Ronn Lucas...The Interview Part I
"THE WORLD'S BEST VENTRILOQUIST."
The New York Times The New York Post The Times (London) The San Francisco Chronicle The Times-Picayune (New Orleans) The El Paso Herald Post
Need i say more? Here is Part I
So, you have a bit of time off?
I have a little time off, yes. September/October there is a little more time off than I expected, so I’m going to go hiking and camping. Then my wife and I are going to do some mundane domestic stuff.
I would imagine that mundane domestic stuff is kind of a pleasant diversion from your schedule.
It is. One of the issues though is this: When I’ve been out for awhile performing and then come home, my wife says: “Oh, great you’re home! Let’s go out!” And I say, “No, I’ve been out, I want to be home.” (laughs)
How long have you been hiking Ronn?
Uh, I guess ever since I could walk…is that funny?
Well, no, not really…..(laughter)
I started hiking when I was in Boy Scouts, which was drudgery. By the time I was in my mid 30’s I had some friends in LA that were hikers. They invited me to come along. In that one 24 hour period I felt I had been away for a week. It became this reset button for me. No phones, or other means of communication, cooking over fires, sitting around talking about stuff. It was real therapy for me.
Do you have any favorite trails?
I do. Nearby to where we live there is a mountain range called the Las Padres National forest.
You seem to be moved by the unusual. I know that you have a bit of a fascination for instance with the Enceladus moon, (an ice covered moon of Saturn) Butchart Gardens (Canada) fine food, opera, star trek. How did all that evolve?
You forgot Shakespeare.
Oh yeah, the Bard.
I’m still memorizing Shakespeare. Sonnet 29. (When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state)
Is Shakespeare difficult to memorize at your age? (pause…laughter) I can say that because I’m getting up there too!
(laughter) All I have to say is that I’ve outlived Shakespeare, so it’s easy.
What is it that moves you about Shakespeare?
Life. He really had his finger on the pulse of life. And, the more I learn about him the more I’m amazed. He was quite an innovator for his day. Think of all the quotes that are in our current English lexicon that are Shakespeare. He is the most quoted person in our language.
Which side of the argument do you fall on? Was he a real person or someone writing under that name?
There is always a conspiracy theory because someone that important couldn’t possibly be real. I totally agree that Shakespeare wrote everything that was attributed to him. When he died, his friends did something very extensive. They gathered all his plays together into one folio to print it. This is interesting. Why would his friends do that if there was more than one author?
Does Shakespeare play a role in ventriloquism?
Well, he does for me. I was in “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” and actually used a talking shoe at one point in the play. (laughter)
Is doing ventriloquism on stage in an un-amplified situation difficult?
I have never had any trouble being as loud in ventriloquism as I am with normal voice. I don’t think anybody should.
Why is that?
Well, in my case I have an over bite which I think has helped my ventriloquism tremendously. I am pushing sound out through my nose and my head cavity the same way an opera singer would. It is just not an open mouthed technique. So, I can be just as loud in ventriloquism as if I was shouting or singing.
So, you have studied vocal technique and applied those principles to the ventriloquial voice?
Absolutely. Especially singing. One time I was having trouble with my neck muscles tightening up. A vocal therapist discovered that it wasn’t the ventriloquism that was doing it but my everyday speaking. I would talk so quickly that I would exhale the majority of my air, but would keep on talking. This happens to a lot of rock singers who don’t have any vocal training. It is called fraying. It creates nodules from the strain. The trick was to slow down and not exhale everything when speaking.
Do you have any vocal exercises you go through before you perform?
Yes. I try to do exercises anywhere from 1-5 hours before a show. I usually do it in the shower because it is a nice moist area to warm up. I do scales. I sing in my falsetto voice. And then, go from falsetto to a normal voice without breaking. (demonstrates....starting at a high falsetto and then sliding down vocally to his lower range without any perceptible switch in tonal quality. Very similar to a slide whistle)
A lot of ventriloquists experience a decay of the distant voice as they get older.
(laughs) Curiously, mine has gotten better. It has gotten stronger and more reliable. It wasn’t always reliable when I was younger.
You think this is a result of your regular discipline of voice training?
Yes it is. But I think there is another issue. I have acid reflux as most do. This will damage your vocal cords. That can screw up the distant voice. I make ventriloquism my lifestyle. I take medication for acid reflux. I don’t eat after 6 pm anymore. That is how ventriloquism has become my lifestyle. I have no more acid reflux and my distant voice is spot on every night I use it.
Did the distant voice come easy for you?
No. When I was 19 or 20 I was working at six flags over Texas. I had an outdoor show in a gazebo. I became friends with one of the guys in a gunfighter show. His mother was a ventriloquist. And she came up to me at the park and she said, “You’re a good ventriloquist, but you don’t do any distant voice work.” Now this is a little old lady who looked like granny (Irene Ryan) from Beverly Hillbillies. I told her I didn’t think the distant voice was real. I really didn’t know. I am self-taught and I thought this whole thing of throwing your voice was just part of the mythology of the craft. Well, she demonstrated the voice to me and I was shocked. At the end of the season I went and spent two weeks with her and she taught me how to do the voice. She learned it at the conVENTion. By the way, I never attended a conVENTion until I was 29.
