Hellerstein…ventriloquist, collector & entrepreneur
Updated: Nov 23, 2021
Through the years one of the things that I have noticed about ventriloquists is that they are an intelligent lot. Certainly this could be said about Mark Hellerstein. He graduated number one in his class at the University of Colorado. He achieved the highest score in the United States on his CPA exam in 1974 out of 38,000 participants. He went on to be Executive VP and CFO of St. Mary Land and Exploration, was appointed CEO in 1995 and held that position until his retirement in 2007. In addition to being named the Ernst and Young National Entrepreneur of the Year he was also inducted in 2009 into the Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Hall of Fame.
Curiously, Mark's life long love of the ventriloquial arts predates all of the above success. And in fact , that passion has sustained him throughout much of his life to the present day.
I met Mark quite a few years ago and can certainly call him a friend. His knowledge of our craft combined with his experiences in performing, collecting and interacting with many of the greats puts him in a unique position of expertise.
Historically, he has been there, as you will see. And now, Vent-o-gram proudly presents Hellerstein,...Ventriloquist, Collector and Entrepreneur.
So how long has it been Mark?.....
I started when I was 10 years old. I went to the library and next to the magic section was Paul Winchell’s book.
For whatever reason, the picture I saw really resonated with memories. I had probably seen Winchell when I was somewhere between 2 and 5 years old. I just had really vivid memories of him in my mind. That was the spark and I have been passionate about ventriloquism ever since.
What did your parents think about this new found passion?
They were supportive. My Dad had done a little acting. Nothing professional. When he was in the Army he headed up an acting troupe. They were encouraging, but definitely not encouraging to go into it as an occupation. By the time I had gotten to High School I had won a Stars of Tomorrow contest.
My Dad then sat me down and said, “Uh, uh, this is really not a good direction. Son, there are really three choices, you can be an accountant, a lawyer or a doctor. Maybe an engineer.” (laughter)
Do you think he gave you good counsel?
I do actually. I learned that you can be passionate about more than one thing. I actually did become passionate about what I was doing for a career. Plus, family life was really important to me. I think the travel and uncertainty of an entertainment career was not for my personality. So, I kind of got the best of all worlds.
I always had in the back of my mind that maybe I could retire young and then do vent. And, of course, that is what I did. The price you pay is that you probably won’t do it at the level you dreamed about. Sammy King gave me some advice. He said, “Your goal is not the size of the venue but rather the quality of the performance.” That is what has guided me. It has been very rewarding.
When you were 10 years old, you discovered the art of ventriloquism. How long did it take you to get connected to the vent community?
It probably took four or five years.
So, you were basically on your own then?
Yes. From a technical standpoint I progressed reasonably well. That was never an issue. I would go to the library and scan the microfilm database. I would get and copy all the articles I could find on vent. In fact, I did find the article from 1953, ‘Secrets of the Talking Dummies,’ in the Saturday Evening Post.
It was there that I discovered WS Berger and the museum. So I wrote to him. I was around 14 at that time. He sent me back an envelope with 8X10 photos of him in a room with all kinds of figures. Then he had one he autographed with Champagne Charlie and I thought, wow, this is really something. So that was my initial connection to the vent community. Of course, once that happens you're learning increases substantially.
Going to the library. You must have been really self motivated. So you actually knew to go to the library and search this stuff out?
I would spend hours and hours at the library looking at microfilm and the magazines they kept in storage.
And you were ten years old?
Well, I was more like 12. (laughter)
When you talk about getting the letter back from WS Berger, you know the envelope with the photos….there is something really nostalgic about that.
Do you still have the original correspondence?
No, that’s what really kills me. I saved every letter and correspondence I ever had, from everybody! But my Mom hated clutter. One day I couldn’t find my stuff. It had all disappeared. (laughter)
Kind of like a baseball card collection that our Mothers corporately threw out. So do you now have any correspondence from Mr. Berger?
Lisa Sweasy, (Curator of Vent Haven) sent me a little bit. When I first met her. It wasn’t complete and it was hard to read because they were carbon copies and have with time faded.
Well, at some point in time you made your way to Vent Haven.
