Don Bryan...The Interview
Class act. It is how I would describe Don Bryan. He has been at the craft for decades and at this point in time, has literally performed all over the world. Television, cruise lines, comedy clubs, corporates, fairs, exhibitions. Don is the consummate pro.
But it doesn't end there. His passion for figure building is just as intense as his love of performing. His character, Noseworthy, can only be described as follows: A masterpiece.
This year Don decided to share his knowledge in both performance and figure making. In his new book, 'Ventriloquism, Guess Who's Talking,' (available at the ConVENTion this year) he covers it all. Be sure to pick up a copy if you're attending. Also, don't miss his performance at the conVENTion. It will be highlight, I'm sure.
I really had fun with this one. It is significant to me when a performer is willing to take his own time in the midst of a hectic schedule and say yes to an interview. We are all the richer for it. And now Vent-O-Gram proudly presents, Don Bryan.
Is this a bad time for an interview?
No, but I gotta go to the bathroom and then get a cup of coffee. (laughter)
Actually, coffee is my favorite sit down thinking thing.
By the way, I was talking with Dennis Alwood the other day and he says hello.
Years ago, when Bergen past away, Dennis had the commission to refurbish the figures for the Smithsonian. I was down in LA where he lived at the time. He contacted me and said, “C’mon over, I’ve got the kids here.” (laughs) So I quick went over to his house and he had the heads all lined up and I had a photo taken. It is actually one of my favorite pictures. Of course, I got to meet Bergen before that.
What year did you meet Bergen?
I think around 1972.
Were you a pro at that point in time?
No, at that time I was in sales. I was involved with a bicycle company out of Sweden. We had a racing team, which I was a part of and was selling their bike products. My act was always in the background though. I didn’t turn pro until about 1985.
I know you spent some time working USO shows. How did that come about?
Well, in 1963, once I got out of high school I went to Europe, hitch hiked and stayed in Hostels. It was the thing to do at that time. I had a couple of months doing that. Then I made a connection with an agency. I did a couple of showcases and they picked me up. It didn’t last long. I was way out of my depth. I didn’t know how to handle a crowd of military personnel. They also wanted me to emcee as well as do my act. Well, I had never emceed anything before. So I failed miserably on that account and my act was so-so.
When you say your act was so-so, how does somebody go from being so-so to a pro?
Lot’s of experience. As you know yourself you have to learn by doing. Everything I had learned about ventriloquism was in a book basically. As I got out there and started booking a variety of venues, everything from schools, to kids shows, bars, comedy clubs and eventually concert venues, well, that is basically how you hone your craft. I was not very disciplined. I didn’t take it very seriously. I loved doing it, but did not devote a lot of time to actually sitting down and structuring my act. I actually had a bunch of ideas and gags and would go on stage and wing it more or less. I had a little cue sheet. It wasn’t good. My show ran hot and cold. Eventually I got a grip on it and started to structure my material. Rehearsed myself and in time it came together for me.
George Carlin often said he sat in front of the word processor and would write out his routines word for word. Do you do that?
I do now. But back in the day, no. I guess I didn’t really start doing that until about 15 years ago. I really started to recognize the fact that my stuff was kind of sloppy and unpredictable. I then took a comedy course from a guy in San Francisco. It was expensive but very useful. He completely restructured me and I couldn’t really work for several months after because I was so mixed up between his ideas and what I was used to doing. It took me awhile to reformulate what I was doing. He asked me, “Do you write out your act?” I said, well I can’t do that I don’t really have it written out. (laughs) So he forced me to be disciplined and to really look at what I was doing. He gave me a system.
When you were young, did you have aspirations to be a pro or no? Meaning when you first became interested in ventriloquism.
Well, I was about 14 years old. I started listening to Edgar Bergen and Charlie on the radio. Then I discovered he was a ventriloquist. Then came Paul Winchell and I just had to have a puppet. So, I embarked on a number of projects trying to build my own dummy.
But, you had a Jerry Mahoney didn’t you?
Yeah I did, but I never really worked with it. It was a toy basically.
So you were dissatisfied with the figure. Did you make any alterations to it?
Oh yeah, I messed it up completely. (laughter) Eventually, I just wasn’t happy and started building my own puppets. My first efforts were using an asbestos powder. (laughs) Can you believe that? Well, I built a full size figure and it was ugly as sin. I did one little show for a birthday party at my house. The figure fell off the chair and shattered and that was the end of that. But, I was very lucky. I met an old gentleman in Vancouver who was a retired shop teacher. His hobby was building vent dolls. He carved them all. I met him in a toy shop where he had a little show going on. This was about 1955.
You’re talking about “Pop” Steinman correct?
Yes. You are correct. Pop became my very good friend. I would visit with him as often as I could. I would sit for hours in his workshop watching him carve. He took a look at my efforts and said, “No, this is what you do.” Boy did I learn fast. He taught me a lot. My first build was good, my second was actually very good. I still have that doll and it still works. It’s beautiful. It is one of the best things I ever did.
