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

Thursday, November 30, 2006


Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to install in a new figure a realistic extending tongue. Not a painted flat tongue depresser, mind you, but a tongue that looks real in both its positions, lays flat behind the lower teeth when retracted, and moves naturally with the jaw when the figure is speaking. That is to say, the tongue doesn't hover motionless in the mouth when the jaw goes up and down, but moves with the jaw in its relaxed position behind the teeth. Just like a tongue that is sculpted as part of the jaw and does not extend at all.

Furthermore, the tongue must come out without the mouth having to be wide open. People don't open their mouths fully when sticking their tongues out, except maybe for the doctor.

Finally, the tongue must be able to stay out hands off, meaning the ventriloquist doesn't have to hang onto the control. This allows the free manipulation of other controls while the tongue is sticking out.

This has all been done before, of course. I'm just trying to do it again.

What do you think? I've got a start on it. There are several details to work out, particularly with respect to the controls, springs and so on, but here's my first prototype. This picture shows the jaw outside the head with the tongue retracted.

This next picture shows the tongue extended.

Here's the jaw installed with the mouth wide open and the tongue retracted.

And, finally, here's the tongue extended.

As I said, there are more details to work out. I'll post more progress when I have something to show.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Photo Shoot

I'm working on upgrading my website as time allows. I've been studying PHP and CSS to be able to make a more visually and audibly pleasing site. I also wish to use the site to emphasize parts of my entertaining and figure-building career that the present website does not adequately address. And I need professional looking 8x10s for my brochure and promo package.

To those ends, I set up a photo session in my studio. I don't have professional photography equipment. I have only a digital camera. It's a bit bigger than the typical point-and-shoot camera that is popular now, and it has a bigger lens, so I think it will suffice.

The experts say, "Don't do it yourself. Go to a professional theatrical photographer. Would you take out your own appendix?"

Well, my appendix notwithstanding, I'm the kind of guy who likes to try things myself before I spend a lot of money having it done. That's how I becamse a figure-maker in the first place.

For this photo shoot, I used tips I found on the Internet and from friends on making a backdrop, setting up the lighting, and posing the shots.

The backdrop is a large bolt of black cloth hanging from a bookcase. Lighting is three shop lights diffused with scrim. Two lights are in front of the scene at different angles and another one backlights the backdrop from floor level, although you can't really tell looking at the pictures. The studio's overhead florescent lights are turned off. I set my camera's whiteness adjustment according to the manual.

The pictures that follow are from the shoot. I reduced them so they'd fit this blog format nicely, and I added labels that identify the characters I currently use.

Oh, yeah, here's Renfield. I don't perform with him now, but he's the guy that got me back on stage as a ventriloquist after almost a five decade hiatus.

The camera person was my patient—as in long-suffering, not as in having her appendix removed—and enduring wife Judy, who puts up with all my eccentricities. I'll never forget the look on her face about seven years ago when I said, "Honey, I'm going to retire from writing computer books and play music full time. And, oh by the way, I'm going to become a ventriloquist again."

Friday, November 24, 2006

Making a Video - Hello, Dolly

Among my many projects is one to produce a DVD that explains how to build a professional ventriloquist figure by using materials and tools commonly found around
the house. This is a low-priority project. I work on it when more urgent projects are waiting on the bench for something to set up or for something I ordered to arrive.

The introduction to the video will pan around my studio showing various completed dummies that happen to be here.

Panning isn't that easy. I tried hand-holding the camera and walking around, but the result was jerky with a noticeable bump with each step I took. I do not glide gracefully when I walk.

And so I built a camera dolly, a device on wheels that you can pull along a track—in this case a virtual track, not a real one—along the floor while operating the camera.

My dolly uses a hand truck that I use to schlep my sound system and electronic piano. I mounted an old el cheapo camera tripod on a piece of fiberboard and clamped that platform to the dolly as shown here.

The bolts are large threaded hooks. I bent them in a vise to get the proper angle for bolting the tripod legs down. Then I used C-clamps to hold the platform securely on the dolly.

This is what everything looks like to the camera operator.

Here's the first test video. Things are still a little uneven; I'm operating both the dolly and the camera myself. I need to practice and I need a helper to move the dolly so I can concentrate on moving the camera from side to side and up and down more smoothly. The sound you hear is what the camera's microphone picked up. I will
replace that audio with narrative and background music. And, of course, there will be
titles. I also need to set up better lighting and reorganize the scene so it doesn't
look so cluttered and get the kitchen sink out of the movie.

But this is a start.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Dieter-Lee Update and CFVA Meeting

It's been almost a month since I posted. Things have been busy in the workshop and in the studio. I'm building a new figure for a client and writing downsized big band arrangements for a six-piece band for New Year's Eve. Let's start with some happy news.


Susan Watson called me today from England. Big Fred has made some very positive changes in their home. They are, she said, a very happy family.

First, Dieter-Lee's speech has improved significantly since Big Fred arrived. Dieter-Lee is using many more words and making complete sentences far more often than before.

Second, Michael, Dieter-Lee's father, has taken an interest in ventriloquism, too, and he now spends far more time with Dieter-Lee as they study the lessons together. Susan said there's a close bond she hadn't seen before forming between her "very shy" husband and her autistic son.

Central Florida Ventriloquist's Association

Yesterday we met at the home of figure maker and ventriloquist Dan Bratton in New Port Richie on the gulf coast. We were delighted to have as our guest Annie Roberts, who lives in Jacksonville now and who is former curator of Vent Haven. Annie is still active with the museum and manages the content on their website,

Like most of our meetings, this one started out with a theme and progressed to the usual wide variety of discussions about ventriloquism and figure making. I don't think we spent much time at all on the theme, which was hard vs soft figures. I got to show off Uncle Sweeter Dabney. While we were in session, one of Dan's Brose kit figures finished its auction on ebay at just over $300. Bummer. I think the bottom has fallen out of that market.

Like most meetings, we spent a lot of time talking about the next meeting, which, if it works out, will feature Jimmy Nelson as a guest. I'm really looking forward to that. It's not a performance, it's a chance to get Jimmy to talk about the good old days and some of his experiences coming up during the so-called "golden age" of ventriloquism.