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

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Developing a Custom Ventriloquist Figure

Ventriloquists develop concepts for their figures. Sometimes the figure's character and personality evolve based on a figure that the ventriloquist buys. Other times they take the concept to a figure maker and have a custom figure made based on the idea.

When the ventriloquist is also a figure maker, he can do both. I'll be using this blog to document my progress in developing a character and building the figure to match the character's personality. I'm starting with only a concept. Let's begin there.

The Name

It started with a name. Uncle Sweeter Dabney. That's the name of a character in a novel that I read when I was a teenager. The book is Foretaste of Glory by Jesse Stuart, and I highly recommend it. All that the book contributes to my concept is the name, which has stayed with me for over fifty years.

The Character

My wife's uncle, now deceased, had a fascinating character. He was a Pennslyvania Dutchman who was kind, generous, grumpy, judgemental, humorous, loving, industrious, and intolerant, all these incongruities in one guy. I was raised in the South, and I knew some curmudgeons, too, but each with a Southern dialect and Southern attitudes. The old guys I knew would rather go fishing than to to work. Somewhere in all those people I know from two diverse cultures is the character I want for Uncle Sweeter.

His Age

Uncle Sweeter is in his late seventies and has typical problems of the elderly. I specifically avoided a character that might seem to be too much like Jeff Dunham's Walter, a middle-aged grouch in reasonably good health.

His Culture

He is a country fellow but not a bumpkin. He speaks with country idioms but he is neither illiterate nor stupid.

The Material

Joke books and the Internet are a treasure trove of humorous items from and about old fellows. Everytime I hear another one, I put it in a computer file along with funny things I've heard old people say. Eventually this file will form the basis for a dialogue with Uncle Sweeter. Perhaps none of the archived jokes will find their way into the final work, but they provide a starting place and get me thinking.

The Design

I carry a sketchpad everywhere I go. I draw mostly faces. I've been sketching ventriloquist dummies since I was nine years old. When I began to think about building Uncle Sweeter, I started sketching. I don't know about other artists, but I don't know what a face is going to look like until I draw it. Certainly, there are facial characteristics that contribute to whatever I'm looking for—large or small nose, the age and sex of the character, eyeglasses, hair—but the actual face remains hidden until I draw the lines.

My sketchpad is filled with pictures of old man ventriloquist dummy faces. Three things are common in all these sketches: He has glasses, a longer-than-average nose, and a combover.

This is the face I decided on after many attempts.

This sketch doesn't guarantee that Uncle Sweeter will look exactly like this because sculpting is like drawing—the face kind of develops as the process progresses.

After choosing the face, I observed that the picture does not reflect the posture of a typical old man. I recall how my wife's uncle walked kind of stoop-shouldered with his neck protruding forward. I drew a profile view to see how it might work. The sketch shown here shows how the headstick angles down from the neck straight into the body. This effect requires a specially designed shoulder piece to fit the off-center socket and give a stoop-shoulder appearance.


I envision him in a checked suit similar to Mortimer Snerd's and a pair of those orange work shoes that construction workers wear. His jacket will have to be specially tailored to fit his stooped shoulders.


The figures I build for myself do not usually have moving eyes, and I expect Uncle Sweeter to be the same. I am however considering eyelids and eyebrows that work from a common control rod. The eyelids are normally in a half-closed, sleepy position. When the eyebrows go up or down, the eyelids go up into a wide-eyed look. This provides an astonished look and a really angry look. He might also be able to close his eyes and go to sleep. I haven't worked out the design of this control configuration.

Status Reports

This ia an ongoing work, and progress will be slow. Don't expect an update to the project every day, but, whenever I make significant advances, I'll post about them here.


Blogger Mr. Pitts said...

Al, this is really interesting. You've made some great sketches, he looks like he's going to be a very well realized character. I've decided to build a 'from scratch' figure myself. I have an idea of what I want but I haven't seen any figuremaker's work that really get's close. So I'll be watching your progress with great interest.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Lawrence E. Harris said...

I love the Blog entry Al. I did the same thing when I wanted my older Nebish retired Government Worker character. My Friend Dan was working on a new head and I told him what I wanted this guy to look like.

I should have "Lester" in a week or two. Going to be Dan Payes best I think.

Cheers, ComicVent

8:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great blog Al!

I am looking forward to seeing how the old codger develops.

Robert McRay

10:47 PM  

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