In case you haven't noticed, a recurring theme of this column is Evanier getting to meet someone he has admired from afar. In
most cases, it has been some saintly giant of the TV, comic book or theatrical professions who has, often against his or her will, made some cameo
appearance in my life.
From time to time, more contemporary-but-still-admired folks have had this dubious honor. A recent
person-I'd-always-wanted-to-meet-and-finally-did was Ronn Lucas. To his understandable and humble discomfort, Ronn's people persist in billing
him as "The World's Greatest Ventriloquist." And if one excludes Dr. Paul Winchell — now largely in retirement, at least from
ventriloquism — Ronn probably qualifies. If and when you get the chance to see him perform with his friends, Scorch the Dragon or Buffalo
Billy, do so. You'll have, as I did, a very good time.
I've always been fascinated by ventriloquism and, of course, dabbled in the craft in my pre-teen years with an array of hand puppets, a
few marionettes with fouled strings and a much-loved Jerry Mahoney ventriloquist figure that I still own to this day.
My passion is hardly unique among males my age. Almost every article about New York radio superstar Howard Stern includes a
childhood photo of him posing with his Jerry Mahoney doll. My mother has around eight hundred nearly-identical pics of me. Almost
everyone who is my age and in any sort of nominally-creative career today did one or more of three things when he or she was my age: working with
puppets, learning magic or making 8mm monster movies in the backyard. I, of course, did all three.
Jerry Mahoney was the "star" dummy (or ventriloquist figure) of TV's supreme ventriloquist, Paul Winchell. Edgar Bergen —
and his dummy/figures Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd — ruled the radio airwaves; when TV arrived, Winchell was the man. Working with
Jerry (and another character, Knucklehead Smiff), Paul became one of the first genuine TV stars.
There's a great story about how he almost didn't. A lot of folks believe, wrongly, that the voice a ventriloquist does for his
figure is somehow altered to a unique pitch or frequency. It's not. It's just a normal funny voice that some person performs without
moving his lips. That and good acting and misdirection make it appear to be coming from the little wooden guy.
Back when TV was just beginning, Paul was asked to make his first appearance and they brought him in to do a test. Throughout the
test, the director kept telling him, "We can't hear Jerry." Paul could be heard when he spoke as Paul but the "thrown" voice could not.
He raised the volume as much as humanly possible to the point of almost bursting a blood vessel...no luck. The consensus was that, for some
unknown technical reason, there was something about a ventriloquist voice that did not register on TV microphones.
Word of this spread throughout the business and Paul, of course, was depressed that his skill — ventriloquism — would not
be a part of this new medium.
His agent finally got another producer to give it a try. Another test was arranged and Paul went in. It went just like the
first test: Paul's voice could be heard when he talked as himself but, when he did Jerry's voice, the boom microphone suspended over their heads
could not pick it up.
They were about to declare it a disaster but then Paul happened to glance up and he noticed that the man who operated the boom mike was
moving it back and forth — the way he would do if two performers were talking on stage, pointing it towards whoever was speaking. He
asked the man, "Where are you pointing the boom when Jerry is talking?"
The man shrugged. "Over Jerry's head, of course."
Paul patiently told him, "Keep the mike on me at all times." The man did, they tried it again...and Jerry Mahoney was heard, loud
and clear and ever after.
When Paul was a young boy, he was stricken with Polio. Back in the pre-Salk/Sabin days, it was a horrible, all-too-prevalent
disease and he had it. Confined to bed, he kept his young mind occupied by clipping coupons in the backs of magazines...anything where you
could send away a dime and get back something interesting in the mail. Magazines used to be full of such ads and, one day, young Paul found one
about becoming the Life-of-any-Party by learning to throw your voice. It sounded no dumber than the other things for which he was sending...so
he dropped a dime, received a booklet and soon after found himself waist-deep in a hobby and eventual career.
For months, he practiced ventriloquism as taught by the pamphlet. He got to be very good...and he would later credit the hobby
(soon to be a career) with a beneficial impact on his spirit and, therefore, his health. By the time his physician told him he had the Polio
licked and could begin leading a normal life, the first thing he wanted to do was to build a ventriloquist dummy and perfect his act. He would
later credit ventriloquism with keeping his spirit up, giving him the will to live.
