Jim Barber...The Interview Pt. I
Having developed one of the most original concepts in ventriloquism ever, (Barber and Seville) it was an honor to interview Jim Barber. When it is said he is multi-talented it is not an exaggeration. Comedian, actor, singer, guitarist, drummer, banjoist and ventriloquist. This goes way beyond being just a 'triple threat' in the business.
His resume includes hundreds of corporate functions, nearly 2000 college performances, armed forces USO tours in 15 countries, numerous network television performances including the David Letterman Show and a three year stint with Glen Campbell in Branson, Mo. There is more, but I need to hold some of it back for Part II of the interview!
Now, sit back and enjoy Part I of Jim Barber, upfront and personal...
Tell me about your broadcasting background
I started out at the University of Minnesota back in 1979. I was a broadcasting major with a theater minor. I did an internship at KSTP radio/TV and then worked with Casey Jones, a kids show host. He had been off the air for about ten years and he was starting the show up again on a new station in town.
So I went on as a guest a few times and then Casey Jones (Roger Awsumb) asked me to be his sidekick Charlie Caboose. That lasted for about two and a half years.
Were you doing ventriloquism?
So, when did you pick it up? You came out of Rapid City, SD didn’t you?
If so, how did the influence of the craft get to Rapid City?
(laughs) I didn’t know anyone in show business let alone in ventriloquism back in South Dakota. Though I was interested in ventriloquism after seeing Shari Lewis and Edgar Bergen on television. I went to Medora, ND when I was nine and saw an out door wild west show there.
A man named John Shirley was doing his marionette act. So I went home and started making these puppets and then learned more about vent and magic and started self-teaching myself in my basement. I started doing birthday parties around town, cub scout blue and gold banquets and by the time I was in high school I was working all over town doing magic and ventriloquism shows.
Any other influences?
I remember back in 1976 a ventriloquist named Grover Ruwe came through town.
He was the first actual ventriloquist I met in person. He showed me his right hand that he used to control the figures and he was missing most of his fingers! He told me he had a wood working accident where he lost his fingers so he took up ventriloquism. That way he could hide his hands! (laughs) He worked a lot.
Did you stay in touch with Grover before he passed away?
I did not. It was only that one time when I was 16 years old
Let's go back to John Shirley for a minute. John was an amazing guy all by himself. What was that experience like for you, when you saw him perform at Medora?
Well, it was so unique and funny. The routine that sticks out in my mind even today were the giant skeletons that would dance, fly apart and come back together.
Seeing it on an outdoor stage in a theater setting, well, I had never seen anything like that before. So, that really spiked my interests in puppets. Years later I got to do a corporate show with John in Chicago. I said, “I saw you when I was just starting out when I was nine years old. You’re the inspiration for me to get into this business.” He said: “Aw, get a real job.” (laugh) But he passed away about a year after that and I’m so glad I got a chance to meet him.
I’m guessing you came to Minneapolis then, to go to the University of Mn.
What opportunities came out of working the Casey Jones show?
Well doing the Casey Jones Show, we did five shows a week. We taped them all on a Friday. It took us all day to record the shows. Anyway, I had to come up with all these ideas. So, I got into this really creative mode and I started having these strange dreams at night. One of the dreams became the hook for my entire career. I dreamed I was watching David Copperfield do his magic show. He walked out on stage with a dummy. The dummy grew big and David got small. Then the dummy carried him off the stage. I woke up screaming and I thought, “that was scary, but what a great idea. If I could do that…but that’s David Copperfield’s idea, I can’t steal that.” But then I thought, “wait a minute, it was my dream, it is MY idea.” (laughs) So, I created this costume and came up with this character ‘The Barber and Seville.’
So, in addition to being a performer, you made the mechanism?
Yes, I started making this character about the time the TV station was sold to the Fox network. They said, ‘this is your last show.” I had just graduated from the University and so I came up with the 'Barber and Seville.' At the same time Opryland in Nashville was holding auditions in Iowa, so I went down and auditioned. I got hired.
I was really auditioning because my girlfriend at the time was auditioning and I wanted to be with her, so, (laughs) we both auditioned. I was the only one who got a job offer but we ended up getting married and moved to Nashville. That’s where I worked on the General Jackson Showboat for two years.
How difficult was it to mechanically put together the concept of Barber and Seville?
When I first started putting it together I was building it like a magic illusion. I decided eventually that was going to be too complicated. So, I created the character of the body. It required a physical maneuver on my part to get into this outfit. I made it out of cardboard and covered it all with fiberglass. Then I made a mold of my own face and made a clay head and then molded a fiber glass head. I put this whole thing together. It was fairly crude, but it worked. Part of the charm was that it was crude. It looked old fashioned and I got noticed right away with that character.
What was your first performance with Barber and Seville?
