Sunday, January 15, 2012

2011: The Year In Ventriloquism

After completing the 3rd part of my year in review post series I realized there are still some things about 2011 I want to remember before putting it on the shelf of history.

In this post I’ll be reviewing what happened in the first year of the second decade of the 21st century for me as a ventriloquist. I made strides and experienced growth in the areas of performance, puppets, and equipment.

Last year, the major addition to the equipment I use in my act was a small portable voice amplifier. This is something that is beneficial for walk-around ventriloquism or in a small venue where a standard PA system is too much.

The best point of reference I can give for these types of PA systems in action is that they are used by those who work in the game booths at carnivals and fairs. Here’s a picture of the system I got for my birthday present.

The quality of the sound this unit produces is not the best but it’s effective. I used it a couple of times over the last quarter of the year. But I didn’t really utilized this system as part of my last performance of the year.

Although I’ve had it for several years, one of the pieces of equipment that I have not used effectively is my Axtell Magic Drawing Board. My lack of artistic ability has been a key in my apprehension for using it for my performances.

So I got on “You Tube” and found some ideas and characters I could develop. The one I like the best is one that resembles Arnold Schwartzenegger as he looked when he played "The Terminator". I can do a recognizable impersonation of him so he’ll work in my act.

I practiced drawing him and several other caricatures with the intention of making the drawing board an important part of my show. Unfortunately during the year I never found the right venue to use it. In 2012 I will make it a point to practice and perform at least 1 of my new Magic Drawing Board characters.

I added 6 new puppets to my ensemble in 2011. I can’t believe I bought that many but I did. My favorite among them are the two “What Not” puppets from Toys R Us and the lion puppet from Axtell Expressions.

This is the Lion puppet

While it took me a few months to me to decide on a name and personality for him, Leopold the lion was a big part of my most significant performance of the year.

He is by far the most popular puppet I’ve had since Cecil the turtle. From the first time I used him to perform music at the AWANA program and then on Sunday morning as part of teaching the children at my church; the kids at my church were drawn to him. They want to get up close to him and even tried to touch him. He holds great promise for becoming one of my popular most characters.

Finding the “What Nots” reignited the fire in my creative soul for not just ventriloquism but puppetry in general. You can read the details of how that happened in my November 8, 2011 post. Here's a picture I didn't include in that post.

Although he wasn’t new to the troupe, in 2012 I used my basketball player puppet for what I consider my best children’s sermons of the year. His character was that of an egotistical basketball star named “Awesome Archibald Jones.”

In a conversation about his outstanding performance in his team’s latest game Archie was very proud of how “Awesome” he was.

In an unusual move I took the puppet off my hand and let it lay “lifeless” to prove a point, I told the children that if it wasn’t for my hand guiding him Archie wouldn’t even be able to move. I used that as an analogy for how God gives all life and guides us in our lives. I felt it was a very good spiritual message.

Although I didn’t have a lot of performances throughout the year I did expand my spectrum of venues. When my days off changed in the middle of the year I was inspired to go and do some volunteer performances at a few local nursing homes.

The Christian Health Center; Greenwood Nursing and Rehab Center (both in Bowling Green), and ACare Nursing Home in Brownsville were the 3 places that graciously allowed me to come in and entertain their residence. Between the 3 of them I made ½ dozen appearances. I made just one appearance at a daycare center, Kids University in Bowling Green. I have to thank Leslie, a fellow church member, for helping me get my foot in the door at a couple of those places.

As it always has been my church is the place where I performed the most in 2011. For the 2nd year in a row I gave short performances for VBS at The Community Church At Cedar Springs in Edmonson County.

At Oakland Baptist I used puppets when I taught the Wednesday night children’s ministry program. In June, the puppet, I named CC, because he looks like cotton candy made his debut on a Wednesday night. I bought from a friend who owns one of the antique shops in Smiths Grove for about $5. Thanks Tom.

Also my lion puppet, while his personality was still in the development stage, made a couple appearances at Awana and Wednesday night Children’s ministry.

In children’s church I used Cecil the turtle, Lanoline the lamb, Leopold the Lion, as well as Amby and Dexter. Those last two are sock puppets made by my son, Michael, for a high school assignment and enhanced by me. I use them to help the children choose right from wrong when answering the questions I asked as part of my lesson review. Amby was usually right and Dexter was usually wrong.

I had a lot of fun on Halloween this year. As a means of getting some interaction with the public (aka potential leads for vent engagements) I dressed in the pirate costume that I put together for a themed birthday party in August 2010.

To supplement the pirate costume I added some other items. Like a bandanna with fake hair and a “beard” made by rubbing burnt cork ash on my face. A Halloween trick I learned from my mom when she used to dress us for Halloween when I was a kid.

With Salty the parrot puppet on my arm and a canvas bag of candy (the “fun size” version of several popular brand names) I headed toward the Smiths Grove Baptist Church just 3 blocks away from my house. Here's how we looked.

The church was having a “trunk or treat” event in their back parking lot; a safe alternative for their church families. Although I had not asked permission I had decided to join in the festivities.

