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, May 31, 2007

The Eyes Have It

A figure-making associate asks why I put wooden eyes in a Rickie-Tik that originally had glass eyes.

He read somewhere that doing things like that—installing non-original equipment—reduces the value of an antique as a collectible. There is truth in that. But only to an extent when it comes to ventriloquist dummies.

As I reported earlier, the pale gray glass eyes I removed may not be original; they don't fit the eye sockets. The eyes are oval, a common shape for doll eyes, and the sockets are cut to accept spheres. Those ovals just didn't fit. Plus, the restored Rickie-Tik looked sickly with those gray eyes.

But maybe they are original. Maybe Marshall had only oval gray eyes in his inventory and the customer wanted gray eyes.

But maybe again they aren't original. Maybe the original brown eyes were too stark against the glossy white clown makeup, and whoever modified him simply changed the eyes. Or the live clown upon whom which the figure was based had gray eyes. Or an eye broke in a fall and gray was the only color the repairman had.

But any of these scenarios or even something we haven't thought of could be the real story. We'll never know.

Another clue that maybe someone replaced the original eyes: The texture of plastic wood filler that held them in place looked newer than wood filler I found in other parts of the head.

All that notwithstanding, Ricky-Tik now has brown eyes. Just like new. They are indeed wooden, which makes them less likely to break. This is a working figure, not a museum piece. It will see service as a ventriloquist's partner, not sitting on a shelf only to be admired and never again to speak. Delicate is the last quality you want in a working dummy, vintage or otherwise.

This issue reminds me of one that comes up among collectors and restorers of antique automobiles. Purists express horror when a pragmatist installs shatterproof window glass and sealed-beam headlights into a vintage car. How could they do that? And why? Because they want to drive the old car is why.

But do wooden eyes really reduce the value of a vintage figure? Not really. Some Rickie-Tiks had original wooden eyes. One Marshall brochure advertises glass eyes, but other literature doesn't mention them. Such as this ad:

For a few extra bucks, you could have optional moving eyes, which would not likely be installed with glass eyes. Just try drilling a hole through a light bulb.

It's not like the replacement eyes are welded in the head and impossible to replace. If this figure with durable wooden eyes ever finds its way into a private collection, a quick trip to the workshop restores the eyes to glass. Pop those offending wooden eyes out, and insert proper glass ones. Value restored. One simple procedure and the purists, the obsessed, and even the anal retentive can relax. It's not difficult. Even a collector could do it.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ray Guyll's Acrylic-On-Oil Formula

You can't apply acrylic paint on a surface that was previously painted with oil paint. If you try, the new paint does not adhere. It just peels off. Many old ventriloquist figures were painted in oils, which means to repaint one, you must either use oil paints or completely strip the oil paint.

Figure maker Ray Guyll invented a formula that addresses that problem. He sent me some to try, and I used it on Rickie-Tik. According to Ray's instructions, I painted a thin layer of his formula onto the surface and let it dry, which took less than an hour. Then I applied a base coat of white acrylic paint over that. After that, I did a normal acrylic paint job.

Thanks, Ray, for a wonderful solution to an old problem. This process saves hours of sanding and stripping during a typical vintage hard figure restoration.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Out of the Closet, Clown

This guy showed up in my workshop a few weeks back. His owner asked me to remove the clown makeup and restore him to his former self, whatever that was. A peek inside the mouth at a stapled-in business card revealed that he is a Frank Marshall figure. According to the seller, a previous owner repainted the figure as a clown some many years ago.

Opening his head, we discovered that the figure is a Frank Marshall Rickie-Tik built in 1952. That's what is written in pencil under the card.

This was a significant discovery. The new owner had wanted one of these when he was a boy. But the $125 price was too high according to his parents. Here's the brochure that Marshall sent out.

(Click the brochure for a larger display.)

Opening the head revealed that Marhsall's original jaw pulley had long ago given way to the pressure of the strong jaw spring and come out. Someone had replaced it with a homemade pulley contrived of a dowel and two nails. The original string was frayed. The glass eyes, which may or may not be original, were held in place with Plastic Wood and one of them was off center.

I removed all the innards and took out the eyes. I found out why the little guy was crosseyed. When repainting the head, the painter slopped paint on the whites of the eyes. Instead of removing and cleaning them, he simply shifted the eyes' rotations to hide the paint.

Those glass eyes are fragile like a light bulb. One of them shattered during the cleanup process. The owner preferred brown eyes anyway, so I studied pictures of other Rickie-Tiks, and installed suitable brown eyes. The glass eyes were oval and didn't fit well. But 1.25" wooden spheres fit perfectly in the eye sockets, which makes me wonder whether those particular glass eyes were original.

