James Edward Nelson...1928-2019 The Interview
Updated: Sep 28, 2019
"Jimmy Nelson led a fantastic life. He's brought joy to literally millions of people during his lengthy show business career, performing on stages, in nightclubs, at fairs and on television. For ventriloquists in particular, his two instant ventriloquism albums are an unparalleled legacy that will live on for innumerable successive generations. His contributions to the ventriloquial community are acknowledged and lauded by all. If there were an "All Time Legend of Ventriloquism" award, all of the above plus Jimmy's ongoing support and championing of Vent haven Museum, Inc. and its annual ConVENTion , would easily have earned him the very first one. (Tom Ladshaw from his fine biography "A Jimmy Nelson Celebration, 70 years of Laughter.)
There are so many tributes that have come forth as a result of Jimmy's passing that they could easily fill numerous pages of the vent-o-gram blog. Even trying to select photographs was difficult as there are so many. And yet, I was fortunate to have access to a wonderful interview that was conducted by my friend David Erskine. The interview originally appeared in his book 'Conversations with members of the ventriloquist family.' The interview took place on June 28th 1986. In retrospect, it is a very interesting read as Jimmy shares many insights and stories of his long and successful career. The interview courtesy of David Erskine is published in its entirety.
And now, Vent-o-gram proudly presents legend...Jimmy Nelson.
It is easy to remember the first ventriloquist conventions excitement, especially its Saturday night show. One of the highlights was your act.
That was a memorable evening. It was a lot of fun, being the very first convention. The enthusiasm of the crowd I’ll never forget. They really were marvelous. As a matter of fact, I had a lot to do with helping get that show on the air my son, Larry, who was active in Little Theatre at that time, came in with another fellow and helped us set up the lights and the staging, and so on.
Had Larry just completed high school?
That’s correct. He’s been through all the schooling now. He’s very active in radio in Morgantown, West Virginia. He’s a program director at one of the radio stations.
You went to High School in Chicago.
Lakeview high school
Another ventriloquist graduated from there before you
Yes, a very popular gentleman by the name of Edgar Bergen.
Was he still remembered while you were there?
Oh, very much so! He and Helen Hayes were the two people they claim were very famous alumnus. Of course, Edgar Bergen went on to Northwestern University and I did not. I was on the road working as a ventriloquist right out of high school.
Recently, I was inducted into the University of Hard Knocks. I have a diploma to prove it and I’m very proud of that.
There is actually is such an organization out of Alderson-Broaddus College in Philipi, West Virginia. Each year they seek out people they feel have made a certain mark without a college education. So, they bestowed this honorary degree upon us and I’m very proud of that.
That is a deserved honor for you and your career. I read somewhere that Bob Evans was the first vent you ever saw.
He was the first ventriloquist to influence the way I perform. Edgar Bergen, of course, was on radio as I grew up. He was my idol because he had gone to Lake View High School. But while I still was in grammar school, bob Evans would come to town. He was a very popular traveling ventriloquist. He played the Chicago Theatre, the Chez Paree, you know, the nicer spots in Chicago.
I would go down to see him. I was just a kid and he was so nice to me. Knowing I was a ventriloquist, he gave me pointers. He let me manipulate his professional figure. I only had an amateur job. He let me stand in the wings to watch him work, or, he would get me a place in the back of the nightclub to watch his act because at my age, I was not allowed in a club.
So, I was very very influenced by his style. His character was Jerry O’Leary (who now resides at Vent Haven) Jerry O’Leary had a falsetto voice and it worked. I had already adapted a falsetto voice for Danny O’Day mainly because my voice hadn’t changed yet. It was still easy to do. I patterned a lot of things I did after Bob Evans’ act.
Did you get the idea for the quick change voices from seeing him work?
No, because he only worked with one figure. And at that time, that’s all I used. When I later was on the road working nightclubs professionally, around the Midwest, I felt that I needed to expand the act. So, we put Humphrey Higsby into the act.
Frank Marshall carved Humphrey.
I worked a few years with Danny and Humphrey. That’s where I developed the fast voice change between Humphrey and Danny. Then we took the two voices and added mine as a third. We began to do a song that was popular in those days called “Rag Mop.” That became kind of a trademark with me and I still do it occasionally.
I can understand how you came up with Danny and Humprey’s names, but what about Farfel?
