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, July 23, 2007

A Post-Convention Post

Convention 2007 was a hit. Mere words cannot do this event justice. Besides, all the mere words have been said on the vent lists and in countless blogs. So, instead of repeating all the mere words, I offer here only a few of the highlights from my personal perspective.

  • Bill DeMar's rise out of the ashes of retirement to entertain us as opening act for the Saturday Night Show. He did his ticklish frog and his signature tape-on-the-mouth routines that no one can figure out.
  • Trying in vain to repair Bill's Chuck Norwood in time for the Saturday Night show. He'd sprung a spring. His mechanical parts were what can only be described as a Rube Goldberg contraption. Much of it wound up on the floor when we tried to get the sprung spring to come out. It needed a complete overhaul and I had neither tools nor supplies. We had chewing gum, paper clips, rubber bands, and I don't know whatall, but nothing to work with. I'd have given anything for a simple pair of needlenose pliers and some sidecutters.

    Another figure maker, Lee Dunn, who I never got to meet, had his tool kit with him and volunteered to fix the problem sufficiently to get Bill through the show. They tell me he was up with it until the wee small hours. He did not charge Bill anything. A very kind man, indeed. Typical of the unsung heroes of our profession.
  • Lisa Sweasy's thirty-year retrospective of the Vent Haven museum.
  • Jimmy Nelson being there and just being Jimmy Nelson.
  • Mark James' skillful handling of a tricky vent mask that wouldn't stay on the volunteer's head. Mark made it look like part of the show and very funny it was.
  • All the camera crews, directors and interviewers. Somebody out there is taking notice of this art.
  • Amanda Cowles' skillful puppetry during husband Tim's show. Amanda stole the show.
  • The kids of Junior Open Mic. They were all wonderful. Peter Michaels, Jr. walked away with that show. He is seven years old and is already a polished entertainer and skillful ventriloquist. Peter sang with perfect intonation, too, something that you rarely hear from someone that young—and many who are a lot older—and something that can make or break a musical presentation.
  • The auction. They auctioned off a private tour of Vent Haven with Lisa Sweasy and Jeff Dunham as tourguides. We had the volunteer services of a professional auctioneer to run the event. The bidding was down to two bidders with the highest bid at $2500 and the next highest bid at $2450, when an amazing thing happened. Jeff Dunham stopped the bidding and announced that both bidders were winners. In one stroke of brilliance he converted what might have been $2500 for the museum to $4950.
  • The new look at Vent Haven museum. A much-improved layout and display format in the building that houses Charlie, Mort, Effie, Jerry, Knuck, Danny, Elmer, Walter, and many other famous figures.
  • The official hospitality room. I didn't know what to expect. I quit drinking since last year and wondered if it would be as much fun. It was, except that I didn't stay up as late every night, so I probably missed a lot.
  • The fun I had hanging with so many old and new friends.
  • My RV expedition with the ever-patient RV copilot and navigator, John Parisi, who put up with not being allowed to smoke, endless hours on the road with nothing to do, a highspeed blowout on I-95 in the passing lane, and another one while he, the emergency repair guy and I were standing immediately in front of the offending tire. John got his shirt nearly ripped off by flying rubber. We never knew how well he can dance.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Never Again a Collector

In 1998, I reentered the field of ventriloquism after a 50 year self-imposed hiatus. My notion was to pursue it as a hobby and build a collection.

I wanted a few pro figures, and I wanted pristine examples of the Juro doll and headstick Jerry Mahoneys I had as a kid.

I became an ebay addict. At the time I was a working author and columnist of some prominence, and money was not an issue. I spent way too much money on figures, be they antique, contemporary, pro figures or the dolls of my youth.

But I didn't perform.

But I did learn a lot about how figures are built. And I began to build and rebuild figures.

I entertained the notion of owning one figure made by every prominent figure maker, dead or alive, and I set out to fulfil that goal. I had figures by Lovik, Selberg, Hartz, Layne, Guyll, Marshall, and I forget who else.

Before achieving my goal, I changed it. I decided to have in my collection one replica of each famous dummy from the so-called "golden era." I already had a Jerry Mahoney replica made by Jerry Layne. Later I added an early one made by Ray Guyll that Winchell himself handled. There are no official replicas of Charlie McCarthy, so I bought an unofficial one, which needed an overhaul, which I did. One of my favorites as a kid was Elmer Sneezeweed, but no one was making a replica. I took pictures of the one in Vent Haven and collected all the pictures I could find of the other one, and made my own Elmer. The following replicas remained on my list to either build or acquire:

  • Knuck
  • Mortimer
  • Effie
  • Danny O'Day
  • Velvel

Then one year I was at the convention trying to sell from a dealer's table Renfield, a figure I'd made. Nobody wanted him because he was a mental patient in a strait jacket. Too ugly. So I signed up for general open mic, wrote a script, and got up there to show his potential. For the first time in a half century I performed as a ventriloquist. The next day someone bought the figure, and several others asked about it. Sometimes you just have to get their attention.

That performance was fun. I decided to start doing it again.

I came home and looked at my collection. What do I need these for, I wondered. I can't perform with the toys or replicas. Most of the others were typical cheeky boys—not quite the kind of characters I wanted for performances. My one performing success had been with an unconventional figure of my own making. That, I reasoned, is the way to go.

