Read my lips: Ventriloquists


September 24, 1990|By Kevin Cowherd

A FRIEND of mine is going through a mid-life crisis and thinking about a career move from high school geometry teacher to ventriloquist.

My feeling on the subject is this: We have far more lawyers in this country than we'll ever need. We also have too many newspaper columnists, pimps (that may be redundant) and car salesmen (ditto). Probably too many geometry teachers, too.

But we have not yet reached the saturation point on ventriloquists, and the industry, while "soft" at the moment, could probably use an infusion of fresh talent.

On the other hand, I don't exactly detect a national groundswell of enthusiasm for ventriloquists. People aren't clamoring for ventriloquists at conventions, telethons, celebrity fund-raisers or even bowling league dinners, bachelor parties and the like.

I can't ever remember planning a night on the town and hearing someone say: "Hey, there's a great ventriloquist down at the Sheraton this weekend. Guy can throw his voice from here to the Rockies. What do you say?"

Then again, I could be wrong here. After all, there are people who pay to see these "performance artists" who smear themselves in chocolate pudding while quoting passages from "Hamlet."

I myself once watched a woman climb on stage in black tights, curl up into the fetal position and wail for 20 minutes. "Cry From the Womb" I think she called it. I called a cab.

In Philadelphia, there was a guy in a beret who made a living chewing pumpkins into the shape of the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, the profile of Dolly Madison, etc. Then he passed a hat around. As I recall, he made about eight bucks and change in the few minutes that I caught his act.

Now you say to yourself: "Hmmmm, eight bucks. That's not bad for just a few minutes work."

Which is true. But how much pumpkin can a person eat? And think of what it's doing to that guy's insides. The man probably spends most of his free time in an intestinal disorders clinic. By the time Halloween comes around, he must want to lock the door and hide under his bed.

So maybe people will pay to see a ventriloquist, I don't know. The thing is, there are considerable start-up costs involved in breaking into the ventriloquism game.

First of all, you have to plunk down the money for the dummy. Your top-of-the-line dummies go for . . . well, I wouldn't even hazard a guess. But I'll bet it's a lot.

A dummy with authentic-looking hair, an even smile and a nice outfit -- the requisite red blazer, let's say, with red bow tie, white pants, white bucks -- has got to cost some heavy iron.

Unless you go with a puppet in your act.

The puppet thing has been done before, of course. Shari Lewis did puppets. She had Lambchop and Hush Puppy and a bunch of other annoying little creatures whose names escape me right now.

But with all due respect to Ms. Lewis, to me a puppet in the act says "cheap." A puppet says "second-rate." A puppet says "junior varsity." You know?

With a puppet, I don't see anyone playing the main room at the Sahara in Vegas or the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.

If you're talking lounge act and want to soar with the eagles -- Wayne Newton, Barbara Mandrell, Vic Damone, and so on -- you need a dummy. And a good agent, although that's something to worry about down the road.

(This probably goes without saying, but another thing you need as a ventriloquist is talent. Some of these ventriloquists, you can see their lips moving from the parking lot. No wonder so many of them have day jobs -- often as high school geometry teachers, ironically enough.)

As I told my friend, once he gets his act down, opening night would probably take place in an American Legion hall or Elks lodge or a small arena of that nature. The audience would sit in folding chairs and sip watered-down punch.

At the moment, I don't have a suggestion as to what his warm-up act should be, maybe a juggler or a harpist or a mime. Basically you're looking for someone who won't shine too brightly and steal your thunder.

Come to think of it, I'd go with the mime. There are people who will walk 10 or 15 blocks out of the way to avoid running into a mime. In fact, if you're on the same bill with a mime, I'd say your problems are over as far as audience reception goes.

Assuming the audience is still awake.

And has not bludgeoned the mime to a bloody pulp with those folding chairs.

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