I had this dog which Frank Marshall made for me. I knew I wanted a droopy dog but I didn’t know what to call him. I was working the Catskill Mountain resorts in upstate New York and Farfel was on the menu; farfel soup, farfel meatballs and farfel matza. It was a funny sounding name. I didn’t know what it meant but I started calling him Farfel. I would get a chuckle because it’s a funny sound. I finally found out what it is. It’s a little egg noodle that they use in Kosher cooking. So, freely translated, Farfel is a “little noodle.”
Frank Marshall must have taken an interest in you because some of his best art is demonstrated in Danny. Some of your features appear in Danny.
Yes, I can say it because I didn’t design Danny O’Day; Frank Marshall did. Danny is probably one of the best made figures he ever carved, a little boy man type figure. A lot of them he made after that were not quite up to the quality of Danny O’Day. He was at his peak at that time, at least I feel he was, in the middle 40’s. Later on, due to illness and other things, his work was not quite as sharp. But, Danny O’Day and Jerry Mahoney, who was made a few years before Danny, are two works that people think look alike... and they do. They have a family resemblance. But, when you see them side by side they are totally different characters.
Frank had a penchant for doing strange things. I understand he did this with other ventriloquists. He asked for a picture of myself at that age, kind of young, full cheeked. He actually put some of my features into Danny O’day as he carved him, without my knowledge. That way we were compatible, according to Frank Marshall. I used to be insulted when people came up to me and said: “You know, you look like your dummy,” until I realized Frank had done that on purpose.
He did a few things with Danny’s long neck, the shape of his cheek.
Well, with Danny’s sitting right here, he’s quite a few years older. He’s been painted quite a few times. He’s not showing his age, but if you looked at the tracks in the mouth, when Danny was new, you could barely see them. That’s how tight Frank would make them. It didn’t impeded the mouth movement. The mouth movement was very easy. But, from the stage, or from a few feet away you would swear there were no tracks in the mouth. Of course television kind of ruined that. Television cameras come up close. No matter how close the slot is, you can see it.
How long after high school did you get the Milton Berle Show?
It was New Years Day, 1952 that I started on the Milton Berle show. I was out of high school in ’48 so it was four years, four years of hard roadwork.
I had a lot of experience in the Chicago area while I still was going to school. Considered myself a professional performer even before I graduated. Once I hit the road and started working nightclubs, (Danny calls them saloons,) I gained great experience, especially for a young man. I had actually toured the entire country in those four years before I had the television exposure on the Milton Berle Show.
Did an agent get you an audition for the show?
I didn’t actually audition for the Milton Berle show. They knew they wanted a ventriloquist; that’s all they knew. They auditioned Senor Wences, and Clifford Guest. I’m sure Paul Winchell did not audition because he had a show of his own.
What about Roy Douglas?
Roy Douglas may have. They auditioned everybody in town. They caught my act at Radio City Music Hall. When they saw it, they liked it and hired me. I never went in to audition for that job. They just happened to see my work.
It always was a special treat to see the Milton Berle Show. Of course, the highlight was when it was time to sell gasoline.
I do after dinner speeches now about ‘the early days of television.’ One of the things we mention is that, in the Texaco Star Theater, the Milton Berle show, there was only one commercial in the entire hour, but it was a five minute commercial. So, we were able to sell not only the Marfak and the Fire Chief, but we were able to do little skits and make a comedy bit out of it.
I can imagine what the exposure must have been when you got that show. Now, exposure sometimes doesn’t mean as much.
Exposure in those days; well, you see there weren’t that many television stations and there were nowhere near as many television sets in use as there are today. But, the sets that were in use were tuned into that show, almost all of them.
We estimated an audience of 40 million people every week, consistently, to watch the Milton Berle Show. It’s hard to get hat kind of audience now because it’s so fragmented.
How many years did you appear on the Milton Berle show?
After the show, didn’t you appear regularly on the Dorsey Brothers Show?
I did the Dorsey Brothers series in 1955 and 56. That’s when I started doing Nestle Chocolate commercials. I did the Dorsey Brothers and the Jackie Gleason show on Saturday night. Nescafe and Nestle Chocolate sponsored those shows.
We would do all the commercials live. But, now, we were down to one minute, not five. We had to do the message and any jokes within that sixty seconds; that wasn’t easy.