I removed the dowel pulley and installed a metal pulley where the original one had been, but with much better support than Marshall had used. This one won't come loose. A new nylon string the same thickness as the original will last for another half century at least.

I stripped the white paint from the head and hands revealing the original flesh tone, which had soaked deeply in the wood years ago but which was now marred by the stripping and sanding process. It was oil paint. Acrylic paint will not adhere over oils. I used a special acrylic-on-oil formula, which the great figure maker Ray Guyll invented. It worked fine.

I studied pictures of Rickie-Tiks from my collection and from pictures provided by other owners. Marshall used various styles for painting eyeshadow, blush, lip shapes, and eyebrow width and placement. I chose the style I liked best, one that seems to be most like the picture in the brochure. Matching the original flesh tone was made easy for me. Marshall spilled some drops inside the head next to his card.

Finding the wig was next. The clown was bald. Monique Trading Corporation has a line of inexpensive doll wigs, and I was able to find one that with a haircut looks much like the wig in the Marshall brochure.

Here's the finished head.

The owner is having a suit made like the one in the brochure. A carefully-restored figure, Rickie-Tik is not destined to sit motionless and silent forevermore in some private collection or in a museum. That was not his destiny. No, he now goes into service as one of the partners of a professional ventriloquist entertaining children by using the dummy he has wanted since he was a little boy.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Mike McGuire: Tossing Out Most of Him

So now I have a dummy that can't do anything. No, I'm not referring to in the White House; it's in my workshop.

First thing to go is the body, which I gave to a friend. He's building a figure and hadn't started the body yet. It has the older style Brose hands. I don't use them since Mike came out with his new relaxed pose hands, which I prefer. But Mike will have a genuine Hartz body. Dexter has to give up his spare tuxedo clad body.

Second on the list of things to discard are the eyes. After repainting the eyeballs—you'll recall from my previous post that the builder got eye ridge paint on them—I realized that the axle holes are two different sizes and one of them is way off center, which means the eye wobbles when it rotates. You can tell the builder was having trouble, because the eyes have multiple axle holes. I guess he got it as close as he could. I threw the eyes in the parts bin for the next time I make a figure with fixed (non-moving) eyes.

Mike McGuire has to have moving eyes. Neither of the Juro Jerries/Mikes I had as a boy had moving eyes, and I really wanted that movement. To me, moving eyes meant it was a pro dummy, because Jerry Mahoney had moving eyes. Needless to say, I wasn't a big Bergen fan when I was a kid. That guy moved his lips, for Pete's sake.

Third thing out the window is the paint job. The jaw axle was poking through the cheek right where blush blends with flesh tone. It is easier to repaint the whole thing than to try to match that up. Besides, I don't like purple lips on a dummy. It looks like it's been in the swimming pool too long.

Here's where I am now, ready to begin the rebuild.

We're down to just a head shell, trapdoor and jaw. Everything else gets replaced.

Which reminds me; the last thing to go is the headstick. Its levers are poorly designed and installed, and it offends me anyway. It has that forged Winchell autograph. I don't know whether you can see it in this picture, but it's on there.

The headstick doesn't go in the dumpster, though. I'll use it to mix paint or something.

I'll build Mike, and he will occupy a permanent place in my studio, never to perform. But I might talk to him from time to time.

I'll update this story as the renovation progresses. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear...

Monday, May 21, 2007

A Counterfeit Dummy

Several years ago a dummy was presented for auction on ebay. The dummy resembled Jerry Mahoney. The seller presented it as a dummy that Paul Winchell made for himself from scratch years ago but never used because it did not look enough like the real Jerry. This claim was reinforced by the appearance of Paul Winchell's name woodburned on the headstick. The forgery is obvious to anyone who has seen Winch's distinctive autograph. A scam was afoot.

It was also obvious that this dummy is an original sculpture made by Conrad Hartz as his Nosey character. But Conrad sculpts only in basswood. This head is cast in fiberglass. Conrad does not make fiberglass heads. Clearly someone had made a mold of one of Conrad's figures and this dummy was a cast made from that mold. Conrad saw this auction, was not pleased, and he notified the seller of the discrepancy. The seller withdrew the auction. Nothing more was heard about this dummy until earlier this year.

One of my clients purchased a Jerry Mahoney lookalike from someone, I do not know who. My client sent the dummy to figuremaker Mike Palma to have the control stick modified so the jaw lever would be under his thumb. Mike did not have time to do the work, so he sent the figure to me. I immediately recognized the figure's head as the counterfeit Jerry Mahoney with the forged Winchell signature.