On a cable television show in Minneapolis that was managed by one of my University of Minnesota mentor’s, Lance Leupold. (Editors note: Immediately after the Casey Jones show) Then, I took it to the General Jackson for two years in Nashville. That caught the attention of Bob Kramer in Grand Rapids Michigan who started booking me on the college circuit and in comedy clubs all over the country. At that time I did a combination of magic and ventriloquism. Bob told me, “don’t do magic.” And I said, “but that’s what I do.” He said, “How many magicians are there in the college market?” I said, “Well, there are several.” Then he said, “ How many vents are out there?” At that time there wasn’t anybody but me. He then said, “Do all vent and I can book you like crazy.” So, I stopped doing the magic and never picked it up again.
So Barber and Seville came early in your career. And obviously, it is a very original concept. It seems to me that originality is really important to you. Why is that?
Well, that is what makes you stand out. It is something different from everybody else. I wanted to do this as a career. I wanted to be unique, so all the characters that I do I try to come up with something that hadn’t been seen before. Lately, I’ve added a few things. The Axtell drawing board, which is genius and people love it. But I still have my standbys: Barber and Seville and Chico the Chihuahua in the back pack. I’ve been able to build a career on those characters.
You mentioned in one of your interviews that Chico was a favorite of yours. Is that still true?
I like that character because physically he doesn’t hurt as much as Barber and Seville. (laughs) Barber and Seville really is a physical contortion. When I’m in the costume, it is not the most comfortable and it is probably why no one has stolen it! Chico is a fun character. He is an idea I had in college. I was studying Spanish in Mexico and drew this Chihuahua puppet on a napkin and kept him around through the years. Then, when I was asked to come to Branson to work with Glen Campbell I thought "I’m gonna create this character." So, I started building the puppet out of latex, but I didn’t have the skills that Steve Axtell had! Finally I had Verna Finley make a puppet. It took off right away. Glen Campbell used to introduce me to the audience everyday. So, how could you lose when you get a great introduction like that?
You worked with Glen Campbell at his Goodtime Theater in Branson. I know the two of you were friends. What can you tell us about Glen Campbell that is not widely known?
Glen was like a big kid with huge talent. He didn’t have to work at it…it just naturally came out of him. I was fortunate enough to meet him later on in his career when he was sober. Glen told me during the 70’s there wasn’t a day that past when he wasn’t on something. And that was when he was the most famous. When I met him he was happy, giving and grateful to be alive. He often invited me to his home in Phoenix. He was a wonderful friend.
After Branson, I also did some road dates with him. He introduced me to the Smothers Brothers and created opportunities for me to do more network shows. It was such a thrill for me as this kid back in the 70’s learning ventriloquism and watching all these heroes on television and then coming to Branson and getting to meet them.
Most of the big stars I have met are normal down to earth people. It was a good lesson for me in show business…to be real, to be normal and not to have an ego.
I know that Glen was also a deeply spiritual guy. As a performer yourself, is there a deeper meaning that motivates you?
Well, there is for me. I go back to when I was a twelve year old kid. I was trying to build a campfire in the black hills of SD and being a creative kid I thought I would have some fun with a can of kerosene. I started pouring the kerosene in a circle on the ground singing the Johnny Cash song, (sings) ‘I fell in to a burning ring of fire.’ I threw down a stream from the can to the fire and the fire went up to the can, the can blew up and I had flames from my chest on up. I ended up in intensive care with 2nd and 3rd degree burns for two and a half weeks. While I was in the hospital, I didn’t know if I would make it, and I said to God, “God if you help me get through this I will make people happy for the rest of my life.” I had this vision, this target as a twelve year old that I wanted to be a performer, a ventriloquist. I knew what I wanted to do all along and that has a great deal to do with why I have been able to making a living at it.
So, you are talking about a sense of spiritual destiny?
Well, all through my life I’ve had experiences like that. When times were toughest my prayers were answered. In fact, working with Glen Campbell was one of those things. I had been on the road for eight years doing the college circuit playing 6 or 7 different colleges every week with drives in between everyday about 3 to 500 miles each time. I was burned out. I even did a show one day, I don’t even remember doing it. I remember getting there and then I was back on the highway. I called my agent and said, “I’ve got to slow down, I’m getting wiped out.”
And then what happened?
Well, I prayed that I needed to get off the road. I needed a new opportunity in my career. The very next morning I got a phone call from Glen Campbell’s road manager saying, “Hey, remember working with us six years ago? Well, we would like you to come and be in our show with us in Branson, Mo.” He was really a great influence on me…spiritually and as a performer.
Next week Jim talks about the loss of his beloved wife Diane, his position as the Executive Director of the Branson Arts Council, advice on being a pro, the Letterman Show and the state of the art. Stay tuned!
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