I saw a film of one of the Dorsey Brothers Shows. There was a young singer on the show. I don’t know what became of that fellow. I know what became of the ventriloquist.
You’re talking about the show we did with Elvis Presley. (January 28, 1956) that was before he did the famous Ed Sullivan series where they only shot him from the waist up.
The Dorsey's didn’t know his potential; they shot all his gyrations. Of course, they got a little more ‘gy-rated’ after that. Elvis made a big hit and he was back on the Dorsey Brothers show the following week.
How many years did you represent Nestles?
How did Farfel come up with “chaw-klit?” He’s quite a singer. I remember the tune and I can barely pronounce chocolate correctly, at least without thinking of Farfel and Nestles.
I ad-libbed it at the audition. They gave me this sheet of music and asked how I would sing it. Danny sand N-E-S-T-L-E-S and Farfel sang “CHAW-KLIT.” It just sounded natural to me, and that’s the way we did it for the next ten years! It was fun to be there in the early days of television. I feel very privileged to have been in on it. I enjoyed it.
That’s a time we won’t experience again.
It’s gone and the shows are gone except for a few tapes that are available, as the one you mentioned with Elvis Presley.
If ventriloquism becomes popular again in a weekly TV format, will something have to be different?
I think there’s still a place for a good, I don’t want to use the phrase 'old fashioned,' but a good variety show geared to the family because as I travel and do conventions, we get family audiences. We give them a good, old fashioned, I guess I have to say that, old fashioned show. They seem to enjoy it very, very much. I think there would be a place for it, but I don’t think television is ready to go back to that. I don’t think it’s salable as far as sponsor go. It would be a very hard sell.
Paul Winchell and you were very successful on television.
Now, people say, “Well, I see ventriloquists on television once in a while.” Are we ready for another big name ventriloquist on television?
Well we certainly have enough talent standing in the wings, ready to go. Look at all the people here at this convention, (editors note: 1986) all the way down to the youngsters just starting out. There’s budding talent here. The professionals that we have, particularly the ones on the Saturday night show, are certainly talented enough to carry such a program or series. The talent is there. We’re ready. It’s just, “Okay, sponsors and networks, are you ready?”
Those of us who had our shots in the days, when it was possible, now look to the younger people to take over, should such a situation arise.
You mentioned your interest in Bob Evans. In 1960 I was a freshman in college. There was a ventriloquist with General Motors at the State Fair of Texas, in Dallas.
So I went there to meet him. He was the first ventriloquist I met. We had a nice visit. He said if I came back we could visit again. I did. It was Jimmy Nelson.
You remember that…
As if I could forget. During our visit backstage you let me operate Danny O’Day. That was the first time I held a real, professional figure, especially a Marshall figure.
Just as Bob Evans allowed me to do when I went backstage.
There were people backstage to meet you, and you permitted me to talk to them with Danny. That was really something!
It has always been gratifying to travel and meet young people, interested in ventriloquism, who would take the time to come backstage to see me. I figured if they took the time to come see me, the least I could do was spend some time with them.
It always was rewarding.
The Berger’s enjoyed telling about your helping wash dishes when you visited them. You were established and playing the better dates, such as the Beverly Hills Country Club, near them.
W.S. and Muzz. Yes, every time I worked in the area, I would visit them. The old Taft Theater would run shows and I would appear there on occasion. Then, the Beverly Hills Country Club. Another place was the Latin Quarter. So, I worked in this area quite a bit and got a chance to spend a lot of time with W.S and Muzz.
Of course the entire collection was in their house at that time; the Vent Haven as we know it did not exist. There were figures in the dining room, living room, in the upstairs bedrooms, wherever he could find a place to put them.
I think it was Muzz who gave the ultimatum. “They go in the garage or I go.” That’s when he began to build those extra buildings!
Would that have been in the middle ‘40’s?
Yes. I actually went to New York in late 1950, so, it would have been ’48, ’49, in there.
When you started out, was it critical to go to New York to become established?
It was to a point. I still maintained my base in Chicago for a long time. While working Chicago and the Midwest I would go into New York and work an occasional club there. That’s where the contacts were in those days, as far as meeting with agents and managers, although my manager and I began our contract in Chicago. He was a Chicago manager who took me to New York. He moved his family and I moved my family to New York. That was our place of operation when we began to do all that television.