The head was sitting on a badly made body (two pieces of board and some dowels) with very skinny appendages and Brose hands. It also had a badly butchered Henri Margu child's wig. The wig broke my heart. It is the same wig that Dexter, my woodcarved Selberg original, wears, originally very expensive, and no longer in production. This wig would have been a nice backup for Dexter. But someone chopped off its sideburns and made it useless for Dexter.

The dummy's controls were junk. The jaw worked okay, but had a really loud click when opening and closing. The eyes moved in only one direction and only for a limited travel. Later when I disassembled him I learned why. The figure maker got paint on the eyeballs when he painted the eye's ridges. So, instead of removing the eyes and cleaning them, he simply limited their motion so the paint wouldn't show.

Interestingly, the fiberglass cast and the paint job were rather nice, but the brass jaw axle had penetrated the cheek and was sticking out the side.

I notified my client that he owned not only a piece of junk, but a counterfeit dummy. He is a prominent ventriloquist. We agreed that he should not perform with something with such questionable origins if only to protect his image and reputation. I also told him that I had an ethical problem with working on it. Its very existence infringes the copyright held by Conrad Hartz, a colleague, friend, and all around good guy.

My client was in a quandry. He had paid good money for something he could not use. I was working on a project for him. We agreed that he would give me the bogus Jerry in exchange for the work.

Now the guandry is mine. I can't use the damn dummy either. I called Conrad and told him about it. We discussed perhaps making copies and jointly selling heads on top of Hartz bodies as a lowcost Hartz tribute figure. I have a Hartz 3T body that is Dexter's when a tuxedo is called for. The phony head fits it perfectly.

Before I could think further about the project, I had my eyesight loss. No way am I going to go into a production business when my ability to produce is compromised this way. So the figure sat neglected in a corner. I gave his body to a friend who is building a Brose kit. He is of no use to me except that I did a good deed by taking a counterfeit off the market.

Here's a video I shot in my studio. The dummy in question is the one in the tux.

He sure reminds me of Mike McGuire, my first character from 50-plus years ago. More to come...

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Reincarnation of Mike McGuire

I'm back.

I've been away while I dealt with this eyesight thing. It is much improved, and I am able to return to the workshop if only at a limited level. Which means I'm able to post an occasional article here about the wonderful and fascinating world of dummy making.

This article, which is the first of a series, is about the reincarnation of my first ventriloquist dummy.

My first dummy was a 24-inch Jerry Mahoney doll with a string in the back of his neck to work his jaw. I got him when I was 12 or 13 years old, some 54 years ago. I modified him to be a headstick model and began performing. His name was Mike McGuire, after my grandmother. My Irish step-grandfather was Walter McGuire, Mac to us kids, and his nickname for Grammy was Mike. Most of the famous ventriloquist dummies of the day had Irish names. Charlie McCarthy, Jerry Mahoney, Danny O'Day. If I was to be famous, I needed to emulate the big guys.

Little Mike was soon replaced by a 32 inch headstick Jerry as my performance schedule demanded a more professional dummy. I still have his head. The original cardboard body and green suit are long gone, although ebay has provided several backups.

When I returned to ventriloquism several years ago, I wanted a professional Mike McGuire. First I got a Jerry Mahoney replica from Jerry Layne. Those are great figures, but they look exactly like Jerry Mahoney. Okay for a collector, but I was thinking about performing.

I then bought a beautiful woodcarved figure from master figuremaker Conrad Hartz. Perfect. At last I had my Mike McGuire again. Here he is.

But this isn't the end of the story. In what must have been a senior moment I sold Mike McGuire several years later. I wasn't using him, and I thought he ought to be in the hands of someone who would. At least that's what I told myself.

You might ask why I didn't use him. Mike McGuire got his performance chops in family venues in the 1950s. Church picnics, Kiwanis variety shows, PTA dinners, high school talent contests. His material was squeaky clean. Now, about a half century later, I perform with Dexter, Uncle Sweeter and Aunt Sally in adult venues with adult material. I could not bring myself to have Mike McGuire saying such things. My sainted Mother would not have approved. Mike languished in a corner in my workshop. And so I sold him.

But whenever I look at his picture hanging over my workbench, I regret that the link to my childhood that he represented is no longer here.

Tune in again soon for the next chapter in this saga, and learn how I found what should turn out to be a perfect next edition of Mike McGuire and why I don't have to perform with him and probably shouldn't.