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

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.

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