Here’s another installment as told by RJ about ventriloquist figure maker, Ken Spencer.
Ventriloquist Figure Maker, Ken Spencer as Told by RJ, Part 5
So— Ken, who was so large physically, possessed such a quiet, soft, unassuming voice in ‘real’ life that it was hard to believe it had enough power to reach the back seats of even a small theater– until he demonstrated it, which he did often.
He was a cornucopia of theatrical stories-everything from the famous people he had met and/or worked with, to some of the stage accidents he had happen and had to find a way out of, on to some of the ‘figure malfunctions’ he had, and similar things that the other famous ventriloquists encountered and told him about- it was endless, and endlessly entertaining. And all the while, he was showing me all the ins and outs of his ‘back porch’ studio.
We walked finally over to the most fascinating corner,[to me] the one that held his current work-in-progress, a half-done figure seated in a tall chair of some sort, like a barber’s chair, or some-such. The figure’s head was cocked to one side, as if it had been listening to us the whole time. I don’t remember the little details, but I believe that this particular figure was being carved for a Minister somewhere across the country.
That was pretty exotic stuff to me at the time. The figure in the chair was also draped just as if he was having a haircut, although he was bald as a cue ball. What I really enjoyed seeing was that this particular figure was being given moving eyes, which for some reason, I felt should be standard equipment on every figure.
Ken showed me the bins along the wall, where he kept all his parts at hand. I was surprised to learn, for instance, that his eyes, which looked so alive, were made of glass fronts, originally manufactured for dolls and stuffed animals, which were inserted into voids carved out of the 1” wooden balls that made up the rest of the eye.
The steel rods and the system of controlling the movement had already been installed, and boy, did it look complicated, next to my ‘Jerry Mahoney’ toy ”dummy”! Even the body of the figure was made of real wood, and much larger than anything I was used to. Ken’s figures were about 42” high, with stuffed arms and legs, but the hands and feet were carved of real wood, and seemed at the time to be larger than was necessary.
The mouth movement seemed pretty straight-forward, except that my dummy’s mouth movement was controlled by a plastic o ring on a string, and this figure’s mouth movement operated by a wooden lever mounted in a recess right in the head-stick. He also showed me the mechanics of not only a standard moving mouth, but separate moving lips which could retract, showing the figure’s teeth.
I remember being surprised at learning that he used leather sheets to cover the throat gap. Also, he showed me how he insisted on making his own mechanical parts, even though he could have purchased most of what he needed at the hardware store. He would not compromise. He only said, “Wouldn’t be a Spencer Figure”. Even such simple components as the levers used to control various movements were carved by hand, not store-bought.
More coming. RJL
If you’ve missed the previous versions, click below:
Dan Willinger is a ventriloquism enthusiast and ventriloquist figure collector. He has been collecting for over 25 years. He created the Ventriloquist Central Collection. It now has over 100 ventriloquist figures and over 50 of them are Frank Marshall figures. Because of his love for the art of ventriloquism, Mr. Willinger created the website Ventriloquist Central. For more information about the website, go to: http://www.ventriloquistcentral.com
Copyright 2010 by Dan Willinger
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