Fred Ketch remembers The Great Lester
Born in San Francisco, California, on December 20, 1891, Fred Ketch learned ventriloquism on his own, and after much work and many shows, began to develop into a top vaudeville act. In 1916, Ketch started on a tour from San Francisco to Seattle and Vancouver. Fred worked on the same bill with actress Edith Wilma, and they became friends. By 1917, the successful act of "Ketch & Wilma" was formed, a top ventriloquist novelty combining the talents
of Fred and Edith. Here, their act "Push the Cork In" was originated and became a standard act on the circuit. In 1919 Edith Wilma officially became Edith Ketch. The team played around the country until Edith became ill. Fred decided to stop traveling in 1929. Edith passed away about a year later. (From Ventriloquistcentral.com)
Fred went on to tour with his own creations, Jerry J Jerrie and the talking Mexican head, Jose Garcia.
(Jerrie J. Jerrie today at Vent Haven)
Fred also developed the unreal skill of singing in two and later three voices in harmony. One of the few ventriloquists in history who could actually create the simultaneous distinct voices without any recorded trickery. He was to feature this stunt for years.
Fred's idol was the Great Lester.
According to one of Lester's pupils, ventriloquist Paul Barkdoll: "Lester was considered one of the greatest exponents of ventriloquial technique that ever lived. During the hey-day of vaudeville, he was America's foremost ventriloquist. He was the originator of many stunts used by a whose whose of ventriloquism. Considered the first to use a dummy with moving eyes and also the first ventriloquist to walk among the audience with his figure. With Frank Byron Jr., he originated the three way telephone conversation, the drinking stunt, and the smoking stunt. He claimed to be the first to use a yodeling dummy and also the first to use a crying dummy routine. Lester also originated the idea of having the figure blow out the match while the ventriloquist tried to light a cigarette. (in addition) He claimed originality in his use of the expressions "huh" and "gee-wiz," and he was the first ventriloquist to create the sound of a busy signal on the phone." (Paul Barkdoll article: 'Lester' Vent-O-Gram Vol. 1 Nov. 1963 No.7)
What follows is a tribute that Fred Ketch wrote for Lester in Vent-O-Gram Volume 1 November 1963 Number 7. It is an eyewitness account of Lester and his skill.
The Great Lester
1879 – 1956
By Fred Ketch
I first caught the act of the Great Lester around 1910 at the Orpheum theatre in Los Angeles. How many times after that I had the pleasure of seeing him I don’t remember. But I DO know that I was privileged to have seen and enjoyed this most artistic and accomplished presentation; a new approach to the art of ventriloquism.
I had seen all the ventriloquial acts that had played in the Los Angeles area, but the one most remembered and that stood out far from them all was that of the Great Lester. To me he was the greatest. He raised the art of ventriloquism up above the question and answer routine to humorous conversation. He transformed the dummy into a talking personality…a distinct character. No gags, no quick comebacks, just brilliant conversation and sparkling situations.
(Lester press clipping book, Hellerstein Coll.)
Lester was a master showman and a truly great artist. His presentation was perfect. His technique was superb. When anyone asked me who I thought was the greatest ventriloquist, I would say: The Great Lester. He played only the greatest vaudeville circuits all over the world. He was featured and treated with the awe and respect due most accomplished artists.
(Orpheum Poster-Hellerstein Coll.)
I had never met the Great Lester in all these many years. In the late 20’s vaudeville began to go down. The big depressions came on. I had lost contact with Lester. I had also left vaudeville due to conditions beyond my control. I became a theatre manager in Wallace, Idaho in the 1930’s.
In 1937, while looking at the Spokane newspaper, I noticed that Lester was appearing at the Post Street Theatre in Spokane.
I drove over to see his act. He was just as clever as always.
After seeing and enjoying his act I went back stage to his dressing room to meet him for the first time. I was ushered in by the doorman. Lester was sitting at his makeup table as he had another show to do. I introduced myself, but to my great surprise he knew me. He had followed my career in the act of Ketch and Wilma. He knew all the pitfalls and obstacles we went through, and of the controversies we were involved in. He told me that he was one of our greatest boosters. He had caught our act many many times. You can imagine what a pleasant feeling this gave me. Here I was talking to the idol of my life and listening to him tell of the impression WE had made on HIM! Then the war came on. We lost contact again.
(Great Lester-Hellerstein Coll.)
In 1950 I noted in the Oracle that Lester had a studio in Hollywood and that he was teaching ventriloquism personally to eager and promising students. A little later, when visiting Los Angeles again, I made it a point to visit him. Thus we renewed our close friendship, which continued for many years. We saw each other very often.
By a strange turn of fate I was playing in Spokane when I received a telegram from WS Berger of Covington, Kentucky that the Great Lester had passed away. It was a great loss to me, as you can
understand. It was also a great loss to the world. A great Master had made his last exit; the final curtain had slowly lowered.
Looking back Lester was a true master in the art of distant voices. He could fit them to any occasion. He was most famous for his telephone conversations, where by the use of the distant voices he was able to create plausible situations in the minds of the listeners.
He had a small mirror in the mouthpiece of the phone so that he could better control his lip movements. I had heard, but never knew for certain, that it took him one hour to make up for his show. It was also said that he had from 15 to 20 separate act routines, which he could use when he was playing in nightclubs and lounges. And, he could present each one as though he were doing it ad lib.
When I took up ventriloquism, I had the Great Lester in mind. He was my inspiration.
I lost a friend; and the world lost a great artist.
(Broadside circa 1910)
"We are all born hungry and stay hungry all our lives for health, knowledge, and material gain. The more ambitious we are, the farther we will go, and the more we will gain and learn.
We all have the same stuff in us as champions have in them. We have the same muscles, the same brain and if we develop our talents with a lot of study, practice, training and exercising, we cannot fail. Our natural desire becomes talent. All this goes with you becoming observant. Observe everything; this will lead you to creating something."
The Great Lester in correspondence with student Garland Boyd Jr. From David Erskine's in-depth book: 'The Great Lester, Ventriloquism's Renaissance Man,' available at: https://www.amazon.com/Great-Lester-Ventriloquisms-Renaissance-Foreword/dp/1478325976/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1538151350&sr=8-1&keywords=the+great+lester+ventriloquism%27s+renaissance+man
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