I learned, but he never gave me a pass. He would look at my work and say, “That’s much better, but...” (laughs) Tough mentor. I never could afford to buy any of his dolls. They were amazing animatronics basically, but all mechanical. They all worked with hand and foot controls. His figures were like a McElroy but in his own style.
With all this ventriloquism activity, what kind of a reputation did you have in school? Were you considered a cool guy or a nerd?
I was a nerd for sure. The tough kids would corner me and say, “How did you do that?” I would say, “Well, I just do it.” They would say, “No you got a tape recorder. “ And I said, “ No, no I don’t.” Then they would give me a shove and move on.” (laughter) I was too much of a nerd and couldn’t stand up to these guys. But, by the time high school came along I started getting some recognition.
You’ve got two different’ love’s going on here. First is performance and second you obviously fell in love with creating your own characters. How did you ever balance all of that?
Well, at first I was just doing shows on the side making extra income and building the odd dummy. People would contact me and want me to build them a dummy. I probably built about 28 commissioned characters over the years. Most of them, I don’t know where they are. Same with Steinman’s stuff, after he died they sort of disappeared. So my passion for performing was equally balanced with my desire to build. I always wanted to build that perfect dummy…something that Steinman would approve of.
Speaking of perfect dummies, let's talk about Noseworthy. How did you get the idea for that character.
I had a plan in my head. I didn’t know what it would be though. Well, I took a commission with a local advertising agency to build a puppet. It was a little Skippy the Peanut Butter guy. I said I could do it, and they said you have two months. Ok, then they called me back and said I had two weeks. I said I don’t know about that. And they said, well you’re committed you have to do it.
So, I did it. I was working late one night and I couldn’t get everything done so I invited my best buddy who was an artist to come over and help. He and I were working on this doll together at about 3 o’clock in the morning. We were both pretty punchy. Well, my buddy drew this little cartoon just for the hell of it. It was a little character he used to put in the margins of his notebook. It was a google-eyed big nosed thing peeking over a wall. I liked the look of it. I hung the sketch up on my work shop wall and it stayed there for a couple of years. Then I got to looking at it one day and I thought it would make a cute character. I checked with my buddy, made a few alterations and made the figure. That would have been about 1965. It worked really well. I called him the professor at the time. He worked great for adults.
So, is necessity the mother of invention?
Yes and no. I wasn’t making a living with it in those days. It was more a passion or hobby. I kept working away at it and eventually it became a bigger thing. Initially, it was just fun. I wasn’t really trying to make a big splash in the world. I never really had the ambition to, you know, become the world’s best ventriloquist. I just wanted to do a good job that satisfied me. One of the things I realized was that I always needed to improve what I was doing.
So I built another Noseworthy. I had Ray Guyll help me with that one. He was brilliant.
Your evolution then, in terms of becoming a pro, took quite a few years.
I was forced into it really. The years of selling bikes kind of wilted in the early 70’s. I lost my job. I went back to school and studied architecture. Then I lost another job. Well during all this, my act was still perking along. So I was forced into doing something. I had a couple of agents, a few bookings so I just kept working on that. Actually, from that point on I never went back to the drawing board. It grew really well for me. I did a lot of work in the pacific northwest and across Canada working exhibitions and fairs for about eight years. Then ships, then television, working with Dolly Parton, Eddie Murphy, BB King. A lot of pretty big names.
Let's talk about your book, ‘Ventriloquism, Guess who’s talking?’ You’re at the ConVENTion this year correct? Will you have your book for sale?
Yes, I have a table in the dealers room. I’m not good at being a self promoter, but I have all these books I have to sell. (laughs)
And you’ll be performing at the ConVENTion yes?
Are audiences made up of ventriloquists tough to perform in front of?
(laughs) it is always a challenge. For example, last time I did it, I was having issues with the microphone. It kept cutting out. I guess I was giving them an example of how to recover from disaster. (laughter) I had to improvise around it. It was probably more interesting than the show! But, I find they are…well, they have heard it all. A lot are there to learn and of course pick up material ideas. I’ve always been a little apprehensive about doing all my material there because, you know, how much of that is going to end up with another act? I’ve always been a bit leery about that. But now I think, at this point, I am what I am, you know, what I do. There is only one of me. I’ll do my show, most of it will be with Noseworthy and I’ll do a little bit of the tennis ball routine.
Do you think the audience defines your act? Meaning, if a character is not accepted by the audience, do you get rid of him or?
Well, often when a figure doesn’t work, it’s because I can’t get a handle on the personality and the material. On the other hand, I know the character of Noseworthy really well. It is a part of my, as we say in the business, my alter ego. Well he really is. That character is embedded in me somewhere and I have ways of expressing it through this personality. And, it is so much fun. A lot of the gags are old chestnut stuff. Some of those jokes were written when the Dead Sea only had a cough. (laughs)
What about political correctness?
I don’t do it. I just avoid it. Especially on cruise ships. People are so divided. They either love it or hate it. I don’t go near it. I used one gag once, and half the audience liked it, and half hated it. The next thing you know they tell the cruise director they didn’t appreciate hearing the name Trump. (laughs) Just that alone is enough to get people’s dander up. It’s best to avoid it. I also don’t get too topical, though when I’m doing a corporate gig I try to identify with the group I’m speaking to. I try to educate myself as to the industry and who the people are. Then I plug those personalities into the show.
