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

Saturday, June 30, 2007

What constitutes a pro figure?

Earlier today I tried to post a response on a Forum where figure making was being discussed under the subject, "Conversion Figures." Participants were weighing in with their opinions about whether people ought to sell modified vent dolls and call them pro figures. Some participants even went so far as to state that any figure made from a kit is not a pro figure and neither are figures that employ components not made from scratch by the figuremaker.

My response was automatically rejected by the server with a snide canned message from some entity named ADMIN. I'm not sure why. It looks like an open forum. Perhaps not. Anyway, here is what I tried to say there and will instead say here. Perhaps someone who has permissions there will read this account and pass it on.

(Note: Since I posted this report, the administrator of the forum relented and allowed my message to be posted. He also deleted his rejection message. My thanks to Dan Willinger, the owner of the forum and the one who intervened on my behalf, for this courtesy.)

I guess some of you folks think that Rickie Layne's Velvel wasn't a "pro figure." Guess how Velvel was made.

It doesn't matter what it is made from. To suggest that to quality as a pro figure it has to be made 100% from scratch in the workshop is just plain naive. You just disqualified all the figure heads and hands that Marshall had duplicarved. Chances are very good that Charlie McCarthy himself was a stock Mack head made from a duplicarver master.

We all use components from other places. I recently built two dummy's dummies for a client. Why bother sculpting little hands when Braylu sells perfectly usable casts of Juro hands. And, oh yeah, guess what I made the bodies from. Mustard jars. I guess I should hang my head in shame.

Do you think the McElroys manufactured their own typewriter keys and ping pong balls? Conrad makes control post levers from plastic toothbrushes. He taught me how to use rollers from patio doors for pulleys. Marshall used teakwood chopsticks. He also used commercial doll eyes in some figures.

A figure built from a kit isn't a pro figure only because it started out as a kit? That's simply ridiculous and evinces a complete lack of understanding of what traditional figure making is all about.

Last week I saw and handled Eli, the bumpkin figure that Chuck Poole, one of our CFVA members built from a Brose kit. Yup, he used Apoxie Sculpt to give Eli a facelift. Great sculpture, exquisite paint job, and quiet, smooth mechanics. As nice a pro figure as ever came out of any workshop. Any of you ventriloquists would be proud to have it in your show. (I can't speak for the collectors.)

Paul Winchell used modified Juro Jerry dolls to represent Jerry Mahoney as an infant and smaller boy. Were those not pro figures, not even in the hands of the master?

How about Senor Wences's left hand? "For you easy, for me difficult."

A pro vent figure is any figure that a pro ventroquist wants to use in a pro performance. No more, no less.

But opinions are like, well, you know what they're like. Everybody has one. Except maybe ADMIN.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Project Completed

Today I completed the latest project, Deadeye Albert McNasty and his two dummy's dummies. I showed pictures of Albert and Woody a few days back in the article, “Deadeye Albert and Friend”

Here's Albert with his other friend, Sylvester.

Those are the names I chose for these figures. I need names to talk to them as I build. The client will give them their real names later. But maybe he'll keep these names. We collaborated throughout this project, and those are the names we used. More about that in a minute.

Woody is named after my grandson. Sylvester is named after a local guy whose face inspired the original sculpture that became Woody and Sylvester. Deadeye is named after me. (We share an affliction).

All three get crated up and sent to their new home next week.

This is the kind of project I prefer. I like to design and build figures from scratch. I like them to be original and one-of-a-kind. I want their faces to have enough character to assist in the development of their personalities. I insist on frequent conversations with the client and reviews of photos as designs progress. This procedure involves the client intimately in the design stages. There are no surprises when the product is delivered.

Many figure makers do not work that way. They take your order and, sometime later, deliver your dummy. If it's not from a product line of established characters, you could get a surprise when it shows up.

Years ago, when I was designing computer software systems, I learned this essential lesson:

Get the user involved on the first day and keep him involved for the duration.

The more you involve the user in the research, design, and development of his project, the more likely he is to be satisfied when you deliver it, and the less likely you are to hear, "Gee, I always thought it was going to..."

The other lesson I learned is this one:

The solution to a problem always modifies the problem.

