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, August 27, 2007

"Belly Talkers," the Movie

I watched "Belly Talkers" on the Ovation cable network last night. It wasn't really a history of ventriloquism as advertised, but it was fun to watch. The movie was made a little over 10 years ago and features many of my friends in a segment about the convention.

The segment about Tim Selberg begins with him sketching a figure's face as he listens to his answer machine. Some calls were from customers asking when their figure would be delivered. Others were from potential customers begging him to return their calls. During his interview, he was carving a Walter clone. I didn't know Tim made any of the Walters.

The interview with David Copperfield must have been made before it was revealed that the Charlie McCarthy he bought at auction for $100,000 was not the original.

No mention of Jeff Dunham. Lots of exposure for Ronn Lucas. Lucas said that hard figures are too difficult to manipulate effectively. "Just a head on a stick." Lucas's main client base was corporate work then. One clip was at a corporate gig. It showed his routine about talking to his hands, including the veiled reference to another appendage and the relationship between the unidentified appendage and his right hand. I thought corporate shows were supposed to be squeaky clean. Apparently not. It got me wondering where the line is you can't cross.

I don't think I'll watch Ovation network much again. At first the commercials came every seven minutes. At the half-hour mark, that number started to reduce. At the end it was every four minutes. That was really annoying. Particularly since most of the commercials were about other shows coming up on Ovation network. Made me gnash my teeth.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

"McElroy Magic" by Greg Claassen

My copy of Greg Claassen's new book, "McElroy Magic, Building a Replica" arrived in the mail yesterday.

Greg has written a detailed manual of instruction on how to build your own replica of a ventriloquist figure in the style and design of the McElroy brothers.

McElroy figures have a dedicated number of admirers and afficianados. They gather together on The McElroy Brothers Fan Club Yahoo discussion group.

The McElroys didn't make that many figures, and way too many now languish in private collections hidden away from the public. The Vent Haven museum in Ft. Mitchell, KY has several on display. Very few, if any, ventriloquists still perform with original McElroy figures. If you want one, you have to pay a lot of money for an original or a lot of money for a replica. Few figure builders make them, however, and the labor-intensive nature of such a project puts the price way up there. But you can make your own, and that's what this book is about.

Greg's book tells how he first became interested in ventriloquism, figure making and McElroy figures in particular. He has made six replicas so far. The book conveys to figure builders what Greg learned over the years about the mechanical marvels that are McElroys and how to build and install them.

You won't learn how to sculpt, paint, dress, or wig a ventriloquist figure in this book. You are expected to already understand those parts of the craft. This book is directed specifically at the mechanics and controls. It inludes detailed explanations of each animation along with precise diagrams and measurements. You learn what tools and materials you need for the project.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in ventriloquist figure building, even if you never plan to make a McElroy replica. You learn lots of things about tools, procedures, mechanics, etc., that you can use in other projects. Besides, it's just plain fun to read.

This book is available directly from Greg. His email address is ventgregc [at] gmail [dot] com. (Convert the [at] and [dot] tokens to their corresponding symbols in your mail program.)

You can also buy the book online from Mike Brose's Puppets and Props website.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

America's Got Talent - A Commentary

Some folks on the vent lists have expressed concern that ventriloquist Terry Fator did musical impressions only and no comedy on America's Got Talent. They should visit his website ( and watch his promotional video. This guy is not new to performing. He's been at it quite a while, and he is very good.

I wish AGT gave more time to the performers and less time to the other stuff. But then, the glitz is probably what keeps viewers tuning in. The time limit didn't allow the teenage girl to sing all of "Over the Rainbow, for example. She skipped to the tag where the bridge goes and finished the tune 16 measures early. A little bit of that Butterscotch lady who makes drum sounds with her mouth goes a long way, though, so I guess the limit is a blessing in disguise.

I wish, too, that the judges were a little more sophisticated when it comes to music. Someone needs to teach that sweet little girl the melody to "Over The Rainbow." I guarantee that if the notes she sang were played instrumentally with no lyrics, you would not recognize the song. She did the same thing to Crazy the week before. In that rendition she sang one very bad note that she repeated twice. I guess when you are 14 going on 22 and drop dead beautiful, you can sing anything you want.

