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

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Preparing to Replicate Sonny

The first step in replicating a ventriloquist figure's head is to prepare the original head for a mold. Any cracks, screwholes, crevices, and other openings must be filled so the mold material does not flow into them and be difficult to remove.

Sonny's new head is to look just like the original, flaws and all. Which means the seam separating the front and back will be exposed. Rather than trying to fill that seam with something temporary, I decided to mold the halves separately. Here are the head halves and the jaw ready for me to pour a mold.

I taped the eyeholes over with painters masking tape and filled the jaw hole with modeling clay. I put screws in the screw holes and filled some nail holes with Plastic Wood.

Then I poured the mold. Here is the head fully encased in RTV mold-making medium.

The next step adds a mother mold to the three pieces before I remove the original head from the molds. That step must wait for the mold medium to completely set up. I'll report more after I've done that.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Not Far From the Tree

Michael Harrison is a professional ventriloquist who has been working cruise ships. You can read about him at his website by clicking here.

Michael has been working the Disney Magic for several years. The ship docks every Saturday at Port Canaveral, about 10 miles from where I live. Michael contacted me with an amazing story.

Many years ago a Canadian ventriloquist named Frank Merryfield performed under the name “The Cornish Wizard.” That ventriloquist was Michael Harrison's great-grandfather.

Michael never met Merryfield, but he heard stories about him all his life and had pictures such as this one of his great-grandfather performing.

A while ago Michael was visiting a magician friend, Don Robinson, who told him he had something that Michael should probably have. From a trunk in the attic, the uncle pulled out Sonny, the dummy that Merryfield performed with.

Michael took Sonny home and thought about how he could use it in his shows. Sonny's story is compelling, and Michael thought he'd like to do a bit where he tells the story and then introduces Sonny to the audience.

Except that he did not want to expose this personal treasure to the rigors of performing. He did not want to risk its damage or loss. So he decided to have a copy made.

And that's where I came in.

Michael brought Sonny's head to my workshop disassembled. Here's what I got:

We discussed the various options and agreed that I will build a new body and make a replica of the head. Michael will perform with the replica and the original can stay at home safely in storage.

Sonny should look about the way he looks now. But it's difficult to see what a dummy looks like based on a grainy old snapshot and a pile of parts. So, my first job was to put the parts together and see what we have. Here he is.

Guess what? He works!

His jaw mechanics are unlike anything I've seen with a complex linkage made of a stiff spring and two moving lengths of stiff coat hangar wire twisted to form a lever action. It looks like the work of someone who has never seen the insides of professsional ventriloquist dummy. My guess is that Merryfield either made the dummy himself or had it made. Of course, given the times, it could have come from nearly anywhere. He might have found it in a pawn shop. Who knows? I am not an expert on vintage ventriloquist dummies. Perhaps an expert out there can shed some light on the mystery.

In the meantime, this little guy named Sonny is mounted on the workbench and about to get a twin brother.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Replicating a Legend

Over a year ago I took on the project of restoring a Frank Marshall Ricky-Tik figure for a ventriloquist client. This particular Ricky had been repainted with clown makeup. The client wanted the clown to look like the little boy looked when the figure was new.

You can read the article about that project by clicking here.

Ricky-Tiks are small figures. They stand about 36" tall with heads and hands about three-quarters the size of a traditional professional hard figure. The one I restored has fixed eyes. It is the ideal size for young ventriloquists who can be overwhelmed by a full-sized dummy, for professionals to use in walkarounds because of their light weight, and in those situations where very small children might be intimidated by a bigger dummy.

Here is a picture of the restored Ricky-Tik.

Through an agreement with the client, I made molds of the figure's head and hands with the objective of eventually making a limited number of reproductions.

(If you want one, contact me through my website at

Observe that the restored figure is dressed in a suit based on the style that Marshall used in his advertisements.

The client had the suit custom made from the photos so his Ricky-Tik would be authentic. He shared the pattern with me so that I can have copies made.

Here are the molds I made.

The hand molds suffice for the project, but the head mold does not. It is a two-part mold that reflects things I had to do to the original head to permit making a mold. For example, you have to tape closed all openings, such as around the eyeballs, the jaw slots, and so on. Otherwise the mold material flows inside those openings and makes a mess. Consequently, the molds show signs of masking tape outlines and do not adequately reflect the eye openings.

Also, it is a two-part mold, which means the two halves of a cast must be fit together and the seams filled in and finished. To make it harder, a typical face mold is made with the jaw installed. Which means every cast made from that mold needs its jaw cut out, a jaw casket assembled, teeth and tongue added, axle fitted and aligned, and so on.

Using such a mold, a figure maker (me) does a lot of finish work on each cast head to make it useable. I wanted to minimize those repetitious parts of head-making. So I inserted another step into the dummy-making process.

I made a finished, working cast of the head with moving jaw and fixed eyes. This cast will never actually be an operational dummy. Its purpose is to be a master model for making molds from which I can cast heads that are easier to assemble and finish.

After ensuring that the jaw fits and moves precisely, I removed it and closed the jaw opening to accomodate making the mold. Otherwise the head would get filled with mold-making material.

Here's the cast master model head.

Observe the eyes. They are wooden spheres drilled to accept irises and sealed around the eye holes. The eyeballs themselves will be part of the cast head. I will simply glue the irises into place. This approach saves a lot of time on each head assembly. No eyeholes to cut and finish on the face, no eyeballs to drill and fit into the head.

Here's the cast master model in profile.

You'll see what seem to be two small holes, one on the cheek and behind and the other below the ear. These were holes when the master model was operational. They hold the jaw axle and jaw control pulley axle. But they aren't holes now. They're filled in from the inside. They are guide holes to show me where to drill holes in the working casts.

Here's a picture of the jaw master model. I'll make a mold of it and make multiple casts. It also has guide holes for the axle.

Now for what kids call "the beauty part." Assembling a replica is simplified from the usual dummy-making project. I got my inspiration from the Juro headstick Jerry Mahoneys that so many of us used to learn ventriloquism.

Everything that goes inside the head is installed through the jaw hole in the face. The headstick is installed through a hole in the bottom of the neck. The headstick has a spring that connects to the post on the back of the jaw to hold the mouth closed. The jaw string feeds up behind the jaw control axle and connects to the bottom rear of the jaw to open the mouth.

If everything goes according to plan—that is if it all works the way I hope it will—I'll be able to stamp these dummies out like automobile fenders. I wonder how many I'll really make and whether anyone cares to buy one.