses bad language. I keep trying to tell her, “MOM, it’s not ME!”
Not long ago when I told my parents that I would be writing this book, my mother turned to my father, and as if I wasn’t even sitting there, said, “I’m very worried about what he might say about us.” To which my father replied, “I’m very worried he won’t say anything about us.”
Peanut: Your dad’s like a comedian!
Did he beat you as a child?
That’s too bad.
My mother and my father have always supported me. Now in their eighties, they actually clamor onto the tour bus with me once or twice a year so they can watch the performances and hear the crowds. Traveling with eighty-something-year-olds on a tour bus . . . There has to be some sort of reality show in that.
But even if my parents are cool with life on the road, no one will ever describe them as “hip.” However, if it hadn’t been for them, I may never have become a comedian. As I mentioned earlier, the seeds were sown very early in elementary school.
At eight, I was a fairly typical kid. I did well in school and had a few friends in our neighborhood. I rode my bike everywhere and would take off on all kinds of adventures, usually alone, to explore as far as I could pedal before dark. Rain or shine, freezing rain or searing heat, I would ride my bike to school every day. And sickness? I got the perfect attendance award every year from first through sixth grade. I wasn’t an athlete but my parents insisted I play on every baseball, soccer, and basketball team possible. Of course, the only sport I really liked was football, but they wouldn’t let me play that because the mother of the only child thought I’d get killed. The same group of elementary school boys from my grade was on every team and I was always the third worst player. If teams were being chosen at recess, I was one of the last three guys picked.
I was just beginning to see girls in a new light, and Cub Scouts was starting to lose its minimal appeal. I wasn’t exactly looking for something new to do, but I certainly hadn’t found anything I was particularly good at yet.
Just before Christmas in 1970, my mother and I were walking around in a store called Toy Fair, at the Northwood Hills shopping center. For my birthday that year I had picked out a purple Murray bicycle, a banana-seat two-wheeler from the same store. (I didn’t have an older brother or a knowledgeable enough dad to tell me I should have pushed for the much cooler Schwinn Sting-Ray.) As we walked around the store, I begged my mom for stuff here and there. I kept saying, “It’s not too close to Christmas! PLLEEEEEASE?” Of course, I now realize she had taken me there to get ideas for Santa and had no intention of buying anything that day.
After we rounded a corner, just above my head, I saw a small, vinyl, orange-haired, bucktoothed ventriloquist dummy. His name was Mortimer Snerd. I’d seen ventriloquists perform on television but had never seen a dummy in real life. He was a simple little guy, about two and a half feet tall with a cloth body, a fake straw hat, a little checkered suit, and a bow tie. Sticking out of the back of his neck was a string you could pull to make his mouth open and close. I took Mortimer down and showed him to my mother. She seemed totally unimpressed. So, back he went to his shelf as I went to hunt for other treasures. By the time we got home, I’d forgotten all about him.
Peanut: Poor Mortimer.
Peanut: Imagine how depressing it must be to be rejected by a nerd.
Like most kids, I woke up early on Christmas morning, long before my parents, and snuck quietly into our family room where the tree and presents were piled, and get a peek at everything. Well, I’d feel more than peek—at five a.m. it was still too dark to see much of anything, and I was too scared to turn on a light for fear of getting caught.
This particular Christmas, one of the gifts was not easily identifiable. It was sitting on the couch, and it had a cloth body and a molded face of some kind. I was stumped. A couple hours later when I was allowed to run in for the “first” time with lights ablaze and the eight-millimeter movie camera rolling, I had my answer—it was Mortimer!
Life is a series of “what if”s. What if I hadn’t made that turn in the toy store and seen the ventriloquist dummy? What if my mom had thought it was a feather-brained idea and that boys shouldn’t play with dolls? What would I be doing today?
Well, it’s now forty years later, and I’m still at it.
Walter: And if you keep practicing, maybe one day it will work out for you. . . . But I doubt it.
Trust me when I say that it doesn’t take much for an eight-year-old to learn to talk without moving his lips, throw his voice, and manipulate a dummy all at the same time. It’s just a step-by-step process and one that I pursued relentlessly.
Not long after Christmas, my father took me to the Dallas Public Library’s bookmobile, where we checked out a couple of books on ventriloquism. I confess that I still have one of those books, and writing a check for that fine now just might require a five-digit number. And it did. More on that to come.
Achmed: You know what happens if you’re late returning a book in my country?
Achmed: Me neither. We don’t have libraries.
Bubba J.: I have a question.