Which means that when a user sees what he can have, it gets him thinking about what more he wants. "Hey, if it can do that, maybe it can do this other thing, too."

Which keeps software developers and dummy builders in business.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


Discussions of the master's craft calls to mind the question, should a dummy look like a puppet or should it look like a real person. Consider these two pictures. The first is of Dexter, my main character. I downloaded the other picture from a current ebay auction only because its the only such figure I've seen from Dexter's generation.

These two figures are unique woodcarved examples of Tim Selberg's early work. Dexter was carved in 1987; the little girl was carved in 1990. Both are exquisite carvings with precision mechanics and realistic features. I can't imagine two nicer ventriloquist figures.

But they don't look like puppets. They look more like people. If you look closely you'll see that their eyes are similar to realistic prosthestic eyes for humans. Their wigs are expensive imports. Their teeth are individually carved and look like real teeth. Their tongues have texture like a human tongue. Dexter's eyebrows are carved with fine details. Their ears have the carved features of human ears. They even have false eyelashes. (Dexter doesn't have them any more, though. I removed them. He looked too delicate in them.)

I have heard Selberg's work criticized because his figures are too realistic. But what's wrong with that?

I perform regularly with Dexter. No one from an audience has ever complained that he doesn't look like a puppet.

Now consider this lady, my own Aunt Sally.

Aunt Sally looks like a puppet. She does not look like a real person. (Well, actually, she does remind me of a lady who works at the veterinarian's.) She's not exquisitely carved, her eyes are not realistic, her hair is a Halloween costume wig, her eyebrows are painted on. Her teeth are sculpted, but don't look real. Her ears, if you could see them, are only suggestions of ears, Marshall-style. No eyelashes, either. Aunt Sally is a traditional ventriloquist dummy, and I perform with her regularly.

But no one from an audience has ever complained that she looks too much like a puppet.

Finally, look at this guy, the one in the hat.

That's Renfield in his strait jacket. I'm not sure what he looks like.

The Making of a Master

Another blog related to ventriloquist figures includes a discussion about what constitutes a "master" ventriloquist figure builder. I've given it a lot of thought lately and think to ask that question, you must put it in a context related to a specific timeframe.

Newer artforms mature. I don't believe classical music or painting have advanced much in the past few centuries, but newer artforms certainly have. Jazz music, for example, grew a lot in the past century. There are far better trumpet players now, for example, than Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. They are considered masters of their art not because their playing has never been equalled—on the contrary, it has been bypassed—but because they were innovators who pioneered a new art form. Likewise cinema is certainly better now than in the days of those venerated masters, D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, not only because of newer technology, but because the artform has matured and is delivered to a far more sophisticated audience.

After artforms mature and the masses embrace them, the artforms decline. Thus from Rembrandt we get Andy Warhol and from Charlie Parker we get Kenny G. Because once a form has achieved its pinnacle and can no longer improve, it must still change; each new generation rejects the choices made by its forebears.

Ventriloquist figure making as we know it started with the generation of Theo and Charles Mack and, later, Frank Marshall. Where is the artform today? In my view, it's at its pinnacle. Figure makers today are making exquisite sculptures that are light, durable, and that have a lot of character. Placed next to a Mack or Marshall, these figures would be, in the eyes of someone not interested in antiquity, far superior in their sculptures, their mechanics, and their paint jobs.

Much is made of the paint work of Marshall and the ability of Guyll to reproduce it. Yet when Jimmy Nelson discussed Danny O'Day, he says that the annual Guyll restorations of Danny barely resemble Danny's original Marshall paint job, because Danny was designed for different lighting conditions than we encounter today—harsh stage lighting and monochrome television. Jimmy says Danny's paint job looked very much like the greasepaint makeup of a stage actor of those times. As did Jimmy's face when they made him up to go on television.

Today, Danny looks much more natural because he appears often in natural lighting.

So, is Mashall a master and Guyll not? By today's performance standards you'd reject an original Marshall paint job. Yet he is still the master, not because his work compares favorably with contemporary artists but because he and his generation pioneered the artform as we know it today, making today's ventriloquist figures possible. And his artistic descendents, Ray Guyll, Tim Selberg, and Conrad Hartz take the artform farther, and are themselves master builders of ventriloquist figures.

