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

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Great Mask Debate

In about 1955 I invented the ventriloquist mask. A ventriloquist mask is a device you put on the face of a volunteer from the audience. The ventriloquist operates the mask's mouth with a string or rod suspended from the bottom of the jaw. With this device, the ventriloquist makes the volunteer seem to be the dummy.

So, how did I come to invent the concept? In the 1950s, a breakfast cereal—probably Wheaties or Cheerios—had cut-out masks on the back of its box. After the box is empty a child cuts out the mask, cuts out the eyes, attaches a string to the ears, and wears the mask. The two images I recall are Howdy Doody and Clarabelle the Clown.

To create a vent mask, I modified the cereal box mask by adding a moving jaw. I cut out the jaw and re-attached it with a jerry-rigged slot mechanism. Coat hangar wire was the control rod. I used this mask in performances in church. In one such performance my kid brother was the volunteer, something he remembers clearly because I kind of made him volunteer when no one else would. He was not happy about it.

The late Colonel Bill Boley built such masks and sold them to other ventriloquists.

Ventriloquist Ronn Lucas also uses such a mask. He has laid claim to ownership of the concept of using a mask on an audience volunteer in a ventriloquist act. You can read his claim at his Mighty Mouth Mask web page.

You can read the account of how Lucas's lawyer dealt with Boley's actions with respect to masks, after which Boley masks went underground.

Lucas also says, "Nobody had done this, exactly like this, until I did it first." He is wrong. Although he has no way of knowing this until now, I did it fully thirty-five years before he did it. And I was only twelve or thirteen. The concept is so obvious that I don't understand how any reasonable person can lay claim to it.

In the meantime, other ventriloquists use masks.

Here are some links:

Paige Parnell uses several masks in her shows and has trademarked the name Ventrilomask.

Pete Michaels puts Sonny and Cher masks on volunteers from his audiences.

Stephen Knowles uses Julio Iglesias and Willy Nelson masks. Stephen also designed, patented and markets a pad of tear-off disposable vent masks.

Many other ventriloquists use masks. Mostly they use those underground Boley masks.

What's the point of all this? I don't want all those ventriloquists worrying about lawyers and all that disagreeable stuff. So, as the originator of the concept of using a mask on a volunteer from the audience in a ventriloquist show, I hereby place the concept in the public domain. If you get sued, call me. I'll testify on your behalf if you pay my expenses, which will be exorbitant. Don't worry. The plaintiff can probably afford it.

I don't think my brother will testify, however. He still hasn't gotten over the embarrassment.

2 Comments:

Blogger Lawrence E. Harris said...

Al,

a very interesting post. I had an idea thar Ron Lucas was full of shit al long time ago and you just proved it. I remember seeing the mask routine when I was a kid and I am 51 years old, so you tell me.

Pete Michaels came to a event that my old DEVVA Group had in Philly 3 years ago and did the mask routine, so you tell me who is telling the truth. I don't see Pete out there carrying on like Ronn Lucas.

Cheers,
Lawrence E. Harris - ComicVent

10:05 AM  
Blogger Silly Goose & Val said...

I love the fact that you have done this. As an ex-lawyer, children's entertainer, and FEMALE ventriloquist, I delight in your generosity.

3:19 PM  

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