How has the business changed since you started?
Oh, I think the transition really happened around 9/11. Most of my business was doing corporate gigs. I was doing around 4-5 a month. Then after 9/11 it all just dropped off. A number of agencies that made their living exclusively in corporate just folded. The business just evaporated for entertainment.
How do you feel about exclusive representation with an agency versus being sold by a number of agencies?
I’ve done both. For instance, my cruise business comes from a single agency. They have really been good for me. Outside of that, I don’t have any exclusive arrangements with any agency. I used to when business was really booming. For instance, there was a time when every bar across the country had a comedy night. I did a lot of that kind of work and had agencies that wanted to ‘manage’ me. Well, they didn’t really manage, they just became brokers for me, that’s all. Then I would be sold to other agencies, and those agencies would take a commission, my agent would take a commission, then there would be a management fee on top of that. After it was all said and done I would be paying out 50% of my fee to these agencies. All I was doing was getting booked, but I wasn’t moving on in my career to the next step.
What is the entertainment market like in Canada?
For music it is a lot better. Variety, it is tougher. I can’t even tell you any proper variety entertainment venues in Canada. There is nothing on television. CBC used to have variety shows, but they dried up. Corporate is your best bet, and then you have fairs and exhibitions. Lounges and bars and comedy clubs, not so much any more.
With the way technology is moving today, is ventriloquism going to survive as an art form?
I think it is actually getting better. America’s Got Talent and the spin off’s have done a lot to expose new ventriloquist talent. There is Terry Fator in Vegas, and Darci Lynne Farmer. She has really impressed everyone and has brought ventriloquism back into main stream entertainment. Darci has done a lot for that and has gotten young people interested in it all over again. Everybody asks me about her, “Have you seen Darci Lynne?” And then, of course there is Jeff Dunham. He is a favorite. He makes me laugh. A funny man with beautiful characters, especially Walter. Jeff has always been a good technician, great sense of humor, fun to watch and a nice guy. I have nothing but good things to say about him.
As a ventriloquist when you talk about Terry or Jeff and yourself of course, it is obvious that the common thread is that character, in terms of the figure, is the common thread in their presentations.
Absolutely. The figures become identifiable. Or, they are so new or shocking as in the case of Jeff’s Achmed. That was a bit of a risk for him to do that. But he believed in it and it just caught fire. Especially with the younger generation. It is very funny. I think Achmed was a real evolution for him in his career. Not that he wasn’t doing really well before that! I think it put him on the map.
Are you going to keep doing it as Jimmy Nelson use to say, until the phone quits ringing?
Yeah, probably. At my age now I could retire, but I don’t want to. I do enjoy getting up before an audience you know, the lights, the excitement, the adrenaline rush you get when your succeeding. But, it is always a challenge too. You never know really what it is going to be like. You know your stuff, you know in your gut what works. But, you can get out in front of a crowd and it may be something different with them. Maybe they have been on a tour, they are all dead beat tired and have to get up early in the morning to go on another tour. There are a lot of factors. It is not consistent. Some nights you have gangbuster full house standing ovations and then a couple of nights later you come back and say, “what the hell happened?” (laughter)
Are you still cycling?
No, I’m in the gym these days. I’m into weights. I love pumping iron as they say. I spend 5-6 hours a week working out. It has kept me strong and viable because of the travel and the kind of stress we have. You have to be able to deal with it. For instance, I lost my wallet once and had to depend upon the generosity of strangers to get me where I was going. Stressful.
And bags don’t show up sometimes. I was doing a gig in Alberta and my bags didn’t arrive. All I had were the puppet heads. I always ship the bodies in checked luggage. So I had the heads. I told them that the act wasn’t going to be quite the same because of this problem. They said, “Well, could you do something?” And I did. I used my little carry on bag, I put it on the table and would pop the head up over the lid, do a little bit, then put that down and pop another one up. The body was actually the case. I got away with it. In fact, most people didn’t even know. They just thought it was all part of my act.
So you killed...
Well, I managed…..I didn’t die. Sometimes you have to think on your feet. They had no other entertainment. I was it. I had to come up with something.
As a ventriloquist, and the ventriloquist community as a whole, do you think we ever grow up?
I think we live in this make believe world. Well, some people more than others. Some people refer to their characters as a person, ‘little Billy this, little Billy that.’ Look, it’s an it, it’s a puppet, it’s a thing, not a person. Now, when you are on stage, it is different. Now you have to buy into the illusion yourself. You want to believe that when you’re looking at this character, he is looking back at you and thinking, and speaking and responding like it is all happening for the first time. You are a comedy team and that is the way it should come across. But once the show is done, the doll sits on the chair, I take off its head, put it in the case, pack em up and away I go. I don’t sit and talk to them and say, “Well, that was a shitty show!” (laughter)
But to answer your question, do we ever grow up? No.
Ventriloquism, Guess who's talking? by Don Gaylord Bryan is available at:
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