Perspectives of a Writer and Musician

Issues related to writing, publishing and playing jazz music: One man's muse.
by Al Stevens

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Location: Florida, United States

Friday, April 28, 2006

The Fred Maher School of Ventriloquism

Two weeks ago Maher Studios closed shop. There have been many tributes including an article in the Wall Street Journal. My tribute recounts my personal experiences with Maher Studios and The Fred Maher School of Ventriloquism.

(Hmm. That's kind of like when people stand up at a funeral service and talk more about themselves and their own personal loss than about the deceased person. Well, this is my blog. I get to make it about me, don't I?)

It started sometime in the early 1950s. My Dad had a subscription to Popular Mechanics Magazine. I had a burning interest in ventriloquism. One ad in the classified advertising section every month fascinated me.


Money was tight, but I had a paper route. I sent in the quarter and got the info and the dummy catalog.





The information packet about the correspondence course was interesting, but I didn't have the money to enroll.

I didn't have the money to buy a dummy, either, but I pored over the catalog hoping that some day I could afford one. I wore out several copies and every now and then sent them another quarter to get a new one.

The course literature included testimonials. Among the 40 or so graduates is a youthful Dick Weston who brags that he is making as much as $95 a week in his new career. All the graduates had Maher dummies, of course.

It didn't bother me that I couldn't afford the course. I had already taught myself ventriloquism and, typical of most twelve-year-old boys, figured no one had anything important to teach me. What bothered me was that to be a success, to make $95 a week and afford a Maher dummy, one had to have a diploma. At least that's what I thought.

Fast forward many years. I put ventriloquism behind me to pursue other things. A copy of Popular Mechanics was laying around somewhere and, out of curiousity, I opened it to the classified ads. Sure enough, the Maher school was still in operation, only now in Littleton, Colorado. And the dummy catalog was free. I sent for it and got quite a surprise. The business was now owned by some young upstart named Clinton Detweiler and his lovely wife Adelia. The business seemed to target family-oriented and gospel ventriloquists with fewer hard figure dummies and more soft puppets. The literature said to me that traditional ventriloquism as I knew and loved it was, if not dead, on the critical list. I was not interested.

Fast forward even more years. Retired from my writing and computer programming career and making my way as a jazz musician, I came across Winchell's video at the library. A trailer on the video advertises Jerry Layne and his Jerry Mahoney replica. I called Jerry (Layne, not Mahoney) and learned that ventriloquism is indeed alive and well and that there are conventions. I attended the next convention (1999) and met Clinton Detweiler, who is no longer a young upstart. He is an old upstart. Like me. (Actually, when people describe me as an old something, it only rhymes with upstart.)

Clinton and I had a brief chat during the group photo session and I came to know him then and in the years and conventions that followed. Every now and then I actually bought something from Maher Studios as it was now called. I don't remember exactly what. Probably books. I do recall sending with one order a note of concern to Clinton and Adelia just after the Columbine incident, which happened in Littleton. Adelia sent a note back with the shipment saying that they were okay and I shouldn't worry. It is typical of the Detweilers that they would reassure others when the tragedy was at their doorstep.

I remember a conversation in which Clinton said that people advised him that he could make a lot more money if his business practices weren't so upfront and honorable. I told him my advice. Never regret having done the right thing. I didn't need to tell him that. He already knew it.

I have a copy of the Maher correspondence course now. I bought it on eBay. I read all the books and, not being twelve years old, learned some things. I never filled out the forms and got a diploma, though. I don't think I could get by on $95 a week.

3 Comments:

Blogger Toggle Switch said...

Thanks, Al, for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment. It saddens me that ventriloquism is a fading art as it truly captivated my attention as a child.

10:13 PM  
Blogger Len Hart said...

Thanks for the interesting article. My own story is not unlike yours. I saw the Maher ads in Mechanix Illustrated --a small display ad with a tiny picture of Maher and his figure. I sent off for the information and, for lack of money, sat on it for a year or two. At last, I managed to scrape up the 'tuition' for the full course. But, by that time, I had already been bugging the local TV station to put me on the afternoon kids show. Eventually, I made several appearances including several 'telethons' for the March of Dimes. As a result of the TV exposure, I made some local appearances --dinners, toasts, etc. Some even paid me an honorarium. I might have done that without the Maher Course but never regretted getting it. It was a source of great advice and encouragement. In fact, after all these years, I still have it.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Wires In The Walls said...

I came across your excellent blog while researching some old ads I was scanning...you might be interested in seeing the another ad from Mechanix Illustrated that ran in 1952..thanks again for the personal insight, it really gives these things character!
http://www.flickr.com/photos/elmcityminusone/7744438942/

1:54 PM  

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