Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ventriloquism is Dead

At least my kind is. Or so they say. "They" being all the tv and movie execs with whom I've talked over the years about various projects featuring me and my puppets. They see ventriloquism as an obsolete art. Passe, anachronistic, old. Quaint but kaput. I've received that kind of feedback consistently over the many years that I've pitched various ventriloquism-centered tv series and movie screenplays to producers and execs. Despite receiving much lovely praise about my ventriloquist skills and about the quality of the scripts and pilot episodes that I've written, the unending string of rejections that I've received always seem to contain either direct or veiled reference to that negative view of my art form.

I don't buy it. I believe there is a huge potential market for the projects that I've written and proposed. I know this from the enthusiasm of my audiences at my live shows; from the feedback that I've gotten from my self-produced educational video series, Puppet Power and Puppet Pride; from the feedback that I've gotten from my self-produced short film, Oxford Park; and from the feedback that I've gotten from my occasional guest appearances on tv shows. It would just require a different mind-set on the part of the people who hold the power to make these things happen.

But mind-sets are difficult to change. Especially when there is no precedent in recent years for the kind of projects that I want to do. I see it as a positive that my projects would stand out as different from most others now in the mass media. But the people who hold the purse-strings see it as a negative - as a gamble not worth taking.

The recent phenomenal success of ventriloquist Jeff Dunham would seem to negate all this. But his meteoric rise to fame has been in spite of this reality. His very non-traditional business strategy brilliantly bypassed the roadblocks to ventriloquial fame and fortune. The great ventriloquists of the past - Edgar Bergen, Paul Winchell, Jimmy Nelson, Shari Lewis - rose to fame mainly via kids and family entertainment venues. I modeled myself after those ventriloquists, and early in my career decided to focus on kids and family venues. Winchell in particular was my hero. His spot-on technique combined with his whimsical, charming, high-energy comedy routines - suitable for all ages - constituted, for me, the ultimate ventriloquist persona and act.

Dunham paid his dues for many years in the adult comedy club circuit. Dummies (puppets) being used as props to tell "adult" jokes has turned out to be the only path to large-scale success for the modern ventriloquist. Dunham leads the pack, but other "adult" ventriloquists have also become very successful in recent years, including Terry Fator (winner of an America's Got Talent contest), Ronn Lucas and David Strassman.

I don't regret my career path. The comedy club circuit would have meant many years on the road for me, and my temperament was not well-suited for life on the road. Especially after my first of two daughters came along nearly fifteen years ago, there was no way that I could have chosen to spend most of my time away from home. As it turned out, I was married to a woman who was away from home most of the time, and so I was virtually a single dad way before our separation. As a result, I got to be with my girls, watch them grow up, experience all of the childhood milestones with them, and am now (I hope it is safe to say) close to both of them. What price tag can one put on that?

Not to say that I don't envy Dunham's career. I certainly do. But he deserves his success. He is very talented, made smart marketing choices and he paid his dues.

I became aware of my inferior career path of "kids venues" as opposed to "adult venues" many years ago, and thought that I had hit upon a way around that. I came up with the concept of a ventriloquist detective who uses his vocal skills as well as his wooden partner to help solve cases. And so, Trillo & Suede were born. Well, Trillo was born, Suede was carved. And I aimed the scripts that I wrote to adult audiences.

But I soon found myself up against other roadblocks. The ones facing any screenwriter who creates a concept that is too "different" from the tried and true formulas that have already worked. With the encouragement of Ian Lewis, president of Farnham Films, UK, I wrote several Trillo & Suede feature film screenplays over several years - each of them inspired by an apparent funding source in one of several different countries. But the funding sources each disappeared sometime before a deal was reached.

Ian and I did manage to self-produce a short film that I wrote: Oxford Park. We shot it in England in two days and it had quite an impressive run on the international film festival circuit. But it failed to attract funding sources for any of my "real" scripts, the feature film ones. Ian and I are still trying to come up with a way to shoot one of these movies. We figure that we could shoot one of them on a shoestring budget of USD 150,000. But in this recession, neither Ian nor I can afford to invest our own money.