How about the argument that you cannot be a master unless you do it all in house. That is at best a specious argument advanced merely to dismiss the work of contemporary artists and distance them from the old masters.

Nothing is ever built from scratch. You don't grow your own Linden trees or pick and spin your own cotton.

Marshall may have made some of his own eyes, but he used commercial doll eyes, too. I wonder where he got the wooden spheres and irises for the eyes he did build.

Marshall also employed the services of a duplicarver operator to make heads and hands. Remove a Marshall hand and look at its base. Chances are you'll find the mounting hole for a duplicarver platform.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Stage Fright

Stage fright is formally called “performance anxiety.” If you get stage fright, it usually comes before performances and auditions. It is a natural state of being, the fear that things will go badly and your audience will not approve. Performers do not usually have stage fright during rehearsals, which closely relates anxiety to the presence of an audience, which closely relates stage fright to the need for approval and a fear of rejection.

Stage fright usually starts sometime before a performance and grows in intensity until just before the performance begins, just before you go onstage. It can range from simple jitters to something approaching an extreme anxiety attack including cold sweats and vomiting. Its symptoms usually vanish once you are in front of the audience and the act is underway.

Stage fright is a nagging fear that the act will bomb. Something will go wrong. You will forget your lines. The sound system or lights will fail. Your props won't be where they ought to be or they will malfunction. The band will be too drunk to play. The dummy's string will break. The audience will not laugh. The audience will boo. They will throw vegetables. Or, in the case of an audition, the director will have you thrown out of the theater and will blacklist you from show business forever.
These things almost never happen. Except for the part about the band.

Stage fright manifests itself in many ways. Your stomach is nervous and you can't eat. Your mind races and you run through your lines over and over and worry about the act. Your hands sweat. They shake. You can't talk intelligently; you stammer and babble nonsense whenever you try to speak. You hurl your most recent meal.
Performers at all levels of fame and experience have stage fright.

Some performers, famous and otherwise, never have stage fright. Those who do tend to disbelieve those who do not when they say so. It becomes a matter of concern because if you suffer from stage fright, you might feel somehow inferior to a performer who does not get it. You feel like they are putting you down when they tell you smugly that they never have stage fright. Consequently, you often hear performers who suffer from stage fright insist that someone who does not is not a true performer, lacks the passion, is not among the best, and they cite examples of famous personalities who are known to endure something close to a nervous breakdown before every performance.

There is, however, no correlation between the quality of someone's performance and the degree to which they have stage fright.

What can you do about stage fright? If you have it, learn to live with it. In most cases the fear subsides when you begin your show. Things are underway and you are doing what you know how to do and the audience is reacting the way you'd expect them to. If you are well prepared and ready to go on, stage fright takes a back seat to the business of doing your show and entertaining the people.

Keep in mind that the audience is there to be entertained. They want you to succeed. They want to like you. If you make a mistake, they are on your side. The last thing they want is to see you drop your dummy and run crying from the stage, humiliated and ashamed. Your success is their pleasure. Your failure is their discomfort. They do not want to be embarrassed for you. They want everything to go well, and they graciously overlook small things that do not go well as long as most of the act is presented well and entertaining.

Unless they are a really tough, hostile audience.

Perhaps you can deliver speeches and presentations to large groups with no stage fright whatsoever, yet suffer from extreme jitters if you have to do something unfamiliar in front of a crowd, particularly something as complex as ventriloquism. This contradiction simply means that you are apprehensive about your ability to do well with the new activity and not that you suffer from congenital performance anxiety. You will get over your stage fright when you gain confidence in your ventriloquial skills.

Here's an old trick taught by public speaking teachers. Just before you go on, take a peek at the audience. Look at several people individually. Try to imagine who they are and what they do. Get to know them in your mind. Then, when you regard the audience, it's as if you are looking at old friends.

Here's another trick. Choose one or two people in the audience who appeal to you. Pick a pretty girl or a mischievous looking old guy. Play to that person. Try to amuse, impress, and entertain that person. Watch for that person's reaction. If he or she isn't reacting positively, choose another member of the audience and switch your focus to that person.