Jeff: What is it, Bubba J.?
Bubba J.: How fast can a bookmobile get up to?
Not too much later, my mother and I went back to Toy Fair and purchased a record album, called Jimmy Nelson’s Instant Ventriloquism. If you don’t recognize the name Jimmy Nelson, your parents might. Jimmy, who is now in his early eighties and has become a good friend, was a regular on Milton Berle’s hugely popular television show, Texaco Star Theater, in the 1950s. He and his wooden partners Danny O’Day and Farfel did live commercials during the broadcast, both for Texaco and for Nestlé’s Quik. Danny was a mouthy boy dummy, and Farfel was a talking, long-eared dog. Danny would sing: “N-E-S-T-L-E-S, Nestlé’s makes the very best. . . .” And Farfel would then finish the songLM—“CNOPhawwww-klit!” and slam his jaw shut with a resounding clomp. During his heyday, Jimmy released two instructional record albums with Juro Novelty Company that taught ventriloquist lessons, and produced toy versions of Danny and Farfel.
The idea of making a dummy talk fascinated me, and I spent long hours in our “art room” listening to Jimmy’s instructional LPs over and over and practicing the basics that any beginner must learn to perform ventriloquism. I can’t exactly put my finger on why it appealed to me so much, only that it was unique and I figured it was a way to get myself out of my shell. I wasn’t popular and I wasn’t an athlete. Girls didn’t pay attention to me, and with the other boys, I just kind of blended into the background. For an eight-year-old at that time, there was no such thing as stand-up comedy. . . . But somehow I figured that if I developed this skill of ventriloquism, I could make people laugh; I could finally stand out.
If you want to learn ventriloquism, or “vent,” you can find a few courses online, or on DVD. You can even find CD copies of Jimmy’s albums here and there. But the mechanics of learning to “throw your voice” are pretty simple. Anyone with a tongue, an upper palate, teeth, and a normal speaking voice can learn ventriloquism.
This isn’t an instructional book, but I can give you the basics. The first thing to know is that a ventriloquist simply learns a different way of pronouncing words. Most sounds in the English language are produced without the use of lips, and are made inside the mouth and throat. Only a few sounds and letters utilize the lips. The only way a ventriloquist speaks differently is that he forgoes using his or her lips, and learns to reproduce sounds using the tongue, upper palate, and teeth only. Those “difficult” letters are B, F, M, P, V, W, and Y. Every other letter in the alphabet can be pronounced without moving your lips: A,C,D,E,G,H,I,J,K,L,N,O,Q,R,S,T,U,X, and Z. Go ahead! Try it! Put your teeth lightly together, part your lips slightly, hold them still, and pronounce that long list of easy letters. If you watch in a mirror, you’ll probably be impressed with yourself.
But now, try and pronounce the “difficult” letters without moving your lips. It can’t be done . . . Unless you use the ventriloquist’s method: Sound substitution.
Here is where I tip my hat to Jimmy Nelson and his record album Instant Ventriloquism. Recently Jimmy graciously granted me permission to share his method. This is the simplest way to learn vent: For the difficult letters, you say one letter, but THINK another. So for B, use the letter, D. The word boy becomes, doy. You can say, doy without moving your lips, but it doesn’t sound anything like boy. The trick is thinking the actual word and rehearsing. After you practice it over and over and over, the substitution sound starts to sound like the real sound, and eventually you will figure out for yourself how to make the sound as close to the real one as possible.
Here are a few more examples: F becomes, Eth
M becomes N
P is T
V is The
W is Duddle-oo
Y is Oh-eye
It all sounds ridiculous at first, but with many hours of practice, it can become very convincing. “Ny oh ny, tretty thunny stuth, don’t oo think? Holy noly! Ethen ny nother can tronounce oords like ne!”
Walter: That explains it.
Jeff: Explains what?
Walter: Why I sound like an idiot most of the time.
After you master sound substitution, you have to learn to speak in a different voice from your own, manipulate the dummy, act, react, use proper microphone technique, et cetera. Oh, then there’s that part about actually being funny. . . .
Walter: Did you tell them you’re still working on that part?
Jeff: I’m always working on that part.
Back to the story at hand. Remember, I’m eight years old. I spent a lot of time listening to the record player in the art room, and sitting in my bathroom in front of the mirror for hours, practicing and practicing to make Mortimer come to life. I had the goal of impressing my classmates and making them laugh. After about a month of doing little else in my free time, I knew I was ready for my debut.
Peanut: And your parents knew it was time for a therapist.
