Dennis Alwood...The Interview
Updated: Sep 26, 2018
Dennis Alwood, former director for the ABC television network in LA is known for his movie work with ‘Mae West, ‘The Men’s Club’ and television episodes ‘Murder She Wrote.’ He was also the creator, voice and manipulator of Fat’s for the movie Magic in 1978. Dennis was a professional ventriloquist for many years and a close acquaintance of Edger Bergen. I had a chance to sit down with him recently to talk about some of his experiences in the biz. The interview follows.
You were intimately involved in the movie Magic in 1978 weren’t you?
Oh yes, with Anthony Hopkins and director Sir Richard Attenbourough. That was an interesting few months.
What is your relationship to Fats in that movie?
Well, I had him built and did the animation and the voice. They wanted everyone to believe that Anthony Hopkins was doing it all, but he wasn’t. (Laughs)
Did you design the actual character of Fat’s yourself?
I actually did. In the book Magic, there is no description of the dummy except he is NOT cute. So I took that as a starting point and he ended up NOT cute. (Laughs)
When you finally presented the figure to the powers that be, what was their reaction?
Bill Goldman wrote the book Magic. I showed it to Bill and he was delighted with it. He said: “Oh, I think that's just the way he should look.” So, I was happy with that.
Tell me about your own performing as a ventriloquist?
Well, I got started when I was ten years old. I think I gave my first paid performance when I was thirteen so I’ve been doing it a long time. I found an interesting thing: I produced four television shows for HBO called the Vent Event. And we used every famous ventriloquist, Edgar Bergen, Jimmy Nelson, Senor Wences, Shari Lewis and they all had two things in common. The first one was, they were self-taught. The fancy word for that is autodidactic. The second one was, they did it before they turned 12 or 13.
So you think that’s a fairly universal phenomenon for ventriloquists?
Oh yeah, in fact my friend Edgar Bergen, God bless him, told me once that some oil rich multi-millionaire came to him and said: “I’ll give you ten thousand dollars if you teach my daughter to be a ventriloquist.” Edgar said: “How old is she?” He said: 18. Edgar said: “Can’t do it.”
So when did you meet Edgar Bergen?
When I lived in Burbank, Ca., on the way to the ABC studios where I was working I used to drive by his office at 6536 Sunset Blvd. I still remember it. He owned that whole block as a matter of fact. I would look up at the window and wonder if he is in there, or Charlie is in there and what are they doing and so forth. Then one day, just out of the blue, I was driving back home on Sunset Blvd. and there was Charlie McCarthy sitting on a fire hydrant. And when I pulled over and got out of the car I realized Edgar was holding him and there was somebody out in the street taking pictures. I walked up to him and I did the smartest thing I’ve ever done. I didn’t say hello to Edgar, I said hello to Charlie and shook his hand. We then started up this conversation continuing for about 5 minutes! Charlie finally said: “I think you should meet the guy who is holding on to me, his name is Edgar Bergen.” So, that is how we finally met.
So that was your first meeting with Bergen, but obviously that was not the end of the story?
Not at all, in fact he said at that meeting: “Do you like Chinese food?” I said yes and he said: “What are you doing next Tuesday?” I said: “nothing.” Of course I was working you know, but I wasn’t about to turn down an invitation from my idol. He said: Why don’t you come by my office and we’ll go to a Chinese restaurant very close by. Well the restaurant was one that he owned called Moo Lings. So I went to his office, he put on his coat and tie and hat and we walked down the stairs to Moo Lings. We went in. He ordered and I ordered. The food came, we didn’t talk.
We ate our lunches. He paid the bill and by the way he added it from top to bottom and then bottom to top, just make sure, and then he signed the check. Then he looked at me and said: “Tell me young man, how long have you been a ventriloquist?”
So, at some point before that you had told him you were a ventriloquist?
No, not really. He just assumed it I guess. Why would I be so interested if I wasn’t a kindred soul, you know. I told him I had been doing it since I was about 10 years old. He said: “I was about that age in Dacatur, Mi. I used to make the chickens talk. I’d make anything talk as long as it would hold still!” We hit it off. We had a great time.