Here's yet another old trick. I don't know whether it works, but it is often mentioned. Look at the audience. Imagine them all naked. That makes them human and unworthy of your fear. No one can be intimidated by a bunch of naked people.

Just be reassured that if you have stage fright, it usually goes away as soon as your show begins. So, while you await your entrance, go ahead and sweat, shake, vomit, wet your pants, whatever. Then, when you hear your cue, go onstage and break a leg.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Continuing Saga of Mike McGuire

In three articles last month, The Reincarnation of Mike McGuire, A Counterfeit Dummy, and Mike McGuire: Tossing Out Most of Him, I told the story of my first ventriloquist dummy and how I am about to bring him back to life as a full-sized figure.

Mike is finished now, except for his costume. Here he is wearing Dexter's tuxedo.

He kind of resembles Jerry Mahoney, doesn't he. That's no accident.

I longed for such a figure exactly like this one when I was a kid. It had to have moving eyes, it had to look something like Jerry Mahoney, and it had to have blue eyes.

What's that? Blue eyes? Jerry Mahoney didn't have blue eyes. Neither did the two Juro Jerries that were versions 1 and 2 of Mike McGuire so many years ago. But everyone else in my family, both parents and my four brothers and I, all had blue eyes. As did my grandmother after whom Mike is named.

I never figured out how to change Mike's eye color without messing him up when I was a kid, so he kept those painted-on brown eyes. But I never stopped wishing for the real, professional, blue-eyed edition.

Now the kid's dream is an adult's reality. Mike McGuire lives again. But there are problems. He sounds just like Dexter and doesn't know any jokes of his own.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Eye to Eye

Friend and master figure maker Conrad Hartz tells me that Frank Marshall did indeed use pale gray eyes in some of his figures and that he often installed ill-fitting eyes, where the eye sockets and the eyeballs are not the same spherical shape. Conrad would know, for sure.

So my speculative assumption that Rickie-Tik's glass eyes might not be original equipment has less basis in fact than I thought. Chances are better now that Marshall installed the gray eyes when the figure was new. I do not understand why he used such fragile eyes. Perhaps he had them in inventory and wanted to keep costs down. They would not have survived a fall or a bump into a sharp object.

Would I do the same knowing that the subject would arouse controversy?

"Wouldn't I?"

Saturday, June 02, 2007

DeadEye Albert and Friend

The past several months I've been working on a project that is almost finished. The client asked for a nasty old man. The old man needed to be really unique. The client left the details and design up to me. I decided that old fellow ought to have the following:

  1. Moving eye
  2. Raising and lowering eyebrow
  3. Winker

Wait a minute. Eye? Eyebrow? Winker and not blinkers? Doesn't this guy have two eyes? Yes he does, but one of them is dead, just like his creator, me. The irony in this feature is that I decided on it and had it designed and partially implemented when some power greater than my own decided to turn off one of my lamps. Coincidentally, I lost the right eye, the same one old Albert can't use.

So, here is the figure I nicknamed—so I could address him as I built him—Deadeye Albert McNasty.

He has some other features, too. He spits from between his front teeth, sticks his tongue out, and blows smoke out of his ears. He can spit with his mouth open or closed and with his tongue in or out.

About that tongue: I discussed its mechanism in two earlier articles, Tongue-Tied and Tongue Twister

Two main features of the tongue are that it looks like a real tongue instead of a popsickle stick painted red, and it can remain extended even when your hands are off the controls, a necessary feature if his manipulator wants him to stick his tongue out and frown or spit or blink or... a ventriloquist. Meet Albert and Woody.

That's right, Deadeye Albert is himself a ventriloquist. His dummy can be placed on his lap during a performance, so the real ventriloquist doesn't need to make an entrance with the little guy already installed. And the dummy's dummy moves not only his jaw, but his head and eyes, too.

Why so much detail? Because someone told me it couldn't be done is why.

The project is not quite finished, however. There's still a second dummy's dummy to build, which I can do much faster now that the prototype is completed and works so well.

By the way, I could not have done this project without the able assistance of my good friend and colleague, John Parisi, the president of the Central Florida Ventrloquist's Association, and an enthusiastic and dedicated figure builder.