Jeff: Very funny.
Peanut: I think I would have left out the part about doing little else in your free time.
Peanut: Other than sounding pathetic? No reason.
Mortimer and I were going to give an oral book report on Hansel and Gretel. I put my little buddy in his red-and-white-striped corrugated shipping box, strapped it on the book rack on the back of my bike, and off I pedaled to Northwood Hills Elementary School for our debut in Miss Bentley’s third-grade class. Today, if I’m visiting my parents, I still like to go by my old school after hours and look in the window to where I first sat in front of the class. . . . I can see Mortimer on my knee, and me clutching him by his shoulder and pulling the string on the back of his neck.
Bubba J.: My elementary school teacher was a nice lady. Since I was having so much fun in the third grade, she let me repeat it three times.
We did a two-minute presentation on the book and then launched into a ten-minute unscripted routine in which we poked fun at my classmates, our teacher, and the lunch ladies: So-and-so was pretty; so-and-so’s feet smelled. I don’t claim that Mortimer and I were terribly witty, but to third graders, it was pretty funny. Even Miss Bentley liked it. She gave me an A+.
It’s clear to me that the dummies helped me through my early years at school. Miss Bentley didn’t give me an A because I gave a good report. She gave me that good grade because there was something more to what I was doing. The shy, almost pudgy, fairly unremarkable kid with freckles and braces had found something that he might be good at. And it was something different. Miss Bentley and my parents were the first ones to really encourage me. My friends did too. I remember standing in line ready to file outside for recess after my book report. I asked a couple of friends, “Did it really sound like Mortimer was talking?” They all said yes, and that it was funny. Funny? Really? Me?
I was hooked. Any stage performer feeds off the emotions of his or her audience: There’s a true synergy that takes place. I learned to love the laughs and the accolades. Also, performing let me say things through a dummy that I would never say. I would have been in a world of trouble if I, as just me, made any kind of fun of our incredibly stern and feared principal, Mr. Levine. But if Mortimer did it, everyone laughed.
I know that’s one of the main reasons people laugh at my stuff today. These little guys get away with verbal heresy. And yes, it’s the little guys, not ME! Truly. There’s some sort of unwritten rule that allows my formerly inanimate characters to say things that humans could never get away with. I always just play the nice guy.
Today, Achmed is the best example of how far things can be pushed. Here’s a menacing little suicide-bomber terrorist, glaring out at the audience, and yelling, “I KEEL YOU!” and perfectly sane, God-fearing people laugh. Can you imagine if some other stand-up comic tried to do that? What if some guy dressed up like a terrorist and started yelling he was going to kill people? His life or at least his career would probably end quickly and dramatically.
I never set out to offend anyone with my material, and I have a line that I draw for myself that I won’t cross, no matter where I am or what audience I’m playing for. A good portion of my act is just plain goofy. On the other hand, there are the parts that I try to keep as edgy as possible. Every good comic learns how to read an audience and feel just how far he or she can go. Another comedian of note once told me that if you’re not offending a few folks here and there, you’re not pushing the envelope enough. Experience and reading every audience is the key to figuring out how far you can go. I will admit that there’s nothing better than hearing people laugh when they know they shouldn’t, because they can’t help it. If a couple of people here and there are offended or pissed, then I know I’ve done my job.
If characters like Peanut or Walter or Achmed say something I know they shouldn’t, then I always look surprised or disappointed and protest what they just said. That’s another reason I get away with those sorts of lines. I’m as stunned and as offended as the audience. So I end up onstage chastising myself for what I just made the characters say.
Achmed: So when I say I am going to keel you, that is actually you saying you are going to keel yourself?
Jeff: Well . . .
Bubba J.: My brain is hurting.
Wielding sharp-edged comedy can become an addiction. As a stage performer, you sometimes can’t help yourself, and the audience can become completely engaged in the politically incorrectness of it all (if that’s your act). However, you have to win over the crowd before you step into the controversial arenas. It’s like a guy taking a woman for dinner and an night out: He has to gain her confidence and make her feel safe before making any moves on her. In the same way, an audience needs to feel comfortable before the comic starts running the bases. NOTE TO MY THREE DAUGHTERS: PLEASE READ THE ABOVE LAST FEW SENTENCES OVER AND OVER AGAIN AND TAKE NOTES. MOST GUYS BECOME MASTERS AT GAINING A WOMAN’S CONFIDENCE FOR ULTERIOR MOTIVES. BEWARE! YOU HAVE MY PERMISSION TO SMACK THE HECK OUT OF ANY GUY WHO TRIES ANYTHING ON YOU. AND IF YOU DON’T, I WILL. I PROMISE.)
