Tuesday, January 09, 2007


From age seven to age 11, I had another toy fascination besides action figures. I became obsessed with ventriloquist dolls and hand puppets. My first hand puppets were of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street fame. I was starting to outgrow the show, but I still loved those two characters and wanted to hang out with them. I know what people would say about that now, but trust me, there was no repressed homosexual fantasies in my seven-year-old brain. I just liked the guys, and found Ernie particularly funny. Having the hand puppets allowed me the opportunity to pretend that I was their friend and could hang out with them all the time. I guess this was the beginning of my interest in bringing an inanimate doll to life and providing it with a personality.

Around the same time, I was watching an awful lot of old movies on t.v. Back in the 70s, local stations filled large chunks of airtime with movies from the 30s and 40s. I especially loved recurring movie characters like Blondie, Andy Hardy, and Laurel & Hardy. Among these films, the ones starring Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd were way at the top of my list. Although now I can see that Edgar Bergen was not the best ventriloquist, back then I was amazed that he could make it look like Charlie was talking and not him. Plus, I thought it was great that a grown man could interact with what were essentially cartoon characters made of wood and have all kinds of fun adventures. I wanted to be just like Edgar Bergen, and I got my wish, sort of.

For Christmas 1972, my parents got me a Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll. His head didn’t turn and his eyes didn’t move like Edgar Bergen’s doll, but his mouth opened and closed via a string in the back of his neck. A booklet came with the doll to instruct me on how to “throw my voice.” I took this very seriously and practiced with my doll in the mirror all the time. I dare say I was better at throwing my voice than Edgar Bergen, even managing to pronounce the letters “p” and “b” with imperceptible mouth movements.

The following Christmas, I received a dummy based on the clown Emmett Kelly. I had no idea who that was, but I liked the looks of him and soon worked out clown-oriented sketches with him (that's me with Emmett and my childhood friend Linda in the photo). By age 10, I also had a dummy that they billed in the catalogues as Will E. Talk. Unlike the other dummies I owned who had established pop culture identities, Will E. Talk was completely generic, so I treated him like a real friend. I chose to call him Chucky Margolis after a character from the old Hudson Brothers’ Saturday morning Razzle Dazzle Show. He had red hair and wore overalls, so I stuck funny pins on him and worked out whole comedy routines like we were the new Willie Tyler and Lester. My parents even sprung for a cool little case to carry him around in.

The madness came to a head when I bragged about my ventriloquist acumen to my beloved fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Schreiber. She, in turn, told our school librarian about it who had just acquired a high-tech new gadget known as a video tape recorder. The rig looked like something from Bob Crane murder scene photos, and recorded on black-and-white videotape. They asked me to put together a sketch using my dummies, so I did an impression of Johnny Carson and I interviewed each doll separately like a talk show. Thankfully, I have no memory of the content of the sketch because I’m sure it was really awful, but the librarian and my teacher were mighty impressed with my creativity. All I do remember was that I kept looking at the monitor to see how the puppets and my mouth movements looked, resulting in me looking like the most disinterested interviewer since Arsenio Hall.

By age 11, the tug of puberty was pulling me away from toys, but I couldn’t resist the draw of Kenner’s Hugo, Man of a Thousand Faces. He was a bland looking hand puppet with a bald head and wearing only a light blue tunic. However, his array of glasses, hair pieces, and facial appliances allowed you to create any number of disguises. All the facial appliances were put on his face with a stick of spirit gum, which had to be cleaned thoroughly off the face and individual pieces or they would get gooey and dirty. Still, he was a lot of fun and I was dying to show him to my cousin Stewart when we got together at my Aunt and Uncle’s house on Christmas 1975. While I was pulling out Hugo and his numerous disguise pieces, Stewart informed me that he had gotten a 20-gauge shotgun and he wanted to take me out to his Dad’s car to show it to me. Suddenly, I felt like a complete loser. Stewart and I were the same age: he got a shotgun and I was still playing with dolls. I felt like I needed to grow up fast before other kids my age started seeing me as a sissy. As a result, Hugo didn’t see much daylight after Christmas Day. Several years later, he was sold to a grateful young girl at one of my mom’s yard sales, so I hope Hugo got the love from her that I so callously denied him.

A little postscript on Hugo: In the early 80s, WOR in New York aired a show called The Uncle Floyd Show. This Soupy Sales-type program featured Hugo sans makeup. During the closing credits, Hugo would be-bop along to the music at the bottom of the screen. His trademark blank expression was completely out of sync with his bobbing dance moves and manically flailing arms. You really had to be there to fully appreciate the humor of it. God, I loved that show!

1 comment:

Warren said...

Yes I too had a Hugo!!! I think I'm right in thinking that he actually came with cigarettes. Not real ones of course, but you lit them and the gave off a smoke. Perhaps I am wrong, but I am sure I recall them!