A letter from Dick Weston
My Father was a professional musician. As a boy, growing up in the 50's he would often take me to 'fair dates' where he would accompany the variety acts. In those days, there were no free act stages. The shows were ticketed affairs in the grandstand. Most performances, like grandstand acts today, were in the evening. Usually there were four or five acts, and an emcee. Each act would do about 15-20 minutes.
Dick Weston, a native of the midwest would often be performing on the county fair circuit. It was my first introduction to a live ventriloquist.
By the time I actually began doing vent, Dick had moved to Las Vegas to make his mark. Thus began a period of time where Dick and I corresponded via mail. As a boy of say, 12 - 13, I always had a myriad of questions regarding ventriloquism.
Dick, gentle man that he was, always answered my letters and did what he could to help me along. The collateral bonus of this correspondence was that I was put on his mailing list. So, periodically I would receive postcards from Dick, glossy photos, articles and of course the annual holiday card, which I looked forward to every year.
Getting a holiday card in the mail from Dick had an amazing effect on me. There was something so very professional about it. So much so, that when I turned pro so many years ago, i made it a habit to send out my own cards, like Dick, every year. Curiously, I too have found that my client list and the folks on my personal holiday list look forward to receiving my card each year. I'm guessing it is because of its uniqueness and in some instances the humor that can go into such cards.
There is a good story about Dick. While he was still in the Midwest he worked for a company in his day job. Dick's real name was Earl Estenson. Well, the company was planning a holiday party. Earl (Dick) said, "I'm a ventriloquist and as an employee I would be happy to perform my act for free at the holiday party." Well, management patted little Earl on the head and said, "thanks but no thanks, we are going to get a professional act." So the person in charge of hiring the entertainment called a booking agency and inquired about an act for their Holiday Party. The agent said, "I have a wonderful ventriloquist, his name is Dick Weston and he is available. The client said "OK, that sounds great." Just imagine the looks on management faces when Earl (Dick Weston) Estenson showed up to do his show. And, of course, he took the money. Talk about punching the big guy...I love it.
As a collector of ephemera, I have a complete set of The Ventriloquist Guild 'Journal,' which was published in the 80's and 90's by John Arvites. In the collection, there are many fine articles. One, from Vol 4, No. 1, 1991 was by Dick Weston. It is in the form of a letter and is a fascinating look back through the eyes of a very successful working pro.
Used by permission from John, here is this month's contribution to the Vent-O-Gram blog. A letter from Dick Weston.
“We can really be proud of our young vents. They are the future greats. I seldom dwell on the past, but sometimes it is heart-warming to stroll down memory lane. I hope you will join me in reminiscing.
I’ll never forget the first time I met Edgar Bergen. It was in my hometown of Minneapolis, Mn, about 1948-49. At the former Minnesotan Theatre, a magnificent huge movie palace which for some reason was renamed Radio City Theatre March 8, 1944.
I watched Bergen, Charlie, Mortimer, and Effie at least three times out front…then snuck backstage! No one was allowed backstage, especially with a show going on …but your’s truly…a nervous twenty two year old, hid behind those gargantuan curtains and watched Bergen and McCarthy go through their famous Doctor Routine from the wings.
After his final bow, Bergen noticed me almost swallowed up in the creases of the curtains. I quickly blurted out: “Mr. Bergen, I’m a ventriloquist too!” He took my hand and gave me a very warm handshake to set me at ease. We talked for about ten minutes, as I remember. I asked for an autographed picture. He promised to send me one, and instructed me to give his secretary my address. That picture, first of many autographed ones I received from him, is now standing proudly on my library shelf.
The irreplaceable Grand Movie Palace, the old “Minnesota,” one of the most beautiful ever built in the USA was torn down in April of 1959 and the space it occupied is now a parking ramp. Sad. The Historical Society of Minneapolis must still be crying.
I was to meet Bergen many times after that. He even came to see me perform in 1959 when I first started to make noise in Las Vegas.
