I am just back (like, ten minutes) from one of those evenings that
you want to press forever in your book of memories. Tonight, the Improv up on
Melrose hosted a benefit for the L.A. Free Clinic — a 100th birthday tribute to
the great ventriloquist, Señor Wences.
Everyone knows Señor Wences, even if a few don't know his name.
They remember him from his eight zillion appearances on the old Ed Sullivan TV
show. They remember his "friend" Johnny, whose head was formed by the Señor
painting eyes, a nose and lips on his hand. They remember his puppet Cecelia
Chicken, and the Señor juggling, and most of all, they remember Pedro.
Pedro was everyone's favorite — maybe the oddest character to
ever appear on the Sullivan stage, Ed excepted. Pedro was a head in a box, and
we all used to wait for Señor Wences to open the box and ask Pedro, "S'right?"
And Pedro would answer back, "S'right!"
The Señor didn't start out to be a ventriloquist. Incredibly,
once upon a time, he was a bullfighter. One day, the bull won and once the
matador got out of the hospital, he decided a career change might be in order.
He worked up an act and proceeded to do it on every continent for much of this
century. It was always pretty much the same routine, and he knew it in eight or
nine languages, not all of which he otherwise spoke.
The one other time I'd met him before tonight, he told a story
that probably teaches an enormous moral. For twenty or thirty years, a section
of his performance involved juggling — a skill at which he was quite facile.
Then his agent arranged a year-long gig at the famed Folies Bergere in France.
(Or maybe it was someplace else. As much as I respect Señor Wences and love his
act, I must admit that I've never been able to understand more than about 50% of
what he said while performing, and it was even worse off-stage.)
Wherever it was, it was a club with a low ceiling — so low that he
had to omit the juggling from his set, which he did for the full year he played
there. At the end of the year, he was booked into another hall where he
decided to reinstate the juggling —
— only to discover he couldn't.
In the year he'd gone without juggling, he'd neglected to
practice. As a result, he was never able to juggle on a stage again, at least
to the standard he'd set for himself. Like they say: Use it or lose it.
But apart from that one omission, he did the same act for
decades. It didn't sink in for me just how long until the other day. Someone
gave me a Playbill for the original Broadway production of the play,
You Can't Take It With You. In the back is an ad for a nightclub called the
Crystal Garden at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and one of the featured performers is
Señor Wences. From his billing, you can tell that he was not a newcomer. The
year was 1937.
Tonight, to salute a century of life and his many years of
performing, a capacity crowd flooded the Improv to wish him a happy
My lady friend just read the above over my shoulder and said, "You
have to explain to people who Ed Sullivan was." I don't think so, but I know
better than to argue with her. Any of you who think Ed is just the guy whose
name adorns the place where Letterman works, pay close attention. The rest of
you can skip this part.
Ed Sullivan was a newspaper columnist who became a TV host. Every
Sunday night for years, he presided over an hour of variety acts — singers,
comedians, ballerinas, magicians, harmonica virtuosos, dancing bears — all of
it broadcast live on CBS. Everyone who was anyone in show biz (and a lot who
weren't anyone) graced his stage. Elvis Presley cemented his super-stardom with
his appearances there; so did the Beatles; so did almost every big name for
decades. It was as if you weren't in the entertainment field until Ed had you
on and, quite likely, mangled your introduction.
Stiff and uncomfortable to the extreme, Ed was often the most
amazing thing on his program. There are only about eighty-seven thousand tales
of his outrageous gaffes — like the time he introduced Rich Little as Buddy
Rich, or the time he meant to say an actress was starring on Broadway and he
actually said she was starving on Broadway. Fred Allen once said that
all Sullivan did was point. "Rub meat on the performers and a dog could do the
same job." Others suggested that the secret to the longevity of The Ed
Sullivan Show was talent: Everyone on the show had it except Ed.
Not true. Ed was a master showman. He would stop at nothing to
book the hottest acts. True, he was amateurish with his hosting chores but
there was a good reason for that. When he started, back in the earliest days of
television, everyone was amateurish. The talented folks were all in the
movies or on Broadway. Ed merely outlasted the other amateurs, and was still
around when the pros got into television. It was strangely comforting that he
never, in all the years he did it, got any better.
He was a demanding impresario: Every comedian who ever played the
show has a story about doing eight minutes at the dress rehearsal, then having
Ed chop him to five (or less) before the final broadcast. I asked Señor Wences
about this and he said, "Oh, yes. Mister Sullivan...he would want to cut out
every line that did not get a laugh. I would say to him, 'Mister
Sullivan...that is the set-up line. The joke...she does not make sense without
Señor Wences was introduced this evening by a younger performer.