I didn't vote because the guy with the guitar was the best of the four in my opinion. As much as I'd like to see Terry win and give credibility to our art, I thought the other guy blew him away musically and deserves to win. That turtle sure looked like Roy Orbison, though.

(I'll be glad when there are no more ventriloquists on AGT so I can stop watching it and once again avoid Jerry Springer.)

Friday, August 03, 2007

Ventriloquism: Dying? Dead? On the Critical List?

Every now and then ventriloquists bemoan their notion that ventriloquism seems to be a dying art. The subject came up recently on the Worldvents discussion group. My post there was as follows:

“If it's dead it was never born. In the so called "golden era" there were exactly five famous ventriloquists. Bergen, Winchell, Nelson, Wences, Lewis.

“That's it. All the others, good as they might have been, were second tier on the fame scale. Five. Compared to dozens of name big bands, hundreds of pop singers, scores of comedians. Five.

“Today there are that many working Branson alone. Letterman came up with ten.

“Ventriloquism was never a high-volume artform. It's just fine. Let's stop worrying about it and keep it the way it is.”

First lets enumerate some of the postitive things our artform has enjoyed in the past few years:

In no particular order:

  1. Jay Johnson had a one-man Broadway show that featured ventriloquism
  2. Dave Letterman featured ventriloquists every night for a week. It was so well received that he did it a second time.
  3. The big network talent contest shows now routinely feature ventriloquists.
  4. Jeopardy recently used an answer about ventriloquism as its Final Jeopardy item during a Celebrity Jeopardy segment.
  5. Jeff Dunham's DVD is double platinum and another one is about to be released.
  6. Jeff has had two Comedy Central features and was in the top three two years running in their popularity poll.
  7. Branson, Missouri now features several ventriloquists in several theaters.

Does all this signal the resurrection of a dead art? Does it indicate a return to the "golden era?" Does it open the door to ventriloquists for many years to come?

Maybe. Maybe not. It could be a fad. I remember the optimism we musicians felt during the revival of so-called "swing" music several years back. Every town had clubs with neo swing bands. It was a fad. A passing fancy. It went the way of all youth-oriented pop cultures. And it was not a boon to us oldtimers who know how to play the music. They wanted young musicians on the stage singing and jumping around in zoot suits, spats and fedoras. It wasn't about the music. It was about clothes.

But why did the swing revival die? Simple. Young people who dug it got older, and a new generation replaced the fad with whatever music young people listen to these days. It's always been that way; it will always be that way.

The same thing can happen to this apparent revival of interest in ventriloquism. This time next year you might not be able to find a prominent ventriloquist anywhere. Or in two years. Or maybe three. We hope not. But it can happen.

In the meantime, if you are a ventriloquist, enjoy the fad and take advantage of it. Use its current popularity to carve yourself a niche in whatever entertainment marketplace you serve. Your niche will survive long after any national craze withers away.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

A Star is Born

NBC Today broadcast their coverage of the Kentucky ConVENTion this past Saturday. You can watch it here:

NBC Today

More interesting is that one of my clips made it to NewsBusters.

I enjoyed the comments, especially the one about living with my parents. Of course the NewsBusters commenters could not know that:

  • Brian seemed more interested in the visual effect of Dexter's eyes rolling than in the joke itself. He had me do it twice so they would be sure to get it.
  • NBC edited out the real punch line, which follows Dexter's eyes rolling, so NewsBusters' commenters don't really know how the joke goes.
  • The joke is indeed very old as the commenters suggest, but is actually nonpartisan. I've used it since at least the Eisenhower administration and during every one since. It was highly successful here in Florida during the post-election Bush-Gore fracas of 2000.

Especially interesting is that the photo of me shown with the commentary is a still (with a bad aspect ratio) from a scene that was not aired, which seems to indicate that someone at NBC who has access to the original video contributed it to NewsBusters. Hey guys, I have better ones if you want them.

(Followup: Mark Finkelstein, who wrote the piece in NewsBusters, cleared up my question about the picture. He wrote to me, "The picture displayed in my column was aired on 'Today.' It was briefly shown during the 'tease' for your segment at the very beginning of the show.")