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, September 29, 2006

"Big Fred"

All projects are on hold for the next couple of weeks. I am building "Big Fred."

Susan Watson, a lady in England has a twelve-year-old autistic son who saw my Fred figure on the web and decided he wanted "Big Fred" for his birthday, coming up on October 18th. Susan called me to see what we could work out.

With the help of the generous WorldVents ventriloquist community, which is donating dummy clothes and money to offset the cost of materials and shipping, and Mike Brose of Puppets And Props, who donated the dummy kit parts, I am working hard to make the deadline.

I won't make a journal of the project here because I don't want to take time away from the workshop. Besides, I have a website named The Fred Project that explains how I built the original, which I sold long ago on ebay.

If you should happen to have a size 4T jacket or a blue striped shirt similar to the ones in the picture, I can use them. The boy pays close attention to detail and he really likes that blue and yellow jacket. Send me an email for my snail mail address.

If you want to help with expenses, my Paypal ident is Small donations are appreciated. Any money I don't spend on this project goes to the boy's mother to buy other things for her son.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Ventriloquist Week in review

We just returned from a week away from home attending Judy's class reunion.

The big event of interest here was Dave Letterman's week dedicated to ventriloquism. Well, maybe "dedicated" is overstatement. Letterman and company hyped the feature that way, but it was really only a week with a very brief slot given to a different ventriloquist each evening. The lineup comprised Willy Tyler, Jay Johnson, Ronn Lucas, Jeff Dunham, and Todd Oliver.

You can view the five acts on

Letterman's Ventriloquist Week videos

Let's see. What's noteworthy? What can I add that hasn't already been said? Everyone was funny and everyone was up to their professional form. I previously said a lot more, but got so much of it wrong that I've modified this article. One of the prerogatives of a blogger.

I'd watch Letterman more often if it wasn't for Paul Shaffer. He managed to get his typically strained comments worked into some of the vent acts. Must be in his contract. Am I the only one who thinks Shaffer isn't even close to being funny? And is very close to being annoying? Sorry, Paul, you ain't Kevin Eubanks. Or Ed McMahon, even. Give it up.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

It's All In The Details

Uncle Sweeter Dabney is just about completed. I wanted to add details to his outfit. These things are not always visible or obvious to an audience viewing him onstage, but I know about them, and it makes character development easier when the figure is more realistic to me.

To begin with, he needed a white dress shirt and a straw hat. The blue turtle neck wasn't making it. I bought this shirt at Wal-Mart. The 24-month size is perfect. The neck fits nicely and the sleeves are the right length. I found the straw skimmer hat on ebay. Most such hats are too big. This one is the smallest size I've seen. New ones are expensive, from $75 to $95 online. I didn't want a new one, though. Uncle Sweeter wouldn't wear a new hat. This one is stained and slightly beat up. Perfect.

Uncle Sweeter's original hearing aid was homemade. I sculpted the earpiece from casting medium and made the receiver from cardboard. I wanted the real thing. I found this Zenith hearing aid on ebay. It's about 40 years old. I like it's golden shine.

Note the suspenders. They are from Wal-Mart, too. One last detail needs to be addressed. If you have pants with an elastic stretch waistband, why do you need suspenders? I'll be watching the thrift stores for a more appropriate pair of pants.

You can't see them, but Uncle Sweeter has socks at last. Argyle socks. Of course. What else would he wear?

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Eagle of September

The eagle stood his perch that day,
He did not want to fly at all,
He did not choose to join the fray,
Where once there stood two towers tall.

They once were mine, he said, t'was planned,
These people who adopted me,
To be their emblem proud and grand,
To show forth for the brave and free.

They sang the praises of our land,
My spirit soared with every crest,
The words that made us understand,
That people free are people blessed.

But someone else tore wings from birds,
And reigned a terror from above,
With naught a thought to noble words,
Nor care at all for what we love.

They aimed full bore in evil roles,
Into the walls where people were,
Into a place that housed good souls,
Who knew not what would now occur.

The flames shot out, the smoke poured sour,
The structure broke and fell to ground,
And those who could not flee the hour,
Became but one with what rained down.

The eagle saw this awesome deed,
His people burned and fell and died,
And seemed at once no more to need,
His emblem of their soul and pride.

The fine bird bowed, his heart did ache,
He knew no more for what he stood,
What once had been his noble stake,
Was now a burned out neighborhood.

Is my new role to stand for naught?
Is there no more a place for me?
Is there no spirit left to guard,
No pride in what was well and free?

Oh how I wish so long ago,
They'd picked another, so he said,
To represent their lofty goals,
I cannot bear where this had led.

I cannot know the kind of heart,
That willingly destroys it all,
That kills and burns and takes apart,
And does it for some pointless call.

But as the smoke began to clear,
The eagle strained and looked ahead,
And with his vision without peer,
Saw stirrings midst the rubbled dread.

He saw some people still alive,
They hurried in to help the downed,
He saw their spirit, will and drive,
They scraped and dug the pillaged ground.

They saved a few, they mourned the lost,
They sent the word out far and wide,
They would not worry for the cost,
They would not sacrifice their pride.

They told the world at length and long,
Of justice, reconstruction, too,
They vowed to right this awful wrong,
And build anew what was askew.

They armed themselves with soul and right,
And promised never to relent,
Until the evil knew their might,
And knew the full weight of their bent.

The eagle felt himself reborn,
His purpose steady, n'er to wane,
His faith and duty proudly worn,
He flies above us, strong again.

--- Al Stevens, September, 2001

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Are You a "Dummy Owner?'

During a recent conversation with a colleague, I coined a term to describe folks who decide one day that they are ventriloquists. The term is "dummy owner." Is that you? Here's a little test to see. Score 1 point for each "yes" answer.

