Guest Blog Lee Dean – Remembering W.S. Berger & The Great Lester

W.S. Berger got in touch with me somehow in 1954. I was doing shows in and around KY. I went to Vent Haven and he took me through the museum. I ended up giving him $100 for a Davenport figure. In 1955 he asked me to go to Pittsburgh convention with him.

We went on a sleeper train out of Cincinnati. I was 14, young and strong, and helped carry and set up exhibits, Jacko and other McElroy figures, and some Turner, Marshall, and Gough figures. Great Lester showed up as did Frank Marshall. Mr. Berger mostly listened to what Lester and Marshall had to say. Berger took me to a picture show at my insistence, Land of The Pharaohs, or something like that, and Mr. Berger thought too racy for me so asked we leave and we did.

Pittsburgh sure was a smoky place in 1955 and smell of coal everywhere. In 1958 I believe it was I took a bus to Chicago and spent night with Frank Marshall. He showed me his basement studio, and most beautiful finished Marshall boy I ever saw. He said he made it from a neighbor boy down the street. I slept on a horsehair couch after giving instructions for two figures he was to make for me. I gave him a photo of my younger sister for girl figure and a boy’s voice for boy figure. I suffered all night with asthma as I am allergic to horses, but did not tell Marshall.

Three months later two figures arrived in KY parcel post, $275 paid for each, and they perfectly matched description, so it must have been in 1958 or 1959 that I attended Chicago convention. Lester had died in 1956. Marshall and Berger were there, and I bought a small Marshall head for $40 which Marshall had in his pocket, and another $40 for a body he would make and send with it, which he did. I got bored with convention, left early, took bus on back home.

Later in 1959 Marshall made bear figure for me after Baylor University bear mascot where I was attending first year college. Around 1963 or 1964 I traded bear figure for Clifford Guest kangaroos, mother with Joey in pouch. Muzz undid the trade, so I had bear again. Around 1964 or 1965 I traded boy figure for Marshall walking figure that had been made for Swedish vent, used in TX. I discarded the walker and girl figure, left the bear in TX, came home and went back to law school in KY. My first daughter did in the small $40 figure around 1971 when she filled up small child’s pool and took figure in the water with her. I dropped out of the art around 1965 after futile attempt in CA and until 2003 when I made figure to show my grandchildren.

The main things I remember on Lester at the 1955 IBV Pittsburgh convention is meeting him in Berger’s hotel room, how he came in talking and left talking as though he had so much to say and so little time to say it (died in CA about 6 months later), every moment teaching how to do vent the right way.

The word for Lester is “bravado” not in boasting sense but challenging. He talked and talked, almost hypnotic effect, where you don’t remember every word, came across it was gospel, and like Jesus telling the cripple to pick up his bed and walk, Lester with bravado saying in dead pan normal voice without lip or jaw movement, so you want to throw your voice, well just open your mouth and talk, you don’t need to put your teeth together, move your jaw or move your lips, just talk, like this, but {index finger to each side of head just below ears} you have got to keep it tight here, freeze your jaw to freeze your lips, and so forth. Then somebody said do the phone bit, and Lester did two and three way conversation on phone in distant voice. Other than the meeting in Berger’s room and Lester’s stage show where he performed Heaven & Hell routine and Lock of Hair poem as I recall {on Tribute site}. I had coffee with them at coffee shop down from the hotel, Marshall, Lester, Berger, and me. John Osborne took a photo of me with Lester and Berger and couple others including young Johnny Main {real name Mianakian. I enclose photo appearing in 1979 commemorative issue of The New Oracle honoring Marshall, last photo captioned Vent Memories of Yesteryear {I am the young boy unidentified}.

That is what I remember, freeze your jaw to freeze your lips that Lester taught, not jaw and lips relaxed. I met Lester only that one time. I was around Berger more than once and he was always using certain phrases like “patter and bits of business” in talking about material, and talking about ventriloquy as he almost always called ventriloquism, he would talk about Lester having “frozen lips and jaw” and how Lester wore a high-necked, starched collar to conceal any adam’s apple movement. Before meeting Lester I clinched my teeth, but afterwards opened mouth and locked my jaw. I have not heard any of the Lester tapes or read any of his long letters. If letters or tapes indicate otherwise, then I am a poor student. One thing certain is that if Lester taught “jaw and lips relaxed” then both lips and jaw will move, just like Bergen, whom Lester taught and considered a poor student.

I should add that the frozen jaw technique was by taut jaw muscles which tend to freeze the lips, but OK to move lips by smile to non-smile motion, or vice versa, so long as lips do not come together to make the labial sounds, so in that sense lips not quite as frozen as jaw. or more relaxed if you want to call it that, and Lester method does give appearance of a normal, relaxed presentation, but only looks that way as jaw muscles very tight, or at least that is what I took with me from the convention in briefly meeting Lester one time and learning this technique from him up close and personal.

Another thought on all of this is one must consider the setting in 1955, about 6 months before Lester died, Bergen still going strong with lousy lip and jaw control, but Lester his teacher and no longer the only great, young Winchell with excellent still lip and jaw but clenching teeth on his heels, and Nelson too making the scene in falsetto {Bergen lost McCarthy falsetto somewhat used by ageing). Young vents at convention had Mahoney dolls and Fun & Profit books, all clenching teeth. Perhaps Lester decided to kill two birds with one stone: advocating tight jaw over tight teeth {Winchell} and lax lip and jaw control {Bergen}, distancing himself from those methods, especially latter, by promoting such technique. I can not say for sure, but remember being taught in effect and result to not clench teeth but lock jaw, whether intended or not.

I did not attend the Lester lectures.

On delivery, although Lester in Berger’s room seemed to talk fast and ramble, in that stage show at Pittsburgh, appearing with Cardini, young Ballantine comic magician if recall correctly, and other magicians, including black light trick effects, Lester was slow and deliberate, sort of like a Michael Jordan in a zone and illusion of slow motion. Berger told me that Lester did everything in “counts”: that he would count 1-2-3 and move figure one way, then 1-2-3 and/or 4 another way, etc.

In the stage show Lester and figure spoke loud and clear, and even a whisper could be picked up and understood, almost like he had thrown his voice to the back row.

What I disclose is true including Lester messing up head spring on my Davenport figure and choosing Marshall figure to use in stage show, all of which upset me and Lester sensitive enough to know it.

I have now managed to load up and read some of Lester’s written correspondence course talking about relaxed lips and jaws, so I guess the locking the jaw is my own idea unless Lester changed his method and I heard him right in Berger’s hotel room, otherwise I heard him wrong.

Lee Dean – Kentucky


Thanks Lee for sharing with all of us.



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One Response to Guest Blog Lee Dean – Remembering W.S. Berger & The Great Lester

  1. Bill Smith, Nedrow, N.Y. says:

    Thanks for posting the blog on the great Lester! Wish I had a scanner, as I have 2 items I’d like to share pertaining to that pittsburgh combined IBM-IBV convention {June 28-July 2 1955}. One is a copy of the “Oracle” mentioning the upcomming event, & the other is an actual admission ticket for Lester’s lecture. Got these at this year’s GR-E-A-T conVENTion.

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