Obviously this was the beginning of a long relationship,
Oh yes, many many years. I also knew Candice when she was 14. I was in Edgar’s office one day, and she dropped by. She was the most beautiful young woman you have ever seen. She was something else. She still is.
Why do you think Bergen took a liking to you?
I don’t know. I think he saw something in me that was also in him. We were both self taught, both Swedish and we both grew up in Chicago.
Did Edgar ever see you work?
Yes he did. There was a ventriloquist fraternity, called the Logos Vent Study Group. They were this Japanese group of ventriloquists in LA. They were having a convention in some downtown LA hotel. They invited Edgar and I. Anyway, at the convention, they introduced me and I got up with my dummy Dudley. They found him very interesting. I would say a line, then the Japanese interpreter would repeat it and I would get a laugh a minute or two after the line. Then Edgar got up and Charlie said: “Bergen we have to be better than we usually are because we are following a real ventriloquist. (Laughs) That was the best compliment he could have given me.
So, what do you think made Bergen great.
His innocence. He was almost naïve, but not as a businessman. He was very scrupulous as a businessman but, as a person he was very approachable. He was very genuine. There were no airs about him at all.
There was a lot of publicity and marketing about Charlie having his own room and that sort of thing. In real life did he consider them just working tools outside of the public perception? Or did he actually treat Charlie and Mortimer as real?
Only that. Only working tools. They were not anything extra special. He had great affection for them. But he didn’t think of them as anything but a part of the act, you know.
Did Bergen ever have you on payroll?
No, he never did. Never did. He tried to pay me a couple of times, but I turned him down. He thought that was honorable.
Did you travel with him?
I did once. He was doing a show at a club called Diamond Jim’s in Minneapolis. He was very good. He got a wonderful response from the audience. I think it was the first time I ever flew 1st class. I thought this is great. This is the way all flights should be!
Wasn’t there a TV commercial where you did Charlie’s voice?
He called me up and said: “I’m doing this commercial tomorrow for Parkay margarine. The stupid director has me holding Charlie in my left hand and Mortimer in my right. I never work Charlie with my left hand. Why don’t you come by and do his animation.” I said, ‘Ok.’ So, I went over to the location and Edgar said to me: “I also have a bit of a cold. Why don’t you do Charlie’s voice?” He knew I could do it. “Why don’t you do Charlie’s voice and I’ll loop it later.” So I said ok. We did about five or six takes and I did all the Charlie lines. A few weeks later I was at his house and he said: “Young man, are the checks coming in from Chicago?”
So, when you refer to the checks coming from Chicago you’re talking about the voice over checks. So you received the royalties on the commercial?
Oh yeah. Haha. You can go on YouTube and see it. I’m rather proud of it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CbUlxrXg8Rs
Were you around for Bergen’s final performance in Las Vegas?
I was there with his manager, Francis his wife and Candice came in from Canada. He came out and he was very nervous. I had never seen him nervous on stage before. But he settled down after awhile. And he got into his stride and Charlie was fine. He walked off to a standing ovation. This was at Ceasar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The stage manager said: “Mr. Bergen, do you realize that you have just received a standing ovation? And Bergen said: “No, I couldn’t see the audience.” So the stage manager had the lighting crew bring up the house lights. Then Edgar went out and he got another ovation. And this time he could see the audience applauding him.
That’s wonderful. I’ll bet it was a surprise when you found out that he had passed so quickly after that.
Yeah, yeah. He was not that old. But his Father had passed away in his forties. So, he didn’t have any expectations about having a long life.
There was no indication prior to those Vegas shows that he wasn’t feeling well?
No, not at all. He was fine. I could see him come alive when he got on stage with Charlie. The years would just drop away. But, I think that is true of a lot of older actors.
In a nutshell, you have had these years of experience with Edgar Bergen. What is your fondest memory of being with him?
Well, if he had not been Edgar Bergen and not been famous, and not been the creator of Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd, and Effie Klinker, I still would have found him to be one of the most charming, vanity lacking and self-effacing individuals I have ever known. He was just an all around terrific human being. I loved him all the more for that.
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