Walter: Seriously, how intimidating can you be to the guys your daughters are dating?
Walter: Sitting on your couch at home, surrounded by dolls. That’s just sad.
On his album, Jimmy Nelson said that to become a good performer, you have to do as many shows as possible, here, there, and everywhere. After my debut with the book report, I did just that. I started by presenting more oral school reports with Mortimer. Almost immediately I noticed a shift in attention and acceptance from my fellow students as well as the teachers. After a couple of school talent shows and Cub Scout banquets, I realized that people outside my homeroom liked what I did as well. A good portion of the school would applaud and hoot when I was introduced. But then I began to wonder if the only way I could be accepted was with my dummies. I knew I wasn’t cool, and I certainly wasn’t one of the popular kids. Was the dummy some sort of personality crutch? But then again, was being accepted for being funny any different than being accepted for being good at something normal, like sports?
The summer after third grade, my mother signed me up for a week at a summer camp. It was a place called Sky Ranch, and was a nondenominational Christian camp near Denton, Texas. I figured that this would provide the perfect opportunity to see if I could make friends without using a dummy. I now had a little plastic Danny O’Day, and I took him to camp, but kept him hidden in my suitcase . . . for about a day and a half. When I learned there was going to be a talent show, I couldn’t resist signing up. And even with a new crowd, I madeLM ‘eNOPm laugh.
When I got home from camp and started fourth grade, I looked for every opportunity to do shows and build my act. In the early years, when I was very young, my father would bring home store-bought magic tricks for me to try. My first one was the little red magic vase. It had a blue ball in it that any aspiring prestidigitator could make disappear and then reappear at will. AMAZING! My next trick had me demonstrate my mind-reading ability with a blue magic cube and box. Inside a small blue box was a cube with a different colored circle on each of the six sides. The magician would hand the box to the volunteer, and ask him or her to choose a color, and then put it face up in the box and put the lid back on, hiding the color choice from the magician. The box would be handed back to the magician, some hocus pocus words and motions would ensue, and then the magician would tell the dumbfounded patron what color had been chosen! FANTASTIC! I was good at this stuff! So, I added some magic into my vent act and thought maybe I could make some spending money.
I hand-wrote an ad for my new business on the top third of a sheet of typing paper. My dad then took me to his office, where I copied piles of these announcements:
NEED SOME ENTERTAINMENT?
VENTRILOQUISM AND MAGIC OR BOTH!
JEFF DUNHAM AND HIS FAMILY OF DUMMIES!
(I would have put the actual digits, but even forty years later, it’s still my parents’ phone number!)
Back at home, I took off on my purple bike and stuffed my flyer into as many mailboxes as I could pedal to. Then I waited. First day: No phone calls. Second day: No phone calls. Third: Same. Fourth: Nada.
What the heck? Don’t people want some ventriloquism? Or magic? Or both?
No one bit. Not one phone call. But by the fifth grade, after a few more Cub Scout banquets, church gigs, and talent shows, I started to get requests to entertain at younger kids’ birthday parties . . . and get paid for them!
I can’t recall much of what my act was back then, but most of the dialogue came from Jimmy Nelson’s albums, with routines that he invited students to copy and perform. His bits were surefire, and perfect for a young entertainer.
Along with performing, I was now fascinated by every aspect of my craft: Everything from the history of ventriloquism to all the different types of figures used. (Figure is the politically correct term for a dummy in the ventriloquist world.) I visited every library possible, and read everything I could find associated with vent. I kept coming across the name Edgar Bergen.
As I began to find from my research, Bergen, along with his characters Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, had a hugely popular radio program from 1937 to 1956. My parents would tell me stories of many Sunday nights, sitting down with the rest of their families in front of the radio and listening to the hour-long broadcasts. Bergen was huge in his time. With a number-one radio program, numerous films, and merchandise featuring his characters, Bergen made Charlie and Mortimer American icons. Edgar Bergen and Walt Disney were contemporaries as well as friends, and both were among the first in Hollywood to successfully and commercially exploit their fictitious characters, producing all sorts of various types of merchandise. Like Disney memorabilia, Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd items are highly collectible and sought-after even today.
Much of my act was and still is heavily influenced by Bergen. This is most obviously seen in Bubba J., who could easily be a distant cousin of Mortimer Snerd. More importantly, as a young performer, I was in awe of Bergen’s success as a ventriloquist and thus by example tried to create characters of my own that were equally defined. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not been inspired by his genius.