He was introduced by Milton Berle, who is a mere lad of 88. (Someone commented
that the average age at the Improv this evening was "Deceased.") I've seen Berle a few times in the last year, live or on TV, and
he was starting to make me uncomfortable. He was always a pushy performer with
an almost desperate craving for applause. As he reached a certain age and a
certain stature, the "act" was starting to make me cringe. I wished someone
would sit him down and say, ever-so-lovingly, "Uncle Miltie...your place in show
business history is assured. You don't have to remind us of it, and you can
afford to let someone else get near the microphone." (I also agree with Jay
Leno's view that there should be an age limit on telling sex jokes.)
But tonight, Milton Berle was spot-on target — hysterically funny
and relatively tasteful, with fresh material that was perfectly suited to the
occasion. This was an "industry" crowd; you could sense that everyone was
rooting for Berle to be at his best. That, he was.
The other M.C. for the evening was John Byner, another graduate of
the Sullivan show and an uncommonly funny individual. John spent much of the
evening "channeling" Ed, doing his brilliant impression of the host.
Ed Sullivan impressions were, for a time, a thriving industry in
this country — and not a rare one, either. Between 1948 and 1971 when his show
was airing, there was not a man, woman or child in America who could not do some
semblance of an Ed Sullivan impression. You'd wrap your arms around yourself,
elongate your face, rock back and forth and go, "We've got a really big shoe
tonight...a really big shoe." Presto: Ed Sullivan!
John Byner has been a professional Ed Sullivan imitator for quite
some time. Half the comedians booked on Ed's show did Ed, but Byner was one of
the best, along with Will Jordan and Rich Little. (Actually, most of the people
who did Ed were not doing Ed; they were imitating other people doing Ed. On one
of his first albums, George Carlin did just such an impression and admitted that
he was doing, "The John Byner Ed Sullivan")
The funniest moment in John's act tonight won't be funny here,
because you can't hear it and this publication won't print most of the words
involved. It was Byner's story of the night Jackie Mason did the Sullivan show
and seemingly made an "obscene gesture" on live TV. Byner was the other
comedian on the bill that evening, and he does a hysterical imitation of what
went on backstage after the show — Ed cursing out Jackie, and Jackie saying
over and over, "But, Ed...but, Ed..."
Like I said: Not funny here. But John Byner, in or out of his
Sullivan impression, is one of the most entertaining comics I've ever seen. If
you ever see him playing near you, go...and pray he tells the Sullivan-Mason
(He also does the definitive impression of the late Georgie Jessel.
At one point, in the middle of one of Byner's hosting stints, Milton Berle got
up and demanded the Jessel imitation, which John obligingly performed. I don't
know which I found funnier...the impression or the sight of Berle — who knew Jessel since they were both child stars
— reduced to tears with laughter.)
The audience was full of folks in allied fields, such as cartoon
voice actors. There were three guys in the room who've done Bugs Bunny
since Mel Blanc passed away. One of the original Mills Brothers performed
several of that group's hits, plus there were producers and writers and
comedians, and even a magician or two. One of latter — the great Ricky Jay
— was prevailed to get up and demonstrate a bit of wizardry, which he did nicely.
If you've never seen Ricky Jay handle cards, you've never seen a superb example
of someone doing something about as well as it could possibly be done.
There were other ventriloquists, on stage and in the audience.
Jay Johnson, formerly of Soap, did one of the funniest acts I've ever seen,
and Rickie Layne (another Sullivan vet) appeared with his ethnic wooden buddy, Velvel. But the real treat was
having America's premier voice-tosser
— and a
personal hero of moi — Dr. Paul Winchell there. Incredibly, tonight was the
first time he'd ever met Señor Wences and he was absolutely delighted by him.
"What a wonderful, wonderful man," Winchell kept saying. "A wonderful man and a
wonderful talent." He introduced me to the Guest of Honor saying,
"Mark, I'd like you to meet a ventriloquist older than me." (Paul is 74.)
And I recall one other thing Winchell said. We were talking about
something after the show and Peter Boyle and some friends came over to say
good-bye to Paul. "Wasn't this a great party?" I heard Winchell say.
I'm not sure if it was Boyle or someone else, but someone replied,
"Wait'll you see the party we have when you're one hundred."
That's an exciting thought. Watch for my report on Paul
Winchell's one-hundredth birthday party, some time in 2022. Because there's no
way in the world I'm going to miss that one.
P.S., Written in 2006: Well, of course, that's not going to
happen. Paul Winchell's one-hundredth birthday party, I mean. As
reported here, Paul passed away on June 14, 2005. The great Señor Wences died before him
— on April 20, 1999 at the age of 103. Here's a photo of them
together at the event...the only time they ever met, so far as I know.