Throw your voice, to Las Vegas Ventriloquists: A shift from Kentucky to Nevada gains media attention for the tiny fraternity of entertainers and their wooden partners.

Sun Journal

September 18, 1998|By Paul Brownfield | Paul Brownfield,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LAS VEGAS -- "Ladies and gentleman," says master of ceremonies Jimmy Caesar, a tuxedo-clad holdover from a distant era, "this man needs no introduction."

Out comes Jim Teter, tuxedo-clad himself and fresh from his latest cruise-ship appearance, where he delighted audiences with his "presidential dummies" Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton.

What follows is something out of a vaudeville dream, at once endearing and awful. This is the 1998 Vegas Ventriloquist Convention, held the last weekend of July at the Imperial Palace Hotel & Casino on the Strip.

Ventriloquist convention, you say? Why yes, the 24th straight year such an event has taken place. Of course, for the first 22 years, the convention was held at the Vent Haven ventriloquism museum in Fort Mitchell, Ky.

The move to Las Vegas, spearheaded by a "vent" with the improbable name of Valentine Vox, is part of a campaign to attract more media and increased exposure for the art form -- to create a day when Jim Teter would indeed need no introduction.

Barring a miracle, that day has apparently gone the way of the eight-track tape. Today, ventriloquism survives mostly on the margins of show business, an underclass of performers working midmarket comedy clubs, cruise ships, schools, churches and Kiwanis Club banquets.

It's all a precipitous drop from the exalted era of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

In an eerie manifestation of the times, three famous ventriloquists died during the four days of this year's convention -- Shari Lewis, "Buffalo Bob" Smith and Stanley Burns, a veteran New York performer.

Some are still alive. Senor Wences is 102 and lives in Spain. Paul Winchell is 75 and retired in Palm Desert, Calif.

On the phone, Winchell jokes that his famous figure Jerry Mahoney has taken up a new hobby -- collecting dust.

"Television and its use of computers can make everything talk, so there's no need for the art of ventriloquism anymore," he says. "I don't think young kids today would even understand it."

And yet, while nothing at this year's convention screamed "Ventriloquism Comeback," they were there in force -- about 350 people, not including the dummies.

There was a chief executive of a Denver oil company, a psychotherapist from Boston, an engineering-school teacher from Vienna, Austria. Grown men (and women) with real jobs who picked up a dummy when they were 8 or 9 or 10 and now find themselves performing in their local libraries and schools for reasons that seem slightly beyond them.

Many of the top-line acts -- Ronn Lucas, Michele LaFong, Willie Tyler, Dan Horn -- lead the hardscrabble life of the road. Finding them for interviews serves as a good introduction into their lives.

Lucas phones from Chesaning, Mich., where he's doing a week opening for the Oak Ridge Boys aboard a docked steamboat. Tyler, who once toured with Little Stevie Wonder and the Supremes in a Motown review, has just come back from a two-week engagement at the Princess Hotel and Casino in the Bahamas. Then he's off for a five-nighter at a comedy club in Albuquerque, N.M.

Like others, Tyler is of two minds about the convention -- it's great to see so many people there, but some of these people, God bless them, are a tad too dedicated to their dummies.

There was a 20-year-old Michigan farm girl named Alicia Dacoba, who throws her voice into a "talking pig" named Porkchop ("When 'Babe' came out, I about had a nervous breakdown," says her mother, Deborah); a San Francisco police officer who walks his North Beach beat with his dummy, Brendan O'Smarty ("I only take him out on soft domestic-violence calls," says Officer Bob Geary); and 75-year-old Ruth Means, who plays the winter parks of Tucson, Ariz., with her sequin-clad dummy, Ms. Trixie.

It wasn't all ham and cheese; every now and then real talent would suddenly reveal itself.

Dan Horn, a 39-year-old pro from Phoenix, Ariz., gave a workshop on soft-puppet manipulation and made his dummy Orson come breathtakingly alive.

It hardly mattered that you could see Horn manipulating Orson to frown, blanch, guffaw and attack his master with a flurry of blows. Watching Horn, you could sense the awesome power a ventriloquist can have, an ability to get a roomful of people to suspend their disbelief.

"Orson's based on my relatives," says Horn. "For 91, he's pretty spry."

Hip enough to play comedy clubs and colleges, Horn is among those pros who can pull in several thousand dollars a week onstage. He's not in the category of a Jeff Dunham, the highest-paid ventriloquist in the country, but Horn's not doing library dates while holding down a full-time job, either.

The event's move from Kentucky to Las Vegas has had its consequences -- chasing away the Christian ventriloquists and leaving others to wonder whether the purity of the event has become as sullied as a whiff of casino air.

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