Bubba J.: You know what?
Bubba J.: I wouldn’t be here today if I was still at home.
Jeff: That’s good thinking, Bubba J.
Bubba J.: I know.
Bergen took a tired old vaudevillian side-show amusement and turned it into a legitimate form of welcomed entertainment. I spent many hours listening to his old radio shows, starting and stopping the cassette tape player, and writing out his dialogues word for word. I wanted to know exactly what was making his audiences laugh.
Bergen didn’t simply tell jokes like most ventriloquists did and still do today. This wasn’t setup followed by a punch line. This was verbal situational comedy driven by characters and circumstances, much like any good sitcom. The banter between Bergen and the characters and with other guest stars were short sketches, but believable, and most importantly, funny.
Charlie McCarthy was a precocious, girl-crazy, wise-cracking boy, with top hat, monocle, tux and tails. Someone once described him as “a child about town.” His exchanges on the show with Bergen and guests like Al Jolson, Orson Welles, W. C. Fields, and Mae West had a real edge. It was sometimes salacious, sometimes political. Mae West was banned from the airwaves after a “steamy” exchange with Charlie. She appeared in two separate sketches on The Chase & Sanborn Hour with Bergen and McCarthy, which was the number-one-rated radio show at that time. Mae played herself, flirting very heavily with Charlie, utilizing her usual brand of wit and risqué sexual references. By today’s standards it’s very innocent, but it was naughty stuff back then:
Mae: So, good-time Charlie’s gonna play hard to get? Well, yuh can’t kid me. You’re afraid of women. Your Casanova stuff is just a front, a false front.
Charlie: Not so loud, Mae, not so loud! All my girlfriends are listening.
Mae: Oh, yeah! You’re all wood and a yard long. . . .
Mae: Yuh weren’t so nervous and backward when yuh came up to see me at my apartment. In fact, yuh didn’t need any encouragement to kiss me.
Charlie: Did I do that?
Mae: Why, yuh certainly did. I got marks to prove it. An’ splinters, too. . . .
Pushing the limits even further, later in the broadcast in an Adam and Eve sketch with show emcee Don Ameche, Mae ad-libbed the line, “Get me a big one . . . I feel like doin’ a big apple!”
In the following days, The New York Sun wrote: “On any other day of the week the skit would have justified the severest criticism from the standpoint of good taste, but on Sunday such a broadcast represents the all-time low in radio. The most charitable explanation is that the producers were mesmerized by the reputed glamour of the entertainer.” NBC received letters calling the show “immoral” and “obscene.” The FCC later called the broadcast “vulgar and indecent” and “far below even the minimum standard which should control in the selection and production of broadcast programs.”
Six days after the broadcast, the general manager of the NBC station group banned any mention of Mae West’s name and of the incident on the network. In effect, Mae West was gone, and wouldn’t grace the airwaves again for twelve years.
Walter: This has been my favorite part of the book so far.
Also, fictitious feuds between shows and stars were a big ratings ploy in the heyday of radio. W. C. Fields and Charlie McCarthy had one of the most notorious ones, with exchanges like:
W. C. Fields: Well, if it isn’t Charlie McCarthy, the woodpecker’s pinup boy!
Charlie: Well, if it isn’t W. C. Fields, the man who keeps Seagram’s in business!
My favorite was:
W. C. Fields: Your father was a bootlegger’s table!
Charlie: Yeah, well your father was under it!
Mortimer Snerd, on the other hand, was somewhat the opposite of Charlie. He was simpleminded, and a true country bumpkin. Bergen used to say though, that “Mortimer is stupid, but he knows that he is stupid, so that almost makes him smart!” Here’s a great example of Mortimer’s special type of intellect:
Bergen: I understand you had a cake at your birthday party?
Mortimer: Duh, uh, yeah! Had cake, yup.
Bergen: So, do you prefer vanilla or chocolate?
Mortimer: Uh . . . Chocolate. Yup. Chocolate.
Bergen: Why is that?
Mortimer: It don’t show the dirt.
Both Charlie and Mortimer were alive in the consciousness of the American public. Because the material was so well written, and because Bergen was incredibly skilled with voices and characterization, many listeners didn’t think it really was Bergen doing all the talking. Charlie would actually get more fan mail than Bergen, and purportedly, much of the radio audience actually believed he was a boy actor simply playing the role of a ventriloquist dummy.
