Clifford Guest...The Interview Part 1
Updated: Oct 21, 2018
I have had the pleasure of getting to know ventriloquist, historian and collector David Erskine. In addition to his exhaustive work on the Great Lester, (The Great Lester: Ventriloquism's Renaissance Man,) David has also penned a number of works on the craft including: The Ages of Ventriloquism, Edgar Bergen, An Interview Anthology, Latchstring, Remembering WS and Muzz Berger, and Letters to Willie, a treatise on the creation and emergence of his ventriloquist character, Ronny Darnay.
Recently, I acquired his series of books entitled, 'Conversations with Members of the Ventriloquist family.' What follows is an interview that David conducted with the great Clifford Guest. The interview was recorded June 29, 1989. Many thanks to David Erskine for making this available to the ventriloquist community.
Clifford Guest, was born in Australia. He is considered in the ventriloquist community one of the greats of the craft. His career included appearances on the Mike Douglas Show, The Johnny Carson Show, The Ed Sullivan Show and the Hollywood Palace to name a few. His act hearkened back to the days of ventriloquial polyphony. Since his time, he has never been equaled. Fortunately we have the record of his work. To revisit this Master of the art, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-msUOO9YHY&t=1s
And now, the interview...
I understand you now live in Florida.
Yes. I've lived in Florida about three years. I'm semi-retired now. I do a few weeks a year; some colleges and schools, and occasional cruise ship, things like that. The last big show I did was a tour around the United States with Doug Henning, the magician. That was three months on the road, four or five years ago. When I go with magicians I'm a break in between magic. They call me "The Voice Magician."
That's a perfect description of your act. How did you learn to be a voice magician?
I used to imitate the cows and chickens like most kids do. When I was a kid, I lived on a farm in the Australian bush, near a town called Little River, in Victoria. I was a few miles from Melbourne.
My mother took me to a big department store, in Melbourne, to see a Christmas show. There was a ventriloquist in the show with a whole family of dummies. He had a little boy dummy who kept interrupting, so he put him behind a screen. The little kid dummy kept shouting from behind the screen. I said, "Oh, this is fantastic!"
I went home and started doing all these funny noises. Then I went to a magic shop in Melbourne. It had all these dummies and magic things. I started buying books on how to learn ventriloquism. So, I started to develop this voice. Then, I thought, "How do they throw their voice?"
A ventriloquist named Great Scott explained to me, "There's no such thing as throwing your voice. It doesn't leave you. It's an illusion." I said, "Oh, you can't throw your voice?" I was so disappointed. He said, "You give the impressions that the voice is coming from somewhere. You have to learn to breath and so forth." Well, I was very keen on ventriloquism. At the time I was taking piano lessons. I said to my teacher, "I'm not going to take any more lessons. I'm going to be a ventriloquist! She said: "You're going to be a WHAT? So, I taught myself ventriloquism and developed the distant voice, which has been a big part of my act.
I didn't have much schooling because I was on the road, almost immediately as an actor and ventriloquist. My first job was in the bush of Australia. I don't think I was a teenager yet. My mother didn't want me to go on the road but the producer went to her and said, "It's okay. We like him. We think he's going to be a good little actor." So, they took me on the road. We only had six people in the cast. They taught me character acting. I was an old man and I came out of character to do my vent act.
Was this a stock company playing under canvas?
No. We played municipal halls and schools. We traveled by train, coach and any form of transportation available. The people came from miles around.
Did that form of entertainment finally go away?
The talkies (movies with audio) started coming in. I was with another show, the Royal Institute for the Blind, for two years. These were Royal blind entertainers, fantastic musicians.
Those blind guys had such a good sense of humor. One night we came into a small town and all the lights had gone out. We couldn't see a thing. They said, "Aw, come on you silly bugger." They grabbed my arm and took me home. Their big thing was playing cards with Braille cards. The sighted guys had to be honest.
What did you do in that show?
I performed my act and did a double comedy dance and patter routine with a male partner, who was the comedian in the show.
After that did you became a single act, a variety artist?
I could never get a big break in Australia as a variety artist, a prophet in his own country. I worked all the bush shows, all the small time and a few movie houses, nothing really big.
So, I went to England and almost starved. When I was young, I spent many years there. I went to the booking agents everyday. "Nothing today, Mr. Guest." But then one day an agent said, "Clifford, I want to send you to Ireland. They want an opening act. Do you think you can open a show? Its a big variety show in Dublin." I said, "I think so, yes." I was desperate. It was fifteen pounds salary. (about 20 dollars today) I was down to about twenty dollars. I took a ship that night to Dublin. When I got there the manager said, "The other act turned up. You'll precede the band." The band was the star attraction. I opened before the star and was great.
One of the acts on the bill was also a talent manager in London. On the way back to England he said, "I'd like to manage you." Six months later I was appearing at the London Palladium and the Hoborn Empire. (A number of successful music halls and theaters) I had hit the big time and never looked back.