I corresponded with Mr. Berger in total for about three years. After about a year I was trying to convince my parents to let me go to the museum. My family made a fairly modest living, so it was a lot of money to go there.
How did you get there?
It was my very first airplane ride ever.
1968. I went with my brother. We went for three days. It was great. Mr Berger gave me a tour of the place the first day and then he pretty much let me have carte blanche the next couple of days. Of course I spent time with him as well.
How many buildings at that time?
There were three plus his house. He had about 300 figures. He kept all the special stuff in his house.
He had Cecil Wigglenose, Jocko, Skinny Hamilton, and Tommy Baloney. He also had the Sr. Wences statue.
I’m trying to remember the room. It was kind of dark and mysterious. It just had a feeling to it. That was really pretty cool.
Is all of that kind of burned into your consciousness now?
Yeah. It really had a big impact. He had me perform for him. He said, “Pick a figure and perform.” He was 89 at the time. Sometimes I would be talking to him and he would fall asleep! (laughter) You know, I’m a kid, I don’t know what to do! I would sit there for a half hour, maybe 45 minutes not knowing what to do. (more laughter)
When you look back now, in retrospect, what kind of a man did you find him to be?
I have been in business most of my life. I have associated with a lot of, how shall I say, important people? But WS Berger, until Sammy King, was the only real mentor I had in my life. I didn’t realize the importance of that at the time, but when I look back on the correspondence he would give me wonderful advice.
He often talked about how competitive the business was and that if you wanted to ‘make it’ you would have to put in the time, work really hard and be extremely creative. That advice is true today. It is true in business as well. Mr. Berger was also a tremendous source for information. I remember I was looking to purchase my first pro figure and he provided me with addresses for all the makers at the time. I wrote everybody but was most intrigued by the Skinny Dugan character at Fred Maher Studios.
So I committed to this. I told Mr. Berger what I wanted to do. He wrote back and said, “You’re young and you have a lot to learn.” I’m not exactly sure what he meant by that, but he was right. The good news was that it was a nice professional figure, but the bad news was that it wasn’t the figure that was pictured in the catalog. (laughter) What was pictured in the catalog was Fred Maher with his McElroy.
That’s what you thought you were getting.
Yes. Interestingly I talked with Alan Semok at some point and he had the same experience. Frankly, the figure was kind of a big disappointment when I opened up the box. He didn’t look anything like the picture.
Did you follow up with Fred?
I didn’t. I didn’t, but nevertheless the figure served its purpose for a number of years.
Do you still have the figure?
I do. He is still in pretty good shape.
When you performed for Mr. Berger, did he critique you?
He didn’t. He was just very supportive.
What figure did you choose?
I chose a Maher because that is what I was familiar with. It wasn’t the same character, but it was a Maher.
During your visit to Vent Haven, did Mr Berger share with you his desires for the museum going forward? Bill DeMar had once shared with me that the buildings were falling into disrepair at one point in time.
I never saw that personally, but I wouldn’t doubt it. Frankly, the buildings as they were and are (prior to renovation) have always had a certain charm because of their quaintness.
Do you think that Mr. Berger was more of a businessman than performer?
I never really got the sense that he was a performer. I think he was a business guy who really loved ventriloquism and ventriloquists. His Father was an actor you know, thus his name, William Shakespeare Berger. But no, he was more businessman than performer.
During that period you communicated as a young man with a lot of working pros. Do you remember who they were?
Fred Ketch, Peter Rich, Bill Boley and a whole lot of others.
What kind of a guy was Fred Ketch?
Really nice guy. He sent me a lot of info on his triple voice, explaining how he did it. He also sent me recordings of the voice. Actually, everybody I communicated with were top notch. There are a lot of good people in our craft. When Peter Rich was in town I went to see him, but I was too young to get in to the establishment. So, he took me to lunch, we went back to his hotel where he showed me his figures. Just a class guy.
We used to communicate by audio tape. He would perform various bits and skits on tape. He was amazing.
Do you think that is kind of a hallmark of the vent community? Meaning, mentoring?