In those days, the only forms of “instant” mass communication were the newspaper and radio. If you didn’t make the news, you had to invent the news. And Bergen was also brilliant at PR. He went so far as to giving Charlie his own room in his Beverly Hills home with a bed, a closet full of monogrammed clothes, a desk, a West Point cadet’s hat, a feathered Indian headdress and a Dorothy Lamour pinup. In her autobiography Knock Wood, Bergen’s daughter, actress Candice Bergen, talks about the bedroom and how her father made her sit on his left knee and talk with her “brother,” Charlie, who sat to the right. There are charming, albeit creepy, pictures of the Bergen family with Charlie and Mortimer posing as well. Was Bergen crazy, or simply creative with photo opportunities and press manipulation? I think he was simply greatly talented, and a sharp businessman.
Walter: I’m going with “crazy.” And that goes for you, too.
Jeff: I’m not nuts.
Walter: Ha, ha, ha . . . you are such a kidder.
What kept Bergen unparalleled by any other vent of his era was his ability to create well-defined and beloved characters. It took me many years to understand that this was Bergen’s true talent. Sure, he and Charlie and Mortimer starred in a few movies in the thirties and forties, and he also made many guest television appearances up until his death in 1978 . . . But first and foremost Bergen was a radio star. Hang on . . . A ventriloquist became a star on the radio. That’s ridiculous.
At first consideration, I think most people would regard vent as a visual medium. No one says that you listen to a ventriloquist. Rather, you watch a ventriloquist. But is that the most important sense utilized when being entertained by a vent? As I got older and began to better understand why Bergen’s studio audiences were laughing, I began to realize the significance of radio and the spoken word in his climb to superstardom. I actually don’t think he would have been as successful if he had come along later, during the television era. Because his radio audience couldn’t see him, they couldn’t watch to see if he moved his lips. So, throw out of the equation the first thing people usually focus on when a ventriloquist is performing. The listening audience could only pay attention to what they could hear. His characters and material were so strong that Bergen became a huge star and famous ventriloquist solely by the spoken word, and the most important thing he did was make people laugh. This began to sink in to me very early on.
The favorite dummy I used in my elementary school years was the toy Danny O’Day, but I very much wanted to get a “real” ventriloquist dummy. These more expensive and serious versions didn’t simply have a string in the back of the neck to move the mouth. Rather, the more advanced characters had hollow bodies and a “head stick” that was attached to the bottom of the head, and was thus inside the body of the dummy. Controls on the stick were accessed by reaching through a slit in the costume on the back of the figure, and into the body cavity. Mounted on the stick were levers that controlled various mechanisms on the dummy’s face, such as the mouth and usually side-to-side moving eyes, raising eyebrows, et cetera. I had no idea where to find a figure maker or craftsman who made this type of figure, and none of the local toy or hobby stores I phoned in Dallas could help me either.
Halfway through the sixth grade, I found a book in the large branch of the Dallas Public Library called Ventriloquism for Fun and Profit by the famous ventriloquist and voice actor Paul Winchell (whose most popular dummy was Jerry Mahoney). This book offered step-by-step instructions on how to build your own professional ventriloquist dummy from a block of wood or papier-mâché. I figured if no one else could build it for me, I’d have to do it myself.
My parents helped out by purchasing a few basic tools from the local hardware store, including a drill motor and bits, some sandpaper, and an electric jigsaw. With a set of X-Acto knives and some big blocks of glued-together balsa wood, I whittled out a guy whom my dad and I named Filbert S. Nutt. Dad also helped here and there with the woodwork, but even he would agree that he is clueless when it comes to tools. Our father-son projects in Cub Scouts and Indian Guides left a bit to be desired. . . .
When I was in the second grade, my father and I signed up for Indian Guides. Sponsored by the YMCA, fathers and their sons joined the local “tribes” and gave themselves Native American names—back then we used the term Indian. Dad and I were Big Fire Ball and Little Fire Ball. Our friends, Emil and Scott Pohli had pretty creative names as well. Scott was my age and a good athlete. His father, Emil, had contracted polio as a young man, and was confined to a wheelchair. I was always impressed by Mr. Pohli’s strength, determination and optimism, and his sense of humor. Their names were Little Running Feet and Big Rolling Seat.
During one of our monthly Indian Guides meetings, large rectangular blocks of pine were given to each father-son team. These blocks were about half the size of a mailbox, with a one-inch hole drilled in one end and a matching-sized dowel sticking out the other. These blocks were taken home and finished by each father-son team and then at our meeting we assembled them one on top of the other to make our tribe’s totem pole.
