Many years ago, back in the very early 80's, there was a local gathering of Minneapolis ventriloquists hosted by Todd Oliver. I was there, Jim was there, and a few other local vents I can't remember right now. Everybody did a little 'stchick' and I remember very distinctly one vent doing a telephone voice which struck me as being spectacularly good. I mean it was the kind of thing where a voice inside of me said, "pay attention, this is excellent." And, it was. It was Jim Barber, who would go on to win 'Ventriloquist of the Year' by the International Magicians Society, 'Campus Comedy Entertainer of the Year' by the National Association of Campus Activities as well as earning the association's nomination for 'Entertainer of the Year' five years in row! Jim is also the recipient of the 'International Ventriloquist of the Year' award along with Showtime, the Movie Channel naming him the 'Funniest Person in Tennessee."
It has been a remarkably successful career. But, in spite of all the accolades, Jim remains a completely warm and genuine human being whose approachability and willingness to share is second to none, as so many ventriloquists at the convention can attest to.
His willingness to be open and frank in this interview also confirms that approachability.
And now, Part II of Jim Barber...The Interview
You are no stranger to death. You lost your wife Diane. Are you willing to talk about how that has changed your beliefs and your sense of purpose?
Well, it changed everything. I was always a believer, but, when you’re facing the loss of a loved one, your faith becomes even more strong, because you want to know that you’re going to be together again some day. Diane and I were married 30 years. It seemed to go by very quickly because I was traveling so much. While I was off on the road doing college tours she was getting her Master’s degree at Temple University in Philadelphia. She was a music therapist and had worked in that field for a lot of years. Then she studied theater and voice in New York. She did musical theater up and down the east coast. When it was time for me to finish up Glen Campbell’s show, she told me to go back to college and get a degree in multi media. So for two years I went to back to school. When I finished Diane encouraged us to move back to Branson.
I started a multi media studio and she had an interior design company. I kept going back into show business performing. There was a period of time when I was a partner in the Hamner Barber Theater for 10 years.
Well, my theater partner and I were going in different directions so I decided I needed to get out. At the end of 2013 I was finished with that show. After that I had an offer for about 3 months of cruise ship work. The three months turned into a year and a half that I was traveling all over the country. I knew I needed to go back home so I told my agent I wasn’t going to be taking any more bookings. During that last cruise my wife mailed me that she hadn’t been feeling well. I got home about a week and a half later from Hong Kong. About two weeks later she was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer and three months later she was gone. My daughter, Jessica was fourteen at the time, and it just rocked our world. I knew I could no longer be out doing shows, because Diane was my support system. Because of my marketing background that Diane had encouraged me to do, I started doing that full time from my home studio so I could be there for my daughter.
So, it took you off the road…
It took me off the road and it kept me off stage in Branson too. I had about three years go by before I did a show again. Eventually, the local arts council in Branson asked if I would be their executive director. Something I hadn’t thought about but the more I looked into it, the more I realized this job was perfect for me because it was everything I had ever done in my life all rolled up into one thing. So, I have been working really hard to build a community arts program here that has become very successful. I’m very proud of that.
Your official title then is what?
I’m Executive Director of the Branson Regional Arts Council. https://bransonarts.org/ It keeps me busy. We have a historic theater here in town built in 1936. It was the first theater in Branson.
We moved into that a year ago. We now have community theater shows we do year round. We are doing ten productions this year starting with 'Beauty and the Beast.' These are really high quality shows. The musicals and plays that we do...people are loving it.
We also started a conservatory program of the arts for kids ages 8 - 18. They come in to learn to sing, dance and do theater. Then, We we have a youth troupe, theater production group that is also doing concerts and things locally. Add to that opportunities for local artists. We have a big art gallery in the Branson Convention Center where we feature local artists on a rotating basis. About 100,000 people pass through every year. It keeps me busy...
It is obvious that you have a lot abilities in different areas. It makes me think of the English Ventriloquist Peter Brough, who was a proponent of multiple streams of income in this business. It this something you would advise to up and coming ventriloquists?
Well, absolutely. I think studying business is important to anybody. I think I was really fortunate, I had a great solid career for many years and I’m not sure that most ventriloquists have that. I think it goes up and down a lot. But in my later years I have experienced more of that up and down. Especially since my wife passed… I pretty much took myself out of the market . You’ll find in the arts, in ventriloquism or acting or whatever there will be some years when you're doing well and some years where it is tougher. So, if you can have a sideline business or something that helps financially, that’s good. Try to save your money. Try to live within your means or below your means. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. Prepare, because we don’t have retirement plans like most careers. I have learned things now about investing that I wish I had known when I was a kid. When I was younger what I did was send all my money to Abbott’s magic company and I now have a cut and restored rope trick for a retirement plan! (Laughs)
What about the state of the art today. Is there anything you would like to see from today’s ventriloquists that your are not seeing?