By the way, Edgar Bergen was the first star to perform at the grand opening of Wilber Clark’s Desert Inn in 1950. Bergen, Charlie, Mortimer, and Effie appeared in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and Reno many, many times after that, until his death in September 1978 while performing at Ceasars Palace. Dennis Alwood and I caught his performance two nights before he died. He received the most honest, warm enthusiastic standing ovation that any superstar ever received in Las Vegas. Bergen and Charlie were/are truly icons of the American Showbiz Scene.
Why? One reason is because Bergen ‘played’ the wooden puppet the way Heifetz played the violin. With feeling and verve.
Also, in Bergen’s favor, was the era he ‘came about’ as a star, so to speak. The thirties and forties. The glamour era of Hollywood and the peak years of radio. You young vents truly have no idea, really, what those days were like. You had to experience it. “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Well, when there was true glamour, “a star was a star was a star.” Charlie flirted and wisecracked with all of the Holly wood greats on radio and in the movies. Charlie was quoted almost monthly in Readers Digest for years. Major publicity stories about the team were in practically every magazine and newspaper. This my vent friends, was consistent, year after year after year.
No other Bergen and McCarthy has ever reached this height of fame and fortune they experienced. (editors note: Bergen and McCarthy reached a weekly radio audience of approximately 30 million people in those days. Johnny Carson averaged around 10 million) The glamour era is past, as is the royal days of radio when Edgar Bergen and Charlie were kings.
W.S. and Muzz Berger were such an important part of my life as well. In the 50’s I met WS in Chicago in 1944 at the IBM convention at the Sherman Hotel. Frank Marshall, Les Lester Sr and Jr, Paul Stadelman, among others who were there. Later that hyear, I spent one week as a house guest at 33. W. Maple Ave. and many many weekends in 1950 when I was a corporal in the army stationed at Camp Atturbury, Indiana.
WS was encyclopedic in his knowledge of ventriloquism and took a keen interest in every vent whether pro or amateur.
His energy far surpassed many men half his age. Vent Haven is a living testimonial to the love WS and Muzz gave to all. I was fortunate to have met them and known them.
I’ve lived in Las Vegas twenty years, but started working here in 1959. The air was so clean and pure in those early days and there was just a small trickle of traffic, except on the “strip,’ where all of the major hotels are.
There were three vents who lived here at the same time. Stu Scott, Jay Nemeth, Lou Dupont and yours truly Dick Weston. Stu and Jay have passed and I’m retired currently painting in the neo-impressionism style. (Pointillism)
When Bergen and Charlie opened at the Desert Inn you had to wear a coat and tie to be admitted to the showroom. The showrooms were smaller and more intimate in those days. The star would always be a comedian and the supporting act a singer, with the exception of Sinatra and perhaps a few other top name singers. Now it’s the reverse. The singers are the stars and it usually takes two stars on the bill to draw a crowd.
Times have changed. Nowadays, hotel executives run the show biz departments. There are a few exceptions, but most showrooms these days are not handled properly as in the days gone by. As I write this, there is a musicians strike. The hotel executives want tape, no live music, so they can save a few bucks. Tacky and cheap. By the time you read this, I pray that problems will be resolved for the betterment of the musician, entertainers and tourists who come here to enjoy these beautiful shows.
Las Vegas still remains unique and remarkable in spite of its growing pains. The housing and population explosion is a phenomenon.
Maybe one day a new vent will appear on the horizon and cause as much excitement, become a household name, loved and adored by the general public as Bergen and McCarthy were in the glamour period of the thirties and forties, but I doubt it. We all can hope though, can’t we?”
Las Vegas, Nevada
September 22, 1990
Ed. Note: After Dick wrote this article, the musicians in Las Vegas lost their strike. Few of the shows feature live music then and now. Las Vegas has never been the same.
To see a great clip of Dick, Aunt Martha and Clarence, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8oMWxW0hl4&t=386s
To find out more about the incredible work of Bill Nelson, go here: http://billnelsonstudios.com/
"Remarkable" Life Magazine
"Excellent" New York Post
"Dick Weston is one of the best voice tossers in the business." Variety
"He brought down the house." Seattle Times
Next month on Vent-O-Gram, a conversation with ventriloquist, collector Mark Hellerstein
Copyright 2021 Swampsong, LLC