Anyway, at this early age, I hadn’t yet figured out that not all dads know how to fix or build things. Our totem pole was our first real father-son construction project. We got the block of wood home and I couldn’t wait to get started! By the time dad had gotten home from work the next day, I had already gathered every hand tool I could find from around the house and garage. All the tools Dad owned fit on three small shelves in our utility room, but I also found a big handsaw in the garage. The wooden handle was cracked and loose, but years ago my father had keenly fixed that problem with some masking tape.
Mom said dinner wouldn’t be ready for a while, so after he changed out of his business suit, I pulled Dad out to the garage to get to work. He hesitated for a moment, then took a deep breath and looked suspiciously at the wood and tools. He slowly picked up the wood and the saw, and carried them to the backyard where there was a two-foot-high brick wall surrounding our back porch. He put the block on the wall as a sort of workbench. I couldn’t wait! Dad was gonna make the best totem pole head of everyone!
He turned the block around, looking at it from every angle possible. I knew he was devising ways to cut and sculpt and make something fantastic. He turned the block sideways, put the saw at an angle on one of the corners, and pushed and pulled the saw back and forth. There were a few slips and grumbles and a lot of sweat as the saw got stuck in the wood now and then, but that’s how sawing works. And all saws are rusty, right? It never occurred to me that Dad’s tools were rusted because he hadn’t used them in two decades.
Eventually, the first cut was finished. He had sawed off the front top edge of one of the sides. He then proceeded to do the same thing on the lower portion of that side. “There,” he said. “That makes the forehead and the bottom is the chin.” Then he took one of the two triangular scraps and sawed it into three almost-equal smaller triangular pieces. Placing one on the front of the block and holding the other two on either side, he said, “This is the nose and these two are the ears. You can glue those on. There you go.”
“Uh . . . that’s it?” I asked.
“Sure,” he responded.
“But . . . well . . . what about painting it?” I asked.
“I think we have a little can of something in the garage.”
He went inside. I’m not going to say I was devastated, but I certainly wasn’t overjoyed. I got some Elmers glue and did the best I could to put the pieces on the face. No sanding. No sculpting of wood. No true woodworking of any kind. I found the can of orange paint and an old dried-up brush. After slathering the whole thing, I dug around in my room and found some tiny jars of model paint to put on the details of eyes and war paint markings. Horrible.
At the next Indian Guides meeting, Scott Fuller showed up with an eagle head complete with wings and a high-gloss, multicolor finish. It looked like something you’d buy at a store. Most of the other heads were at least close to being that good. At every meeting from then on, my head of the totem pole always ended up on the very bottom.
Despite that sad story and a couple more like it, including the time my mother MADE my father dump an entire bucket of water on my unlaunched Estes rocket because she was convinced that it was going to explode and kill us all, I must thank both my parents. I am eternally grateful for those very few times in my childhood that I was disappointed or disheartened. Mainly because of Dad’s lack of skills with building things or with any kind of tool, I learned self-reliance. As an only child, there was never anyone to discourage my conquests or divert a chosen course. I was left to a world of exploration and my own imagination and dreams. My parents gave me the gift of encouragement and never discouragement or disparagement. While Dad didn’t know how to use hand tools much beyond the very basics, he always encouraged my efforts. My parents would compliment even my saddest attempts and then make suggestions on how to improve. If there were times when I was doing something they didn’t understand, they would question and make observations but give me the room to fail. They gave me tools . . . both literally and figuratively. They did this in everything from oil paintings my mother helped me with in grade school, to terrible science projects where I never won a thing. In college, when I had secretively started building my own full-sized helicopter and taking flight lessons to get my pilot’s license, they were scared to death when they found out. But, later, when I’d finished the long project and after a great deal of prayer, they both rode through the sky as passengers in my home-built helicopter, trusting their kid not to kill them.
When I was young, if my father had taken over and done all the work on school or Scout projects, building the best whatzit of any of the other kids, I never would have learned a thing, and I’m pretty sure Walter and Achmed wouldn’t exist today. As for that first dummy I carved during my sixth-grade year, Filbert and I performed together for only a few months. He was nearly as big as I was and looked almost as sad as our totem pole head. Filbert is still in storage in Dallas, and I shudder whenever I open that trunk. He’s just too scary-looking. Building ventriloquist dummies is a skill I learned over many years, but I know I never would have had the fortitude or patience to learn if Dad had simply created a Disney-quality totem pole by himself.
