I was so pleased when Dan Horn said 'yes' to an interview for the vent-o-gram.
He is not easy to catch up with. In fact, I had a window of about 24 hours before he was off for a run of shows cruising the Hawaiian Islands. But, he said yes and we are all the richer for it.
As the IVS Ventriloquist of the Year it was an honor to sit down and as you will see, have an in-depth conversation about his career and show business in general. Off stage, Dan is a serious and thoughtful individual. As a result, he has some very astute observations about this craft of ventriloquism.
Dan has done it all. From weekly television, to school shows, to colleges, corporate dates and cruises, where he has made a home for the past number of years.
Of course, as a manipulator of things inanimate, he is Master. This, combined with superb ventriloquial technique puts him in a league of his own. A league that is occupied by very few, if any, in our profession.
And now, Vent-O-Gram presents: Dan Horn.
There is a YouTube video of you that was published 11 years ago. It’s called ‘the world’s best ventriloquist.’ It has four and a half million views. You know the story behind this?
I believe that was Joel Samuel. (Joel Samuel Presents/Youtube channel) He did a public access show in Phoenix years ago. I resisted wanting to do it for a long time. I still wish I hadn’t done it because I was doing material back then that I wasn’t happy with. But, I’m amazed at how many hits it has gotten. (laughs)
Who was the first ventriloquist you ever saw?
The first one was Vonda Kay Van Dyke who was Miss Arizona in 1964. (editor’s note: Also, Miss America 1965) She worked doing some shows at a local amusement park in Phoenix called ‘Legend City.’ She had a Marshall figure she worked with named Curly Q. It was the most amazing puppet I had ever seen.
So after seeing her, I wanted to be a ventriloquist so I could use puppets like she had. The irony of course is that I rarely use wooden figures now. (laughs)
How old were you when you saw Vonda Kay?
I was five.
I know that you eventually ended up learning much of your ventriloquism skills with the Jimmy Nelson record. Of course he also used a hard figure and yet you gravitated to soft puppets. How did that happen?
That was mostly by default. By the time I started using soft puppets, which was in ’76, I had a Lovik hard figure.
I wanted to expand my cast of characters. Hard figures were just too expensive for me at the time. A friend of mine, a German lady who was a member of the Phoenix puppetry guild mentioned to me that they were going to have a one day workshop attempting to make soft sculpted puppets in the style of the Muppets, which were popular at the time. At the end of that workshop we ended up with a soft sculpted puppet.
What was the character you ended up with?
Well, it had no gender. My Mother had an old fall, kind of a dark blonde fall. She gave it to me so that I could put it on the puppet and give it some hair. The puppet reminded me of the way Mama Cass wore her hair and Mama Cass had just passed away. When I heard the news of her passing, they said her name was actually Cassandra. I liked that name. Since the hair looked like 'Mama Cass' hair, I decided to name the character Cassandra.
And yet, Cassandra was more of a Muppet type character rather than a ventriloquist figure?
Well, there were no legs on that puppet. And I thought to myself, “Well, I’m not a puppeteer per se, I do ventriloquism. Why couldn’t I just add legs to the puppet and use it as a ventriloquist puppet?” That’s what I did.
How did the rods come into being with Cassandra?
The workshop focus was to copy the style of the Muppets. So, we made wooden rods to move the arms. Really, all I did was take this Muppet style puppet, added legs to it and started using it as a vent puppet. So, that’s how I started doing the arms, because we added those rods in the workshop. As I started using the character in front of crowds I started to discover there was a lot more I could do from a movement standpoint with the puppet and the rods than I was able to do with my Lovik figure.
So you found manipulation to be better with a soft puppet as opposed to hard figures?
Well, the soft puppet had the potential for more movement. It never occurred to me to try and do the same kinds of movements with a hard figure. Years later I got a Selberg figure and I went ahead an added rods to the Selberg and started doing more manipulation that way. However, it is not built to move in the same way as a soft puppet. But, using the arm rods on the hard figure I was still getting a lot more life out of the character than when the arms would just hang down.
Did you ever attempt building a hard figure?
I didn’t have the skills to build hard figures for myself, but I could sew. So, I started making more soft sculpted figures. The second one that I made was Orson. He came in 1978. It was really by default that I started working with soft figures. It worked out for me because I could do a lot more in terms of movement.
Tell me more about the creation of Orson.
I was working with Cassandra and I started getting ideas for an old man puppet based upon three of my family members. My Grandfather, an Aunt and an Uncle. I really intended the character just to be something that I would show to my immediate family. You know, just to poke fun at these other family members.
