Here’s another installment as told by RJ about ventriloquist figure maker, Ken Spencer.
Ventriloquist Figure Maker, Ken Spencer as Told by RJ, Part 6
Ken was bursting with all manner of wildly interesting stories, and one of my favorites involved his hardscrabble boyhood on the tough streets of Chicago, and how one day he wandered into the back room of the Mack Bros. Furniture Store, to find a man hard at work carving what turned-out to be a ventriloquist’s figure. Since such a sight is bound to impress a kid, a conversation ensued, followed by several more visits, and Ken was offered a job as a ”gofer” at the store.
Some of the ”bennies” of the position were that, not only did he establish a source of income, he was taken under the wings of the Mack brothers, and was able to learn all the ins and outs of ”the carving game”,[as he always called it,] at the very knee of Theodore Mack. [With the knowledge that even some of your faithful readers might not be familiar with the personage of Theodore Mack, he is generally regarded as arguably the best ventriloquial figure carver who ever took up a chisel] The day that Ken Spencer met him, if I remember correctly, he was carving a figure for a Minister somewhere across the country. Pretty exotic stuff at the time.
He got into figure-carving when he was asked to take it on after this first client could find no one else to do it. It turned -out well, and he found that he liked doing it; a few more requests came in, a few more after that, and eventually his name made it into the showbiz and vaudeville worlds, where the demand skyrocketed; Eventually, he was commissioned by Edgar Bergen to build the figure that became famous as ”Charlie McCarthy”, and the rest, as they say, is history.[Most people today probably do not know that Theodore Mack and Edgar Bergen tried-out several versions of ”Charlie” before settling on the one that became world-famous; One of Edgar Bergen’s ”Charlies” eventually was enshrined at the Smithsonian, but rumor has it that this figure was NOT the one Bergen used normally; Apparently, his family kept that one; Bergen, it is said, had about 6 back-up figures, in order to prevent lost performances for any reason.
Some of the ”pre-Charlies” have made it onto the market, but none of the ”back-up” Charlies so far. Theodore Mack also pioneered some of the figure movements that are considered ”standard equipment” for a ventriloquial figure today, such as moving eyes, moving eyebrows, the ability to spit,cry, display a fright wig, lips that retracted independently to display the teeth, and he was one of, if not THE first to build a figure that ”walked”, and moved it’s arms! You can imagine the mechanicals involved in THAT!
More coming. Thanks, 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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