Well, we have of course Darci Lynne who is extremely popular right now because of AGT. She is fantastic. Jeff Dunham has done so well with his characters. He has stayed so unique and original. There was a time years ago when I was doing the college market Jeff called me and asked for some advice. Today he is the guru. He can tell you anything you need to know about the business. Jeff has been so giving back to this business too as well as supporting the museum and Vent Haven and everything. Of course, Terry Fator has brought a lot of popularity to the art form again. Back when I was doing it, it was all before the internet and social media. So I think it was harder in those days to become known if you weren't on television. But today’s young entertainers have opportunities through YouTube and other ways to get their name out there. But you still need to be original. All in all, I’m seeing a return to the traditional forms. I see the art form around for many years to come. As long as you are good with your technique, but you also have to be a showman...and that's really ninety percent of it.
You think ventriloquism is in a Renaissance today?
I think so. Things are cyclical. I’m seeing more and more interest in ventriloquism. The last Vent Haven Convention I was at last year, there were a lot of young performers who wanted to be like Darci Lynne. She has opened the door for a lot of people. Every time I would do a show here in Branson somebody would say, “Hey, have you seen Darci Lynne Farmer?” I think people who get into ventriloquism are people pleasers . They like to make people laugh. It has been fun to go to the convention and meet other ventriloquists because we are like a family.
As far as the ventriloquist Jim Barber is concerned, what are some of the most meaningful highlights of your career? Not that it’s over with…(laughter)
The things that standout for me would be the USO tour when I was in college, then Opryland in Nashville, winning the comedy entertainer of the year in the college market was a highlight and then coming here to be with Glen Campbell in Branson. That was probably the best show experience I ever had. We had a live band, 2000 seat theater with packed audiences everyday. So many celebrities and stars would come to see Glen backstage. That opened the door for a lot of opportunities to be on television.
Did the network appearances help?
When I did the Letterman Show, that did a lot for me.
I almost didn’t get to do the show because there was a major blizzard on the east coast. I was flying in and got as far as Atlanta when it was announced: “ no more flights anywhere folks.” I said, “I’ve got to get to New York.” And she said, “sorry sir there is nothing g we can do. Then I said, “I’m supposed to be on the David Letterman Show tomorrow!” And she said, “let me see what we can do.” So she’s typing in the computer and she said, “Ok, there is a flight for Philadelphia in ten minutes and I have bumped two people off who haven’t shown up yet. If you guys run you can get on the plane right now.” So my wife and I are running down the tarmac and I yell, “what about my bags? And she said, “Don’t worry they’ll get through!” (Laughs). So we get to Philadelphia and sure enough my bags which contained Barber and Seville didn’t get through. So I’m on the phone with CBS in New York and they're concerned that I’m not going to make it in so they send a driver down in a four wheel drive to Philadelphia. So, I wait for the next flight, it comes in, no bags. The weather kept clearing and they would send in one plane at a time from Atlanta. The head of CBS talent got the head of Delta airlines together and they actually sent people down to search through the thousands of bags for my luggage. Finally at midnight on the very last flight possible my bags showed up. We drove into New York, got in about 2 in the morning ,checked in, got about two hours sleep, went to the studio..I was just so relieved to have made it and it turned out to be just a great experience. So I flew back to Branson to do my show there and of course my bags got lost again! On stage I said, “Folks, I normally do a routine here, but let me show you why I don’t have it." Then I showed them the Letterman video and the audience went crazy. It was so much fun.
Did the Letterman people approach you?
Jeff Dunham recommended me. They did two series of ventriloquist week. The first time they called they said we're booked up, but we're interested in having you on the show. Then they called back and said Jay Johnson was going to do the show but he is opening on Broadway with his one man show, so can you fill Jay's spot? I said yes and was already to go and then at the last minute they said Jay is doing it, so we can’t have you on, if we do it again we will have you on. That first week went over so well in the ratings they booked another one right away and they had me on.
Final Question: Who were the most influential people in your career?
My professor at the University of Minnesota, Lance Leupold. He believed in me. Also Glen Campbell for welcoming me into the trade of show business so to speak. He made me feel like I could be somebody. And then my wife who was a huge influence, a great supporter of me. The type of performing I was doing, many marriages would not survive that. I give her all the credit.
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