The first time I read this story, I was around six. I was confined to bed with Scarlet Fever — not as bad as Polio but
still no fun — and someone gave me a copy of Ventriloquism for Fun and Profit by Paul Winchell, a combination "How To" book and
autobiography. It had a positive, inspirational effect on me.
No, I'm lying. The truth is, it had an overwhelmingly positive, profoundly inspirational impact on me. Remind me to tell
you later about what happened when I lost my copy.
I remained an admirer of Mr. Winchell's long after I'd decided I would never have the requisite performing skills to follow in his
lip-steps. He appeared on every TV show imaginable and he was always magnificent.
For a year or three, he and his well-carved comrades starred in a wonderful kids' show called Winchell-Mahoney Time. I
think they'd be a huge hit today but some "genius" at the studio didn't; they destroyed all the tapes. Paul sued and wound up collecting a
check with so many numbers on it, they had to continue the amount on the next check. Good for him.
At some point, he turned his fine, clever mind to callings above and beyond show business. He devised and patented a great many
inventions, including an artificial heart valve that earned him the title of Dr. Paul Winchell. All very impressive but, of course, I couldn't
respect him more than I already did.
Doc Winchell also occasionally did cartoon voices, among them Tigger in the Winnie the Pooh cartoons, Dick Dastardly on Wacky
Races and Dastardly and Muttley, and Gargamel on The Smurfs. Naturally, one of the first times I was in a position to hire
actors to do voices for my cartoon shows, I called up his agent and said, "Please, please, please!" Paul was unavailable for a long time (too
busy) but finally, one day, he said yes.
Directing the session that day, I said one of the ten-or-so stupidest things I've ever said in my life. At least, it sure felt
that way. I was assigning roles in the script to the various actors. Paul had two lead roles and there was one scene where the two
characters engaged in a conversation. Usually, one tries to assign roles such that this isn't the case but this time, it was unavoidable.
In front of everyone, I turned to Paul Winchell, the world's greatest ventriloquist and said, "I'm sorry, Paul, but I've got you talking to yourself
for a page here. You think you can handle it?"
There was a pause, Paul looked at me like I was out of my ever-lovin' mind and I suddenly moaned, "Look who I'm saying this to!"
The room collapsed in laughter, for Paul had only spent, like, the last fifty years talking to himself on stage, screen and television.
I should explain that I am writing this on a laptop computer in room 8004 of the Flamingo Hilton in Laughlin, Nevada. I'm on one
of my every-so-often "Let's Get Away From Los Angeles and Get Some Writing Done" jaunts. This is the first time I've ever been in Laughlin
— a city built near the Southernmost tip of Nevada...a city that basically consists of seven or eight large hotel-casinos built along the
picturesque Colorado River.
Laughlin is like a well-kept secret...especially if you ask travel agents in L.A. if it's possible to fly here. The first three I
asked told me it wasn't; that the only way to reach Laughlin was to drive...between seven and eight hours from the City of Angels.
I pressed further and discovered that air service has recently, quietly, been introduced 'twixt L.A. and Laughlin but no one knows
about it, possibly because it doesn't say "Laughlin" on the airport. In fact, it doesn't even say "Nevada." You fly into Bullhead City,
Arizona, which is about five minutes across the river in another state...and time zone.
(That must make for no end of confusion: If you have a Noon flight out and you leave your hotel in Laughlin at 11:00 AM, you'll arrive
at the airport in five minutes...but it'll be 12:05 there and your plane will be gone without you. To make matters worse, the flight to L.A.
takes about fifty minutes and you gain an hour...so if your flight leaves Bullhead City at Noon, it will land in Los Angeles at 11:50 AM, ten minutes
before you took off. This is apparently the same principle that allows Superman to reverse time by flying around the Earth,
I once described Reno, Nevada as "Las Vegas, only more bow-legged." Laughlin is basically "Las Vegas for very, very old
people...and their parents." A lot of folks have retired — apparently in great, cost-efficient splendor — to the surrounding
lands. There are enough real estate pitches (including booths in all the casinos) to make one think that the whole hotel/casino enterprise is
merely a loss leader for the local housing developers. If you could learn to love desert climes and a place somewhat like Las Vegas, it's
probably a wonderful place to live.
