Pete Michaels & Mr. Johnson at The ClaridgeVentriloquism For Dummies -- 
Audiences are still delighted by 'vents' and their sidekicks

BY: LISA IRIZARRY
NEWARK STAR-LEDGER STAFF

As he walks through rows of freshly set tables on the way to his dressing room in Atlantic City's Claridge Casino Hotel, Pete Michaels seems a little nervous.

Michaels is the last of four acts in the "Sherman Hemsley & Friends" show -- he's the ventriloquist -- and these days he doesn't know how audiences will respond to a guy trying to convince them he's made a puppet talk and sing. He seems a bit more at ease after learning the ticket take to that point is about 300.

"That's good," an usher assures him. "We'll be almost full." But Hemsley, the popular George Jefferson character on "The Jeffersons," was going to be there, too, after all.

Back in his dressing room before he prepares to go on, Michaels laments there could be people in the audience who don't even know what a ventriloquist is -- something that never would have been the case for a vaudeville show in the 1920s or a nightclub 30 years ago. Then he reminds himself people still love what he does.

What he does is to give voice to his inanimate sidekicks: Buddy, whom he describes as "a little Italian kid from Brooklyn"; old Mr. Johnson and a Luciano Pavarotti puppet, for which Michaels does the singing.

"It's a lost art in that you don't see it as much on television anymore," Michaels says of ventriloquism. He is appearing at the Claridge through May 19.

"You say Paul Winchell, Edgar Bergen...to an 18-year-old and they have no idea who you're talking about," he adds. "You don't have (Ed) Sullivan, Ted Mack and (Johnny) Carson -- shows that catered to a variety format -- that's where you'd see ventriloquists. But there are still a lot of other venues."

Maybe they don't achieve the stardom any more of an Edgar Bergen and his Charlie McCarthy puppet; Paul Winchell and his pal, Jerry Mahoney; or Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop, but ventriloquists -- "vents," as they call themselves -- are still very much a part of the entertainment scene, Michaels and others in the business say.

"You wouldn't think so because they're not in our living rooms like they used to be," says 62-year-old Frances Cohen of West Orange. She hired a ventriloquist for her husband's 70th birthday party next month. "We're old, so we remember them way back when, and we loved them."

She adds, "When we've gone out and seen them in clubs today, if the jokes are good the people laugh -- no matter what age they are. It's still fascinating to see if a person can talk without their lips moving."

Michaels and other vents say you need a straight standup comedy act or a book or movie to plug to get time with the modern versions of Ed Sullivan -- Jay Leno or David Letterman. But Atlantic City, Las Vegas and other venues are still very big on featuring ventriloquists in their shows.

"It's the demographics," says Michaels, a 43-year-old Staten Island native. "Places like the Catskills, the Poconos, Vegas and Atlantic City have the middle-aged to elderly (audiences) that can remember that stuff."

At one time ventriloquists ruled -- in America and internationally.

According to the book "Other Voices: Ventriloquism from B.C. to TV" ($40), written by the late ventriloquist Stanley Burns and published by his wife, Sylvia, ventriloquists were some of the hottest attractions during the "Golden Age" of vaudeville.

The book says that during the Golden Age (after World War I through the 1940s), "top ventriloquists were accorded the stature of today's movie and sports stars, and even the average ventriloquist was respected. ...The Golden Age had put both male and female ventriloquists acts in a good light; the spotlight."

Hollywood went for ventriloquists and their "dummies" big time, and they shared the movie screen with the likes of Mae West, Lon Chaney and Lucille Ball.

Charlie McCarthy not only got star billing in movies in which he was featured; he starred in his own movie, "Charlie McCarthy, Detective," and there were countless copies of the puppet made, along with Charlie McCarthy handkerchiefs, record albums, spoons, watches, dolls and other products.

New Yorker Stan Burns, who got his start in vaudeville, was the first ventriloquist to use a remote control for a dummy, his wife says. He was popular for his round-robin routine that included himself and his sidekicks, Bruce and Cecil.

Burns worked on the book for 20 years but he died at age 78 in 1998, before its publication. "Ventriloquism was his life," Sylvia Burns says. "He worked wherever there was no language barrier."

She adds he never retired, noting that even in today's much faster-paced world, ventriloquism still has a place and a future. She says, however, that part of the reason ventriloquists might not be as visible or well-known as they once were has to do with their image.

"It's certainly a wonderful medium for children," she says. "If a person is innovative, there is no reason they can't continue to have some future in it."

She adds, "Rudy Vallee, Fred Allen and David Copperfield all started as ventriloquists, then ventriloquists started getting a bad name when Eric Von Stroheim did 'The Great Gabbo' (about a ventriloquist with a sinister alter ego), and they (Anthony Hopkins) did 'Magic' and everyone thought ventriloquists were nuts."

Patricia Weber, entertainment coordinator for the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas where the Willie Tyler & Lester ventriloquist act was headlining last week, said, "Willie plays here twice a year and we do other ventriloquists. They do well here, they cater to our audiences." Mark Wade, executive director of the Vent Haven (ventriloquists) ConVENTion, to be held July 27-29 in Ft. Mitchell, Ky., says some numbers indicate there might be more ventriloquists than ever.

He says when the convention started 25 years ago, there were between 2,200 and 2,500 ventriloquists in the United States that were known to organizations and other organized groups. "It goes through periods -- it levels off or drops off like anything else." His "guestimate" is that there are between 4,000 and 4,500 ventriloquists in the U.S.

Wade said their level of expertise greatly varies, with a "weekend warrior" probably earning about $74 to $100 per show, while someone at the top of the game could make upwards of $15,000 a show.

"It's not really a lost art," Wade says. "It's just that right now it's an art that isn't in the forefront."

Agreeing with Michaels, he notes, "It has just gone to different venues, and it's not on TV as much." He says those venues include comedy clubs, trade shows, corporate conventions, cruise ships and ministry (using ventriloquist puppets to teach children Biblical lessons).

Wade, 50, has been in the business for 23 years, received national honors for his talents, and has been an opening act for Garth Brooks and Reba McIntyre. "The only venue in which we've seen any decline to a degree is television," he says.

"I think it's just the uniqueness of what we do (that makes a ventriloquist show appealing)." He also gets annoyed when the term "dummy" is used for the ventriloquist's sidekick.

"They are ventriloquist figures, not dummies," he bristles.

Alan Semok, a Somerset puppet maker and restorer, has had some success as a ventriloquist, but says he's put his act on a back burner to pursue an acting career.

"I grew up in Woodbridge and had local fame in Fords," the 48-year-old Semok recalls. "My very first public show was at Fords Junior High School (now Fords Middle School). When I was growing up Paul Winchell had his own TV show and Jimmy Nelson was doing commercials for Nestlé's chocolate. Edgar Bergen had retired, but was still making appearances."

As a teenager he taught himself to imitate the greats and later got into making and repairing dummies. He still works out of his garage as the "Dummy Doctor" while pursuing acting.

But as far as a career in ventriloquism goes for him, Semok says, "Were living in a different age. When I was watching television at 7, there were seven or eight channels and lots of live shows with puppets. Now a kid with cable TV can flip a dial and watch an entire galaxy explode. They have 150 channels -- the pace of entertainment has changed."

 

 

All Content, Materials, Images, Photos & Original Characters Copyright: Pete Michaels