You must have had several people working for you in those days. You only had so many hours in the day.
That is very true. So many of us were on the road constantly. Even when we did television, in between television shows, we would go back on the road and come back to do more television. Even when I did the weekly Milton Berle show, mid-week I’d do a convention somewhere and come back in time for rehearsals for the next week’s show.
So, it was a busy time.
So, yes, you needed manager to handle your bookings, an agency to get the bookings and a lawyer to handle your business dealings. You didn’t have time to write your own checks. So, many performers wound up paying out more of their salary than they ever intended to. But, that was the way business was done.
You’ve gotten to do what you wanted to, haven’t you?
I’m very, very fortunate. As a young man I always wanted to be a ventriloquist.
I tell young people that I started at the age of ten and spent a lot of years doing ventriloquism strictly as a hobby. I attribute the fact that if I gained any lip technique at all, it was from not being in a hurry to get there. It was taking the time to develop that hobby. So, from the years ten to about sixteen, I was really just practicing doing amateur shows.
It's actually fascinating. You say, “Have I always done what I wanted to do?” Nobody does exactly what they want to do, but I’ve always enjoyed what I have done. Today with my slower pace, after traveling thirty-five plus years, it’s not hard to slow down. As a matter of fact, it is rather welcome. I still work. I go to my office at the bank every day and do my public relations work and occasional conventions on the road.
Life has been good for James Edward Nelson.
My wife, Betty and I have raised six children. Show business has been good to us.
What do you see in the future for ventriloquism?
I hold out great hope for ventriloquism. It’s already hundreds of years old. I’m sure that in those hundreds of years, it's had its ups and downs. History books say that some court jesters were ventriloquists. Go back to the ages of castles and kings. I’m sure there were periods where you didn’t hear about ventriloquists. Now, in show business they are in low profile. It’s probably only temporary, at least I believe that.
You must know how much you are appreciated, for your example.
I’ve performed here for many years. (Editors note: Vent convention) In the last couple of years I’ve felt it’s time to give other people a chance to get up there in the spotlight. So, I’ve enjoyed just being here and going around shaking hands and talking with people and posing for pictures and signing autographs. I get just as much enjoyment from that as performing.
Your two instructional records, Basic Ventriloquism 1 and 2, produced by Juro, have given many vents their start.
The most successful have no lip movement. How did you come up with the still lip method taught on those records?
My whole theory was to think one thing and say another. If you think hard enough, it will come out like what you’re thinking. That was just my own theory. That was the way I did it.
In Rufus Jarman’s article, “Secrets of the Talking dummies,” (Saturday Evening Post, May 1953) there are two interesting bits about you. First, were you shy when you were young and, second, did you really wait for Danny O’Day to say his line?
True stories. I was ten years old, an introverted person, and had trouble talking in front of people. My aunt won a little department store figure in a bingo game. She didn’t know what to do with it, so, she gave it to me for Christmas. In turn I carried it to school for the ‘show and tell.’ I found that I could get up with this little figure and do oral recitations because I had this alter ego with me. If I goofed, it was him, not me.
Waiting for Danny to say his line…I was performing in Las Vegas, doing a song routine with my wife, Farfel, myself and Danny O’Day. It was a song where we each had a line. Betty sang her line; Farfel did his line; I did my line….and we all waited for Danny to do his line….including me.
Could Danny say a few….
Yes. Danny is right here I suppose the least we could do is get him on the mic. Danny, get over here please. I’m sorry David, I’m at fault for letting him just sit there. I just monopolized the entire conversation:
Danny: Well, it’s about time!
Jimmy: Yes, it is, Danny. I’m sorry.
Danny: It’s all right.
Farfel: No, it’s not! Little dog sitting over in the corner. All I want to do is make a buck and I can’t even get on free radio. This is terrible!
Jimmy: Now say you’re sorry.
Farfel: Well, I’m really not.
Danny: Oh, come on! Say you’re sorry.
Farfel: well, I’m…
Danny: Say it!
Jimmy: Now go ahead
Danny: Now say it!
Jimmy: Well, there’s the telephone. Saved by the bell! I don’t have to say I’m sorry!
Editor: But the whole community and the world is sorry to see you go Maestro.
Many thanks to David Erskine for the interview. Also, check out David's newest book entitled: The Collectors Voice Ventriloquism: Its art and artists.
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