I had tried to sell, too, a woodcarved one-of-a-kind Selberg from my collection. No one wanted to pay the price. So he came home. I named him Dexter, got him a saxophone, and incorporated him into my music show. I built and added Aunt Sally and Uncle Sweeter some time after that. I had an ensemble cast.

The point of all this rambling is to explain why, one by one, I sold the figures from my collection. I realized that all they are good for is to look at. I got tired of looking at them. They occupied space I need for other things. Having retired from writing, too, I can use the money. Not, I hope, to buy more figures.

I realized then that I am not a collector. Not a good one, that is. If I can't use it, I don't want it. So I liquidated my collection.

And if I do get a great idea for a new character, I'll build it myself. Unless something with which I cannot live just happens to come my way, that is.

It's a sickness.

"Hi, everybody, my name is Al, and I collect ventriloquist dummies. It's been two months since my last purchase."
"Hi, Al!"

Sometimes it takes such a journey to find yourself. Even when you are redefining yourself. With luck, you live long enough to get it done.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Mike's New (to him) Duds

Mike McGuire has been wearing Dexter's tuxedo and looking uncomfortable. Actually I just got tired of looking at him that way. So I rummaged around in the clothes bin and found the following outfit, which seems to suit him better (pun intended). He's getting closer to being the ventriloquist dummy I wanted when I was a kid.

(I wonder if you ever get just exactly what you wanted. And when you do, what is there left to wish for?)

Monday, July 02, 2007

Conventional Mindset

I am getting ready for the annual VentHaven ventriloquist's convention in a couple of weeks. This year's preparation is more complicated than in previous years.

One year I shared a dealer's table with Lee Cornell. I had some figures and other vent-related stuff to sell. I might do that again some day, but not this year; I don't like being tied to a table and not able to cruise the rest of the show.

Mostly all I had to think about in years past when I wasn't a dealer was what dummy to take and whether I would perform. If yes, then I had to think about material. What parts of what shows would I do? You get only six minutes on an open mic session. And you have to keep it clean. My stuff is mostly for adults. I have been able to find six minutes of clean material in my one hour show, but it's a challenge. There's another question: Do I want to use my best clean jokes there?

Even though this is the largest gathering of ventriloquists in the world, believe it or not you don't get to see all the best ventriloquist shows. You get to see some of the best ventriloquists, but they don't usually expose their best material to their contemporaries. Too many pencils waggling out there in the audience.

I've been working up a dialogue that one can perform only to an audience of ventriloquists. It has only inside jokes that non-vents wouldn't understand. You aren't going to steal that routine. The convention is the only venue where it would work, and everyone would know where you got it.

Dummy: How many ventriloquists does it take to change a light bulb?
Vent: I don't know, how many?
Dummy: About 75. One to change the light bulb and 74 to write down how he did it.

This year's preparation is more work though. I'm hosting a workshop titled, "Music In Ventriloquism," and the preparation for that workshop has kept me busy for some time now. I'll use a slide show and lots of musical examples to demonstrate the techniques I teach.

My workshop explains how to effectively incorporate music into your show. I am able to address this subject because I am a professional musician, operate a small recording studio, and keep up on all the latest music performace related gadgets, software, and resources.

I won't teach you how to sing. But I will explain why (1) you don't need to know how, and (2) you probably already know how even if you think you can't carry a tune.

I have wanted to teach this workshop for several years because our art needs it. The typical ventriloquist who uses music needs to know how, and many of us do not. That is evident in some of the shows I see at the convention.

So, plan to be there. We'll make beautiful music together.

The Professional Figure

Let's carry this discussion a little further and try to define a so-called "pro figure." Let's consider only hard figures, and, to keep from getting too far afield, let's consider only people puppets, leaving out animals, plants, aliens, and other anthropomorphic inanimate objects.

Things not to consider:

  1. Who made it (established figuremaker, hobbyist, newbie, oldtimer, master, etc.).
  2. What it's made of (wood, resin, composite, paper mache, fiberglass, etc.)
  3. How it started out (doll, kit, from scratch, etc.).
  4. What its component parts comprise (ping pong balls, paper hangers, etc.).
  5. The origin of the sculpture itself (copy, replica or original).
  6. How it's used. It matters not whether its owner is a ventriloquist, puppeteer, figure maker, collector, curator, dealer, amateur or professional performer, dilettante, and so on.

So, having said what not to consider, what may we consider? Okay, I have this vent figure I want to sell on ebay. May I or may I not call it a "pro figure?" Inquiring minds, and all that. We strive to identify what item, by its physical description, qualifies to be called a "pro figure," without being challenged by self-proclaimed authorities (such as yours truly) who purport to know about such things.

When we started tinkering with "artificial intelligence" in the old days, a guideline was that if an onlooker cannot tell whether he is dealing with a human being or a machine, the implementation of artificial intellince is effective. To employ a similar guideline, the rule is, if you cannot tell how it was made and what it is made from by looking at it, a "pro figure" stands on its own merit.

Okay, given all the above, define for me a "pro figure." Or tell me that my guideline is too constraining. Or otherwise tell me what you think about all this.

Since this blog does not enable comments, you may send your responses by email. Click this link.

Al's Email

I will publish later the results of this unscientific poll, assuming there are any.