Yes. Even today. Especially at the convention. It’s what they do. Just look at Jeff Dunham. He came to the convention when he was young and was mentored by Jimmy Nelson.
Did Mr. Berger have any parting advice?
Yes, he said to me, “I’m getting close to pulling the final curtain.“ (laughs) He added, “I want on my grave stone, ‘the rest is silence.’
He looked at me and said, “think about that.” I’m like 16 years old! (laughter) Whoa, I don’t know what to think of that! The funny thing is the rest isn’t silent. His work goes on. He made sure of that. He had the foresight to have his work become a legacy.
You went into another career. Did you continue to practice vent?
I never stopped practicing. From the time I was ten on. Of course while I was working it wasn’t as much, but nevertheless, I continued to practice.
Was it always in the back of your mind that one day you were going to make vent your main thrust?
Absolutely. I always wanted to practice. I always kept my technique. But, during my working years it really wasn’t growing. I got to a certain level and I maintained that level. But, that was my goal. I knew someday I would retire and then I would start growing again.
And then, about 25 years ago I came to a convention and met Sammy King.
What was your first convention?
I went to a Vent-A-Rama before they had conventions.
So, really early. Where was that?
In Colon, Mi. Even though I was still quite young I took a bus by myself to that one. I was probably about 16 years old.
That was Abbott’s Magic Company wasn’t it?
Yes. Yes. Bill Boley was there, Bill DeMar, Jay Marshall and others. It was really good. I got to hang out with the pros.
Ok, you’ve mentioned Sammy King a couple of times. Obviously he is a mentor. How did that come about?
It was about 25 years ago at a convention. We were having breakfast. It was a round table with about six or seven people. Spencer Horsman was there and Sammy was talking about his coaching with him. So, I wrote to Sammy. He was, by the way, performing at the Aladdin in Las Vegas. So, I sent him a video with some background and my passion for the art. Well, after about two or three months he called me up. First thing he said was, “You don’t have an act. You have just a string of jokes.” (laughter) Part of his coaching was writing a script for me which I would perform and he would critique.
A lot of people don’t know this. You are probably one of the busiest children’s performers out there in terms of our craft. How many shows do you average a year?
That’s a lot of dates
Yes, it works out to about three shows a week.
Are you doing these shows primarily in the Denver area?
Usually, yes. And I don’t have to stay overnight.
Do you book on your own?
Yes. I am also involved in community resources. They usually do about 2000 presentations a year. I also do shows for ‘Safe from the Start’ a children’s advocacy center. I do a decent amount of my school stuff through those organizations.
Did you set out to be a children’s performer because you wanted to stay in the region?
Yes. I knew if I was going to be an adult performer, there would be travel involved. So it was a conscious decision to do kid shows. One of the things I realized is that there are different kid markets within the kid market.
Well, you have the school market, but there is a younger market which is bigger. Like libraries, birthdays, that type of thing. And I realized that my humor for elementary was not going to work for the younger market. As you get older jokes work better, but as you are younger, physical humor seems to work best along with storytelling.
How do you do storytelling?
I actually do it with marionettes. It seems to work better. There are a lot of marionette acts out there but very few if any that do it with ventriloquism.
Generally when you do marionettes it has a whole different kind of production value
Correct. I cut and pasted music long before digital software. I built my own stage. I had my own marionettes made. Plus, I wrote the script. So then Sammy (King) happened to be in town and he came to see my second show. By the way, having someone like Sammy King see you doing a new act is not the best idea.... (Laughter)
What was his reaction?
Well, he hated the stage. It was out of PVC pipe and frankly it was awkward to work with. He saw that. So, the first idea he gave me was to change the stage. So I did and went aluminum. I had to build two of them before I was happy with the way it worked in a performance setting. So then awhile later Sammy says to me, “This could be great if it were like a real theater. You know, electric curtains, spotlights, flood lights, black lights, strobe lights, smoke, built in music.
Did you do all that?
Yes, between Sammy and another designer we had it built. Frankly, it’s absolutely amazing.
Let’s go back to your youth. Through the years you have saved stuff. And that has morphed into quite a collection of vent ephemera. I don’t think a lot of people realize this but you probably have one of the largest private collections of ventriloquial ephemera in the world.