Those who don't live nearby trek in from Phoenix or bus in from L.A., a high percentage in campers. There are some cities where
you feel out of place without boots; others where you feel like a tourist without a cowboy hat. Laughlin is the only place I've ever been where
you feel like you don't belong without a Winnebago.
(A Casino Manager here told me that they once had to close down due to a power failure. He got up and announced to everyone to
return to their homes. "And," he explained, "it took no time at all since all their homes were in the parking lot.")
I flew in last Friday eve on United Express in a plane that looked like it had last been used to chase Cary Grant through a wheat
field. As the airport shuttle neared the Flamingo, I was surprised — and delighted — to see the big electric sign spell out, in a
flurry of GE Soft-whites, that Ronn Lucas was currently headlining.
(It turned out he was not only headlining the Flamingo Hilton, he was darn near headlining Laughlin, if you know what I mean —
the only entertainer in town that I wanted to see; probably the only entertainer in town that anyone should have wanted to see. The other
choices were not, uh, compelling.)
I sent Ronn a note; it turned out, he and his wife are both immense fans of my Garfield show. And what I hope will be a
long-time friendship was born.
This then has been the story of two ventriloquists...the King of the Realm and the new pretender to the throne, to get needlessly
theatrical about it all. I hope you enjoyed reading all about them and —
Oh, what's that? I promised to tell you about my copy of Paul Winchell's book? That's right. Sorry...
As you'll recall, Ventriloquism for Fun and Profit was my favorite book when I was a kid. I treasured my copy.
One day, when I was about ten, my then-best friend asked to borrow my copy. I balked but he pleaded...and he swore to have it
back the very next day. I finally said yes, gave him the book and, of course, never saw it again.
Moral of the story: Never, ever loan your favorite book to anyone.
I spent the next thirty years looking for another copy. I don't mean every minute...but, every time I'd go into a second-hand
bookstore, I'd ask about it. As any of you who've seen my house are aware, I have found and bought every single book that has ever been in
print that I could possibly ever crave. But I could not find another copy of Paul's book. Booksellers even tried to tell me that it did
Then, a year or two ago, I paid one of my intermittent visits to a wonderful store called the Hollywood Magic Company, located on the
once-proud Hollywood Boulevard. At the Hollywood Magic Company, one can purchase trick decks of cards, two-headed coins, rings that link and so
on. The salespersons are all skilled magicians who will demonstrate all...and even teach you the trick, once you've purchased it.
I've been shopping there for the last twenty-something years. Figure three or four visits a year and, well, I'd been in there an
awful lot. I thought I'd seen everything they had to offer but, this day, my eyes fell on a shelf of books on magic — and related fields
— for sale...and on one book in particular.
It was a copy of Ventriloquism for Fun and Profit by Paul Winchell.
Thirty years, I'd been searching for the book and now, here it was. I instantly decided that I was going to buy it, regardless of
the price. If it was five thousand dollars, it would be worth it, just to fulfill my quest.
The clerk let me examine it. It was a first printing — 1954 — and it was in okay shape. I asked him how long
they'd had it there. He said, "Oh, decades. Since it first came out, probably."
(Get this: I had been searching for it for thirty years and a copy had been sitting there, all this time. I'd walked past it a
hundred times and not noticed.)
I asked him how much it was. Remember...I was willing to pay any price. He said it was seven dollars.
I gasped. Only seven dollars? My search was at an end. I had found my Holy Grail and it only cost seven
dollars. "I'll take it," I said. And I'll never forget what the clerk said next.
He said, "Wait...I'll get you a fresh one from the back!"
I gasped again. Here, I thought I had found the last remaining copy on the planet. "How many copies do you have back
there?" I asked.
He went back and counted, then reported to me. "Thirty-eight."
Only one thing I could do. I said, "I'll take them." I now have a lifetime supply. Well, Paul is worth it.