Last year I finished writing a Trillo & Suede novel, While the Village Sleeps. It was tentatively accepted by a publishing company, then they decided against it. That was my one shot at publishing it the traditional way. Without an agent, there are very few publishing houses that will look at manuscripts from unpublished authors. And agents are less and less inclined to look at anything written by unpublished authors. But one cannot become a published author until one is published, right? Catch-22. I'll self-publish it one of these days.

Meanwhile, I still bring this "dead" art form to vibrant life frequently at schools, libraries, camps, private organizations, etc. And the Trillo & Suede characters will live theoretically forever in Oxford Park, and in a Making Of documentary, and in a little intro video to the T&S characters.

I even bring dummies to life in other languages, on occasion. Mainly Yiddish and Hebrew. I'm fluent in the former, somewhat fluent in the latter. Lately I've become quite popular in Hasidic circles. Not bad for a non-religious, Yiddish-speaking ventriloquist. Go figure.

So, the next time someone tells me that ventriloquism is dead - or that my kind of ventriloquism is dead - I'll reply with a toast...


Sign of Hope for Middle East Peace

A recent phenomenon throughout the Arab world gives hope for peace. Localized, Islamized versions of classic and current Broadway musicals are becoming all the rage in many Arab countries. This heralds a refreshing counterweight to the more conservative wing of Islam. And the fact that Broadway musicals have always been largely a Jewish enterprise - the product of (more often than not) Jewish writers, composers, lyricists, directors, producers, etc. - portends well for a softening of Arab attitudes toward Jews generally. Here, then, is a list of the more popular Moslem Musicals today...

Fiddler on the Mosque
Annie Get Your Hookah
Chitty Chitty Baba Ganoush
Bye Bye Burka
A Funny Thing Happened To Me On The Way To The Intifada
Kiss Me, Koran
Meet Me in Mecca
My Fair Fatwa
La Cage Aux Fanatics
The Best Little Prayer House in Tunisia
Barefoot in the Mosque
Dreamgirls (76 Virgins)
Avenue Al Qaeda
Damn Yankees
How to Succeed in Business without Being Jewish

Now if only the Jews would reciprocate by producing some Jewish versions of classic Moslem works of art...

Sign of insanity?

Talking to oneself. Often. For long periods of time. In different voices. With distinctly different personalities...

I'd say the above is pretty indicative of insanity, wouldn't you? And it's what I do for a living. So that makes me...

No, I know that my puppets aren't real, and that I'm throwing my voice...

...or do I?

Well, talking to myself is what I'm doing right now. If no-one reads this blog, then I'm retroactively insane. So somebody please read this and save me from insanity.

Ventriloquism is a lonely profession. Moments of intense joy and inspiration as I feel my puppet partners coming to life through my considerable skill; moments of gratification when I bring joy and laughter to an audience, giving me the fleeting feeling that my existence has a purpose. Then the show is over, the audience gone, I pack up my dummies and equipment and head back on the road. Me and the dummies, alone together.

Not that my life is so lonely. My profession yes, but I'm a single dad to two wonderful daughters. They take up loads of my time, and it's anything but lonely around them.  The divorce is not finalized yet, but the marriage has been over for a long time. All for the better, I feel. But this profession of mine...weird, you think? To you, maybe, but to me it was the perfect profession, as soon as I discovered my talent for it as a young man. There's a cliche, an image of a shy ventriloquist who uses his dummy to say things that he would never have the courage to say himself. That cliche is quite apt in my case. And doing it all these years has made me less shy. There are other adjectives that are often associated with ventriloquists aside from "shy", like withdrawn, reclusive, antisocial, weird, mad..."withdrawn" fits me, perhaps, but I don't accept the others, especially the "mad" one.

Then again, mad people don't know that they are mad, right?