Clifford Guest...The Interview, Part II
"The best since Edgar Bergen," that's what journalist Walter Winchell (1897-1972) said about Clifford Guest. During his lifetime, Clifford was one of the top ventriloquist's in show business. When it came to distant voice, he was unsurpassed. Greg Berlin, editor of the Vent-o-gram said that "words alone could not do justice to the man's talent." (Vent-o-gram Volume 5 Number 1 Mar-Apr 1967) In his career, he toured the world. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, (7 weeks at Tivoli Gardens) Germany, Holland, Finland, Beirut, Lebanon (performing his act in French) and London where he played a 20 week engagement at the London Palladium.
Years ago, when making my transition from broadcasting to full time ventriloquist I sought out the advice of Clifford Guest. As is the case with many ventriloquists, Clifford was very generous with his time. In one of my letters, dated 1992 I asked him about finding work. He said, "Yes, it is a rough business and one has to just keep on plugging away and annoying the agents. Unfortunately, there is no longer any showbiz as I knew it when I first came to America, when nearly every movie house had two or three acts between movies."
As you can see from the length of the posted letter, Clifford took his time and carefully addressed my concerns. He also alluded to the fact that the one thing that is constant in this business is change. I was and am grateful for the advice he passed along in those letters.
I would again like to thank David Erskine for making this interview available. His series of books entitled, 'Conversations with Members of the Ventriloquist Family,' are gems in terms of their substance and contribution to the ventriloquial arts.
To reiterate, the interview was recorded June 29, 1989.
And now, Part II.
Did you know Mr. Berger?
Yes. What a kind man he was. He had a file on me. I said, "Where did you get this information? I can't believe it." He said, "I've been interested in ventriloquism all my life and I've followed your career from Australia through England and Scandinavia," I became very friendly with him.
Did you see Lester perform or meet him?
I met him when he came to see me perform at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles. This was before I went on tour with Liberace. Of course I had heard of him. I said, "Oh, you're the Great Lester." So, he said, "I want you to come with us now." They took me to dinner. (no indication as to who 'they' were)
He told me about Frank Marshall and when I went to Chicago with the Liberace show, I got in touch with Frank Marshall and he made Johnnie.
My next job after Liberace was in Las Vegas at the El Rancho Vegas, which since has burned. I was still with the William Morris Agency. The young man from the agency, Freddie Elswood, and his wife flew his plane to see my opening. After he saw me perform he said, "When I first met you, Clifford, I didn't think you'd be getting this kind of money in Las Vegas." I said, "Why?" He said, "You were so terribly British. They would never understand you." I still have a British accent I suppose. (Clifford was Australian)
Anyway, that night they flew back and their plane crashed. It was very sad.
Is there a form of theatre that you miss? Do you miss the proscenium stage, the European seating?
In Europe and Scandinavia, they have theaters. They're more glamorous.
The people listen to you. I try to learn as much of their language as possible. I introduce what I'm saying and sometime, if I know them well, I make a mistake on purpose. They call out, "No! No! No! They get so excited.
They have your interest at heart. You've mentioned playing schools. Is that colleges as well as high schools and elementary??
I do everything. I have a program "K through 80." When I have a program K through twelve, I have to combine two programs. That's an extreme variation.
I have two babies and a hand puppet. I explain to the little kids how this is done, then I show them how to do it. They put up their hands. Then I do a little message thing with the hand puppet. The puppet wants a candy. I give him a candy and ask, "Do you take candy from a stranger?" He says, "No." I say, "What do you tell the little children?" He says, "Do you take candy from strangers?" They say, "No, we don't, imitating a puppet with their hands.
When I first went out, I was afraid of high school kids. I was in Chicago and Betty Carlson, who was running the school assembly program, asked me about entertaining schools. I said, "I don't now if I can entertain kids. I'm not a children's entertainer." I wasn't too successful the first couple of times. So, I sat up burning the midnight oil and rewrote the material. I came down to their level. Betty said, "Put more education into it. Explain how you do these things." Then I was very successful. Now I enjoy working to kids. They're so intrigued.
When you play in college, do you ever lecture in the class room?
No, I'm usually in and out. I usually have a couple more shows somewhere, maybe fifty miles away. Sometimes I do four shows a day. So, that's why I don't go on the road much. The last time was twelve weeks. I covered Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska. That's around the world isn't it. I drive all the time because I have my equipment. I can't fly.
Do you find that college students are interested in your performance?
Oh, yes, even though they are walking around eating, when the show is in a cafeteria. They'll come to me and say, "Hey, man, how do you do that? Where's the tape recorder?"
One time, at a junior college, six boys came up to me and said, "We have a bet on. Jack says you have a tape recorder. I said, "You didn't listen to my spiel! I tell you when I start that I don't have any tape recorders. Everything is done through my throat and through practice, practice, practice."
They said, "Well, Jack says you have a tape recorder." "Okay," I said, "where is the tape recorder?"
"In the suitcase," said Jack.
I said, "Okay." I opened the suitcase and they looked in it and felt inside the dummy. I took off my coat and they looked at it. So, this guy, Jack, got mad. What a character! He wouldn't believe you could do this with practice.
How do you learn to make sound?
What I do is tape it from a show or from a theatrical sound and listen to it over and over until I get the sound. Then I record it and listen to it.
I say to my wife, "What does this sound like?"
She says, "It sounds like so-and-so.
I say, "Wrong!" So I start again. Sometimes it takes almost a year to learn a sound.
When you started in Australia, you didn't have a tape recorder.
When I was a kid, in the bush country, there were no tape recorders; there were no microphones. So, I learned to project; I learned on the job. In the six-man dramatic show, (see Part I) while the man was teaching me to be an actor, he said, "No matter how bad an actor you are, if they can hear you, they'll forgive you. You have to keep your head up. Don't look down. Remember, those people back there paid two shillings, too. Speak to them. These people down here will hear you."
So I learned to project. These days you can mumble; you have microphones.
Did you have agents on different continents getting work for you?
Yes. I spent a lot of time in Scandinavia, Sweden, Finland, which is one of my favorite spots. In fact, I could have appeared there this year for two or three months. I play a big hotel there, with a name I can't pronounce, and a theatre called the Peacock.
Scandinavia has been good to me for quite a few years.
I was in Paris. I've played the London Palladium, and the Hoborn Empire, which no longer is there. It was bombed during the war.
In America I've played all the big shows; Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, the Pierre Hotel, the Plaza, in fact, that's where I met Edgar Bergen, Jimmy Nelson, and Stanley Burns.
What is your philosophy about going into show business?
When you go into show business you have to accept everything that comes, every booking. Grab everything you can, like I did. At the drop of a hat I'd perform anywhere just to get the experience. Show business is a hard life. But, it's been good to me. I have happy memories.
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