I knew the traits I was going to put into the puppet they would recognize. I spent about a year creating the character of Orson in my mind first. Then, I made the puppet. Then, I only showed it to my immediate family. I didn’t think anyone else would find it funny because they wouldn’t know who I was basing it on. In 1979 I started going to the open mic nights all over Phoenix. I literally went out every night of the week and got five minutes on stage. After a few months of only using Cassandra, I started thinking, “I’m kind of bored using Cassandra. I don’t know what to do, but I do have Orson. Why don’t I put a little routine together with him and see what happens?” The very first time on stage with him, there was a huge reaction. More so than anything I had ever received from Cassandra. I thought, “Wow, that’s a total surprise.” I guess other people saw in him things that they know to be true in people they know. I realized then that they didn’t have to know who I based it on. The character was strong enough to appeal to a lot of people. It was a total surprise to me.
Do you think Orson was the ‘first’ old man figure in recent times?
I really did not know of any other ventriloquist who was doing an elderly puppet. I knew Dick Weston did Aunt Martha. But I conceived Orson originally as kind of a really old, kind of a dirty old man character. I was nineteen when I created the character. I turned my age around and made him 91.
You have put a lot of time and thought into characterization. You must think that is important.
I do. Most ventriloquists base a show mostly on set up and punch line. With my act, I have taken more of a sitcom approach of getting a character that was strong enough that the material would come from the character and whatever the situation we decided to talk about. This rather than just being a generic comedy duo that just riffs from one topic to the other very quickly. If you look at some of the scripts from the 70’s or 80’s a lot of the routines generally focused on ventriloquism, you know, look at these tongue twisters I can do, or I can smoke this cigarette while the figure sings or this glass of water I drink, basically stunts. They were very impressive, but it didn’t give you a lot of character or story line development…with few exceptions. Obviously Bergen’s characters were so strong that the material often was generated by virtue of the character. But most others did some kind of ventriloquial stunts not really developing character or material around a situation.
Knowing this, did it motivate you to do something different?
With Orson, who was a retired entertainer, I started making the focus of the routine building material that furthered the premise that he was a retired vaudeville type performer. I have tried to make my material more character driven. The movement of the soft puppets helped. They helped to establish the character. I found I could do gags with just movement, that didn’t need a joke attached to it. Like when Orson has a heart ache, or when he is beating me up. The comedy is coming from the movement.
I’m guessing you write all of your material?
I either write it or I adapt it. There are a few jokes in my act that have come from someone suggesting something, or taking an old formula from another joke that I like, but trying to rewrite the formula so that it is a tailored line to put into the act. But, I’ve never worked with other writers other than the years I did the television show that I did in Phoenix.
Wallace and Ladmo?
Talk more about the process. Let’s say you pull Orson out and are standing in front of a mirror. What happens at that point?
Well, contrary to popular belief I don’t actually pull Orson out and stand in front of a mirror! (Laughs) When I write I know the character well enough, I can just sit and start writing. The way I do my material is like a ball of yarn that I keep adding to. Jokes come and go. There are some jokes I’m still doing 40 years later. They are too strong to throw away and if someone hasn’t heard the joke, it’s not old. But, I don’t have any hard and fast rules other than the fact that I have an idea what the ending is. Then I try to fill in other jokes that will get me from A – Z. When I watch other people’s material in my coaching, I generally find they start off with a good premise, then ‘boom’ they throw it away and are off to another premise before they really develop the idea. I try to keep a thread all the way through the routine that basically pertains to one subject rather than jumping from topic to topic just so I can throw in some good jokes.
Out of every ten gags you write, how many of them will work with an audience?
It really depends. I don’t really know what the percentage is. A lot of times jokes come to me during the show and they come out as an ad lib. I don’t really have any process that I go through other than, “let’s just try it and see what happens.” The act is always morphing that way and I’m always trying to hone what I already have.
When you try out new material is there a fear factor, and if so, how do you overcome it.
There definitely is a fear factor because you never know whether it will work or not. When I try out new lines I try not to have them structured where it would be an obvious ending to a bit. Because, if it doesn’t work, then where do I go after that? I don’t want to end the routine or segment on something that is going to fall flat. So I try to work new material into a place where if it doesn’t work it’s not crucial in the sense that it’s not going to ruin the whole routine.
Next week: Dan talks about goals, opportunities, personal vs professional life, leaving a legacy and ventriloquism as art.
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