I found a spot near the entrance of the church lot and began giving out my candy while Salty wished all the kids “Happy Halloween”. I tried to interact with as many kids and parents as I could.

After about an hour my candy was gone and the number of trick or treaters coming around slowed down. I decided to take my act on the road. I walked up and down Main Street for about 5 or 6 blocks. Along the way I made sure that Salty continued to wish all those we saw a “Happy Halloween”. I did get a few chances to have some very brief conversations with some youngsters about their costumes and their accumulation of candy. The encounters lasted no more than 10 or 15 seconds but all the kids smiled and laughed at Salty.

I had such a great time walking through my little town on Halloween. Throughout the year, the occasions that bring out the people of Smiths Grove always serve to remind me why I really like living here. I was sure that my encounters with all the people would make me at least a little better known in the future.

But without a doubt my best vent performances of the year came in December. They both took place at Christmas themed events.

On Thursday December 8, I was the opening act for the big guy from the North Pole at our church’s annual “Dinner with Santa” event.

My act was about 10-15 minutes long and was in 3 segments. In the first part I used Sandy the sugar glider puppet posing as Santa’s helper to the rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels. I used one of my bits that always gets laughs. I had the puppet “fly around”, land on the top of my head and then slowly crawl down over my face. The kids loved it.

The middle segment had one of my “what not” puppets dressed up as a young girl character, Sally Ann Maher. The puppet lip-synced the song “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” After the song, while trying to tell Sally Ann that it was highly unlikely that she would get her wish, I had a hippo puppet come out from behind my suitcase lid. He appeared using what I call the “Peak A Boo” technique.

As I talked to Sally Ann, the hippo peaked out at the crowd. I was looking away so I didn’t “see” him. The hippo did this two more times. Each time I was looking away. The kids did their best to tell me that the hippo was there. I acted like I thought they were playing a joke on me. Then I turned and came face to face with the Hippo. Here’s the picture that my friend, Jason Hale, took at my moment of surprise.

On the 2nd of December I had my vent performance of the year. I participated in the Smiths Grove Christmas Parade.

The reaction I got from walking around during trick or treat on Halloween night helped to convince me that participating in the number one Smiths Grove public event of the year, the town Christmas Parade, would be an amazing experience.

When I first came up with the idea of being in the parade the only trek I thought I’d be making was along the 1 mile parade route. As it turned out I went on a creative journey that taught me that I could turn a simple idea into a unique stage for me as a ventriloquist. Here's how I looked that night.

You can read about my creative journey and Christmas parade experience in two posts: “Creating A Christmas Cart” published December 4, 2011 and “Small Town Christmas Parade Part 2” published December 12, 2011.

In my previous "year in review" post, I mentioned the book “Brain Storm” and how it affected my entire life. This includes ventriloquism. But there were also a couple of other books specifically about ventriloquism that I learned from in 2011.

The first was the audio book of Jeff Duham’s biography, “All By Myselves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed, and Me“. The book was an amazing story of the most popular ventriloquist of the last 5 years, if not all time.

I found Dunham’s talent, determination, and ability to accomplish his goals are amazing. His story is so sensational it’s almost “Forrest Gump” like; but it’s true.

To be honest, while it was inspiring, the book also had a paralyzing effect on me. Jeff has worked so hard for so long and has been so successful it’s not unreasonable for someone like me to feel I don't even belong in the same ventriloquist universe as Dunham.

But after a period of frustration from irrational comparison of my “career” to his, Jeff Dunham’s book was an inspiration to me. His love for his art, focus, determination in his career and his successes and failures in creativity are inspirational examples to follow.

The other ventriloquist book is one I actually read: The Idiot’s Guide To Ventriloquism” by Taylor Mason. He’s one of my personal favorite ventriloquists. I have seen him in person at least times.

Mason’s book teaches all aspects of ventriloquism from the ground up. He starts off with the techniques and “tricks” of speaking without moving your lips. He then moves on to choosing the figure that’s right for you which is followed by an extensive joke and routine writing course.

Although I’ve also read a lot of the “how to” material in other books, so far (as of this post I’ve only finished 2/3 of the book) I’ve found the joke writing lessons and exercises something I’m going to be using and referring to toe a long time. I have adopted Mason’s recommendations for creating a promotional package as one of my personal goals for 2012.

In preparation for writing this post I took an inventory of the amount of progress and growth I experienced in my ventriloquism in 2011. I was pleasantly surprised. As far as I’m concerned I came nowhere close to being as committed, proactive and focused as I should have been.

I don’t see myself as anywhere close to where I should be on the “ amateur to professional” scale of ventriloquism after 5 years. Yet in spite of my short comings and self-invoked perception of underachievement, God already has and continues to bless my ministry and “career”.

I have not come close to making the money I thought I’d be making by now. But I have become someone the children of my church expectantly to look to for a fun way to learn about the Bible, living life as a child of God and a believer of Jesus Christ. That’s something money can’t buy.

As 2012 begins I have a goal to advance even further in ventriloquism. Now that I’ve realized just how much favor God has shown me in just one year; I have faith that I will happen. I can’t wait. Bring it on.

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