1. Do your lips move constantly throughout your performance?
2. Do you always perform gratis/pro bono/freebie/for nada?
3. Do you perform with a Juro Jerry Mahoney?
4. Is your dummy so motionless that he looks like a static VentHaven schoolhouse display?
5. Does your dummy's voice sound exactly like you?
6. Does your dummy speak in an annoying nasal or falsetto whine?
7. Do you let your male dummy perform without real socks on?
8. Do you show up at social or public events unexpectedly with your dummy?
9. Do you use jokes you've copied from other ventriloquists?
10. Do you hold your dummy seated across your arm with your thumb sticking up from between his legs?
11. Do you and your dummy sing, "Side by Side?"
12. Does your dummy have raising eyebrows and do you raise them more than twice during a performance?
13. Except for formal attire, do you and your dummy dress alike?

Scoring: 0 points = ventriloquist. 1 or more points = dummy owner.

All in good fun, of course.

Character Separation

Character separation in ventriloquism is the ability to be two people at one time, with you and your dummy maintaining and presenting to the audience two distinct and individual voices and movements. You have to maintain some of this separation simultaneously. You cannot talk for both personalities at the same time without some trickery (usually involving a recording), but you need to effectively switch between your voice and the dummy's while maintaining what seems to be dual independent and concurrent body movements.

Character separation involves other parts of the ventriloquial craft. Lip and voice control and manipulation skills contribute to the illusion of character separation. This discussion concentrates on how to keep your dummy's words and actions separate from your own.

Character separation requires a firm grasp on the two characters themselves. You already know yourself, but you must define and understand your dummy's character. Once you know the two of you well enough, you must practice diligently to learn and maintain character separation.

Multiple Selves

To understand character separation, it helps to understand at a layman's level the complex organization of personalities in the average healthy human being. We all have multiple personalities, but we do not all suffer from multiple personality disorder (MPD), more popularly known as a split personality. (Ventriloquists should understand MPD because people think we all have it.) A normal person integrates his many personalities into one conscious, self-aware being. When we are angry, joyful, jealous, childish, or any of many moods and behaviors, we call to the surface one of our personalities to present to the world our current mood. But our integrated, conscious being is aware of and remembers all these behaviors. A person with MPD is not well integrated, and various inner disintegrated personalities can take control of the person independently of the others. Some personalities might be unaware of the others and often have no memory of the actions of other personalities. “The Three Faces of Eve” and “Sybil” are books that describe two women who suffered from MPD and explain the disorder to the layman. I don't recommend viewing the movies made from these books except for their entertainment value. They do not explain the disorder, much less the orderly integration of a normal person, nearly as well as the books do.

Do you doubt that you are several people? Consider how you talk to different people. Think about how you talk to your parents, your children, your boss, strangers, neighbors, drinking buddies, members of the opposite sex. Your demeanor with each of these people is different reflecting your relationship with them and reflecting the personality you bring forth to present to each one.

So, given that you have all these people inside you, how do you break them down into two personalities? Starting with yourself, that's already well defined. But some combination of your inner personalities must become the integrated personality of your dummy. You must learn to combine them artificially in a separate and consistent manner. You must present the illusion that there are two people performing. You must pretend to the audience that you have MPD. Except that it is not a disorder; it is a learned, controlled combination of reflexes like rubbing your tummy and patting your head.

If you manipulate two dummies at once, as did Winchell, Nelson and, to a lesser extent, Bergen, your separation extends to yet a third entity. Once you've got separation perfected between you and one dummy, adding a second dummy should be easier. Jimmy Nelson is the master of multiple dummy manipulation, and you should study his work with Danny and Humphry to see how it is done.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Last Night's Show

The show went well. This was Uncle Sweeter's second public performance and his fourth altogether if you include the test runs I did at Judy's family reunion and for some of daughter Wendy's friends and neighbors. By now I've pretty much figured out what material works best for him, so this audience was very responsive. About 30 adults in a private home. Early twenties through seventies with most guests being in their late thirties, I'm guessing.

As I used Aunt Sally, I messed up and called her "Uncle Sally." I have no idea why that happened. Judy laughed and pointed it out to me right away.

Ad lib of the evening:

Al: "I can't believe you just said that."
Sally: "You're the ventriloquist and you can't believe what I just said? Do,do,do,do (Twilight Zone theme)."

I rarely use jokes that emphasize the ventriloquist/dummy setting. I'd rather just make it two people talking. This came out before I had time to think about it. And it got a big laugh. I think I'll keep it in.

As I manipulated Aunt Sally I could hear something rattling inside her head. She was working okay, and there were no outward signs that anything was wrong. Today in the workshop I found out what it was. Her trapdoor, which was hot-glued to tabs inside her head, had come loose and was rattling around inside her wig. One of the tabs had fallen off, and some pressure to her head during packing had knocked the trapdoor loose. It's fixed now with epoxy.

I made the tabs with MagicSculp. The head shell is fiberglass. The MS tab had not adhered well to the FG head. I am pretty much done with using MagicSculp for anything. It's been nothing but problems in these applications.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Party Time

We're working a private party tonight. A 50th anniversary at a private home. The couple saw us in a night club. I'll be taking Aunt Sally and Uncle Sweeter Dabney, who is all decked out here in his party duds.

When I was building Uncle Sweeter I said I wanted a checkered jacket for him. The jacket and bow tie in this picture came in a package from fellow ventriloquist and figure builder, Larry LaFontsee. Thanks, Larry.

My wife Judy did the alterations. She shortened the sleeves, made the slit in the back, and made a special slit for his left arm and hand control.

He just needs to wear that hat. It's hard to keep such a hat on a dummy during a performance, though, so he now has a hatpin going straight through his skull.

Now all he needs are Argyle socks.