Peanut: You’re crafting skills have really gotten better. I mean, I was blown away when I saw how ugly you made Achmed.
Achmed: Hey! I’m right here!
Peanut: Yeah, I know.
Also during my sixth-grade year, the Richardson Daily News ran an article on my ventriloquial pursuits. When the reporter called to request an interview, I thought, “This is show business! This is the big time!”
Well . . . I’ll never forget watching outside our dining room window and seeing this guy drive up in a complete beater. I was stunned. I thought: Shouldn’t a reporter arrive in a limousine? This was, after all, showbiz!
Ironically, on the same day that article was printed, the Dallas Morning News ran a story about another local ventriloquist named Keith Singleton. He was just a few years older than I was, but as I read in the article and saw from his picture, he had a professional ventriloquist dummy.
My father did a little detective work, found Keith’s phone number, had a quick conversation, and Keith graciously invited us over to have a look at Marty. I couldn’t have been more excited to see the dummy. I had never seen a real ventriloquist figure in person—it had a head stick and everything!—and even better, Marty had been custom-built by a real figure maker.
Keith let me operate the controls on Marty, and he told me about Finis Robinson, the creator of this twenty-five-pound masterpiece. Finis was older than dirt and lived in Waterloo, Iowa. He had been building dummies since the days of vaudeville, and his business slogan was the ever-rosy, “The End of Gloom.” I sent away for Finis’s catalog, which featured a sampling of his creations over the decades.
Finis customized his dummies to meet his clients’ demands. At least, that’s what the catalog said. In the packet was an order form that you could fill out to specify exactly what you wanted. What color eyes? What type of hair? Color of skin? Texture of paint? Did you want him painted for stage or television? Did you want clothes too? And then of course, you had to choose the movements. Besides a moving mouth, did you want raising eyebrows and a stick-out tongue? How about cross-eye movement? Cool!
Sometime in the 1980s, Finis and his wife of a lifetime, Annamay, moved to Zephyrhills, Florida, where he continued to build figures until he passed away in 1996. I’m pretty sure he was nearing one hundred years old at the time of his death, and I wish I had met him.
I still have that catalog, which I still sometimes look at today and smile. It reminds me that Finis must have been a bit nuts. On one page, he has a “walking figure.” These types of dummies were an interesting oddity in the early part of the twentieth century. Vents would stroll onto stage, “walking” a life-size dummy while at the same time making it sing or talk. To make these almost-robotic monstrosities move forward, the vent would simply hold the dummy by one arm, tilting the character slightly left and right. The foot that was off the ground would swing forward thanks to springs and clocklike mechanics, thus taking another “step.” The performer could then maneuver the figure around the stage. For about $600 in the 1970s, Finis claimed in his catalog that you could order a walking figure and it would show up just like any other dummy, in a big, well-packed, cardboard crate. The trouble was, the picture of the walking figure looked suspiciously like his thirty-something-year-old daughter, Mayann, posing, standing as stiffly as possible in “dummy pose.” If you looked closely, you could see where someone had drawn in pen the vent dummy “slot jaw” lines on her chin as well as “joints” on her exposed elbows and knees. In later years, I always joked with fellow vents that we should pool together some money and order the dummy just to see if Mayann showed up in a crate.
Anyway, on my particular order form, I decided I wanted a 1970s variation of the Charlie McCarthy type. Since Bergen, almost every ventriloquist used something akin to the Charlie icon. It made sense for me too, because most of my material was inspired by Bergen and was written for just that type of character
After sending Finis $327.56 of hard-earned lawn-mowing money, my first professional vent figure—complete with moving mouth, side-to-side eyes, raising eyebrows, and winkers—showed up in a big box. I named him Monty Ballew in honor of two people. Monty Moncrief, who was the program director at Sky Ranch, and Peggy Ballew, who was also a counselor Sky Ranch for a few summers and was incredibly hot. She was in high school, and I was almost in seventh grade when I met her. She was my first major crush. I have no idea whatever happened to Peggy, but maybe she’ll read this and realize that naming a dummy after her was my twelve-year-old way of hitting on an older woman.
Getting Monty Ballew was a major stepping-stone. I remember very well working on new material for him. Monty arrived the summer Richard Nixon resigned and even at that early age I was trying my best to craft political jokes about Tricky Dick and Watergate. Soon the audiences were getting bigger, and I was getting bolder. A few months into my seventh-grade year, in the fall of 1975 I found myself in front of seventy businessmen, making fun of one of my childhood heroes: a real-life, pro-football Captain America.