How did that come about?
Some of it came about from Mr Berger. He and Vent Haven were a real inspiration. But also, in the evening I would sit with Mr. Berger and he would take me through photos and stuff and then every once in awhile he would say, “here, take this” and hand me a photo of someone. Oftentimes I wouldn’t even know who they were! (laughter)
Can you remember any particulars?
Yes, he once gave me a photo of Senor Balder. (Spanish vent) I had no idea who it was but now I have a beautiful stone lithograph of one of his posters.
So he would give me these photos and that kind of started a base of a photo collection. A lot of vents do collect. I think it had to do with the scarcity of material at the time. For instance, in those days a library didn’t carry 10 books on ventriloquism, they would carry one. That sort of thing.
As time went on did you find yourself concentrating in any particular area?
Well, I was after the golden age. You know, Bergen, Winchell, Nelson…and when you would find something collectible of them, you held on to it and it became precious to you.
Does collecting connect you emotionally to the vent ephemera that you have?
Yes. Absolutely yes. The first thing you collect is the stuff you are emotionally connected to. For me, I wanted to have something by the greats. So when I was 15 or 16 I was after this stuff. Mr. Berger had all these addresses. You know, to Edgar Bergen, Paul Winchell, Jimmy Nelson! So I would write to these people and they would write me back!
So going to the mailbox was quite a deal.
Yeah, yeah. You know, I would get a letter from Edgar Bergen. That was pretty exciting.
So let's shift from letters and photos to figures. How many figures do you have in your collection?
It’s hard to count. Some are just heads. (laughter) So how do you define a figure?
I would say 115 to 130 depending how you count things.
But that is not the end of the collection. For instance you have a significant library.
When did you get into the posters.
Well, like most vents, I had a collection. But about 15 years ago I got really serious about collecting. The thing that really changed it for me was when I got the Senor Wences figures.
Is that one of your prize possessions?
Oh, absolutely. There were five greats, and he was one of them. The original Jerry Mahoney, Charlie and Mortimer are in the Smithsonian. So having the figures of Senor Wences, one of the five greats of the golden age is pretty amazing. You also pay a special price for that kind of thing! (laughter) You know, it’s not just the head in the box, (Pedro) it’s everything that Wences used. The figures, the suitcases, the clothes, the press clippings.
Once you acquired the Wences stuff, what did you feel?
It created a sense of responsibility in me. It is like I am now the keeper of the flame as far as the Wences stuff is concerned. But it is interesting because you never set out to build the best collection in the world. Only Vent Haven can make that claim. But, a collection will kind of build on itself. Once you start something like this you get to a point where a light kind of goes off and you realize you are a serious collector. But one thing leads to another. For instance, my poster collection. I didn’t have anything special, but then a couple of opportunities presented themselves to me, you being one of them (laughter) and all of a sudden I had this substantial poster collection. The same with books. You know, I kind of focus on certain things at certain times. At first it was photos, then figures of the great vents…
You also have quite a video collection.
I started that from day one. When there was no available video to the consumer, I would record things in audio. I would scour the TV guide looking for vents and then would make audio recordings of their performances. Over the years I have been in the process of transferring this stuff from tape, to cassette to dvd to SD cards….(laughter)
And on and on. (laughter) so you’ve kept up?
Yes I have. Most things are now digitized. I also converted all my VHS tapes to digital.
Final question: what would life be for you today without ventriloquism?
Certainly it would be a much less rewarding life. It becomes part of who you are. Curiously, in spite of all my collecting activity, the thing I truly love is performance. That is the thing that really creates the magic for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love the collection, but that is really the icing on the cake. Performance is the real substance. Sometimes I lie awake at night thinking about my act and bits that I’m putting together and occasionally something evolves from that and I think, “wow, that’s really something.” When I think about it, that process happens in business too. It is that creative spark.
To find our more about Mark, go here: https://www.ventmarkshows.com/about-mark/
Next month on vent-o-gram, a chat with film maker Bryan W. Simon of 'I'm No Dummy' fame. Stay tuned!
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