When did you come to America?
My wife Dana wanted to see the United States. She said, "Let's go to America." I said, "I don't think I can compete with those people over there." She said, "Well I think you can. I have faith in you." I came to America in 1948. America has been very good to me. I hit the Big Time almost immediately. I went to Los Angeles and gave an audition for the William Morris Agency. They signed me the next day for three years. I was with the agency for nine or ten years.
You've always been in demand haven't you?
I never stopped working. I could work much more if I wished Last year I was on the road twenty six weeks. This year I was on the road twelve weeks and I have four conventions lined up for the summer
When you signed with William Morris did you have the same premise for your act as you have now?
More or less. At the time, I had a little dummy which was made for me in Australia. It was about eighteen inches tall and was on a walking stick. By the way, my kangaroo, that Frank Marshall made for me, is on display at Vent Haven. I couldn't get the personality of it. So then, Frank Marshall made Johnny.
I've been fascinated with you since I read about you in Mr. Berger's Oracles and saw you on the Ed Sullivan Show.
I was on the Ed Sullivan Show about twice a year. He called me his 'little Australian Friend." He would say, "Here's my little Australian friend." Before the show he would say, "Now, Clifford, you're going to do the baby." I'd say, "Yes, okay. I'll do the baby." Half-way through the show he'd come by and say, "Were running short Clifford, so don't do the baby." So, I'd come down and he'd say, "Clifford, we've got time, so do the baby." I didn't know where in the devil I was. That was Ed Sullivan. He was noted for that.
As a matter of fact, I was booked on the Johnny Carson show three times one week, when the show was in New York. The second time I didn't get on because the time was too short. So, I dashed off somewhere north of New York to do a club date. They sent for me to appear the next night, so I had to rush back. So, I know what it's like to be stood up, so to speak. This happens on other shows. They run late and can't put you on. Maybe six months later you get on the show.
In 1979 when I saw your HBO work, Double Talk, I wondered why you called your figure Junior. I remember you called him Lester on the Ed Sullivan Show.
He was Lester. Then someone else called their dummy Lester. Willie Tyler called his dummy Lester. I thought, "Oh, there can't be two Lester in the business," so I changed his name to Junior, then I changed it to Johnnie. My wife and daughter Robyn say, "Why don't you call him this or why don't you call him that?" So, I keep changing his name.
I remember him jumping out of the suitcase and running around the stage.
Yes. I'm still doing that. I make Junior run by pushing him ahead of me and, at the same time, wiggle his body from side to side..
I remember also the unbelievable fox chase. How did you get the idea for that?
I saw a fox hunt in England one time. I didn't actually see it, but I saw these horses off in the distance. I was with a friend and said, "Hey, that sounds good. I wonder if I could do that. I started with the voice of the dogs in the distance. All of a sudden I was doing the fox hunt which became a big part of my act.
Where did you get the idea for the baby cry?
I think the first influence I had for the baby was when I was a kid learning ventriloquism. There was a black ventriloquist, from America, who had a baby buggy on the stage. I don't remember the ventriloquist's name. His wife came on and talked about the baby and then walked off. And the baby started to cry and he talked to the baby and it started to cry again. Eventually, the ventriloquist was exposed when the buggy was shown to be empty. I thought, "My goodness. How does he do that?"
So I went home and tried to do the baby.
I kept asking Mom, "How does this sound Mom?"
She said, "Oh, I don't know."
That's how I learned to do the baby.
On the HBO show, when you turned your back and the baby yelled, that tickled me because it was unexpected. I noticed that you actually cared about the baby.
Yes, oh sure. You've got to give the impression. That's where my acting experience comes in. You know how i got that HBO show? I was working somewhere in Illinois and my wife called me. She said, "There's a producer who wants to speak to you. He said, "Would you call this number."
So I called him and he said, "I"m so and so for HBO."
I said, "What's HBO?"
"Home Box Office, a cable show. Would you be available to go to Knott's Berry Farm and tape the show? It's called Double Talk, with all ventriloquists."
I said, "MY god, are there so many ventriloquists in the world?"
He said, "Do you know how I got a hold of you?"
"Ted Knight. He was on the Tonight Show and was talking to Johnny Carson and Johnny said, "Well now, who is your favorite ventriloquist."
Knight said, "A fellow who doesn't do much television. I think his name is Clifford Guest."
You've built your act without being influenced by other ventriloquists. Talk about that.
I taught a couple of kids in Australia. I always told them the same thing. Don't snitch other people's acts. You can get an idea, but say, "Oh, that's a good idea, maybe I can embellish on that." Don't steal a persons's piece of material. You work for years to develop something, right? And then someone comes along and steals it.
Next week: Part II, where Clifford touches on WS Berger, the Great Lester, performance venues and the school and college markets.
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