How long had you been doing ventriloquism at that point?
Since I was eight.
How important do you think the distant voice is to the art of ventriloquism today?
It’s important to me. You don’t see it very much these days. I’m surprised. Nacho (Estrada) said to me, “I can’t believe you do this in the show.” “I said well everybody does a little bit of it.” He said, “Yeah, but you do a whole routine. I mean your entire act revolves around the fact that Billy is heckling you from the trunk the whole show.”
It is really obvious that you are unique in that sense. But what I’m asking you is this: do you think it is important, as far as the craft is concerned, that we continue to practice these elements of ventriloquism that are exclusive to the art form?
I think it is important to maintain it, yes. Like magicians, they keep libraries of ancient tricks from say the 1600 or 1700’s with the idea that it will make a come back. I think that is important. The history is important. But in terms of performing? I don’t know.
Andy Warhol said “art is whatever you can get away with.” So if you do a show with no distant voice and you’re doing great, more power to you.
But you do distant effects.
Yes, but when I was younger I was fascinated by voice tricks. And yet, to me, they were senseless to do them, just to do them. To me they had to serve a story line or the narrative so that people would forget I’m even doing it.
Give me an example.
Well let’s say I have a puppet noticing someone in the audience and the puppet thinks that particular person is sexy and comments about it. Then all of a sudden you hear Billy’s voice coming out of the trunk saying, (in distant voice) “let me out of here right now!” And we had already forgot about him. So that becomes a call back.
Ok, so in some respects you say that a ventriloquist can be successful without the distant voice and yet you appeared at the conVENTion this year, surprisingly so, and in five minutes time using only ventriloquial effects, you had the audience on their feet. So obviously those effects serve a purpose for you.
I’m fascinated by voice work. I have actually had to do shows on a cruise ship because the puppets didn’t show up. In other words the airline lost them. So, I’m working on a show now where there are no puppets.
How much time can you currently do with just vocal effects.
That’s interesting. Ten minutes or so.
So, is the bottom line still entertainment?
You have been quoted as saying that one of your favorite movies is ‘Field of Dreams.’ Why is that?
It is a favorite, because the writing is superb and the main character gets to reconcile some lost issues with his dad. I understood that because my dad was taken from me when I was two and I always wanted to meet him and know what he was like. And then, as the credits rolled by, my name came up. There was a Ronn Lucas who worked on the movie.
I get that…so, do you think if you build it they will come?
(laughs) If you’re a Chinese real estate agent, probably. (laughter)
Seriously, is there a particular situation where that can happen?
Well that served the story line, 'if you build it they will come.' I think in the broader sense there is room for everybody in show business. There are certain ventriloquists or magicians in our community who think there can only be one. But if you build it, if you build a good show, people will be drawn to it.
How important are dreams when you set out to accomplish a task?
Dreaming is the first part. I write like crazy. I have books and books of ideas that I have never sat down to try and work out and perform. I have a kind of procrastination about that. Sometimes they need seasoning or time to think out but my biggest problem as a person is just knuckling under and getting to work. I hate going down a road for awhile and realizing ‘oh, this isn’t working’ and then having to abandon it. On the other hand, that tells you that particular road is no longer viable and there are other roads available.
Has that happened a lot? Meaning you come up with ideas and have to abandon them?
Do you think it is fairly common amongst people in our occupation?
It should be. We should all be trying harder and failing. In failing you know that is not the direction you should go in. Now you have the freedom to move in a different direction.
Is it terrifying for you to try out a new piece of business in front of an audience?
(sighs) Yes it is. And, I’m so stupid. I went on the Tonight Show with a brand new act. (raucous laughter)
What year was that?
I can’t remember. It was the year that I did ‘Row, row, row your Boat' for the first time. I hadn’t really done it except in a comedy club. The sheet music is really hard to play.
Tell me about the sheet music. Obviously you had to go to someone to put the chart together.
What was that process like? Meaning how did the routine come about?
It's funny, sometimes the process is a lot of fun. 'Row, row, row your boat' was an example. I started out in my 20’s trying to play a kazoo and sing at the same time. And that evolved into doing both parts of 'Row, row, row your boat.' Can you believe the connection?
Well, actually, no I can’t.
It is really odd. I tried to play a kazoo and sing at the same time. I then realized I was doing two things at the same time. Which vocally, was difficult if not impossible. Now flashback: I was on the Merv Griffin Show and Chet Atkins (guitarist) was also a guest. Well, Chet played Dixie and Battle Hymn of the Republic on the guitar at the same time. Because I had taken vocal lessons in high school I realized that what he was actually doing was some sort of fugue. In other words two melody lines happening at the same time. But... what he was actually doing was alternating between one and the other. So, taking his lead, I started alternating between playing the kazoo and singing and then I thought, “wait a minute, why don’t I just do it as a round and skip the kazoo entirely?” Of course, the kazoo became a completely different routine later on. Anyway, I then went to the piano and worked it out. It is a bit weird because in your brain you actually want to sing the melody. But the melody is fragmented and actually jump's around and alternates between the two lines.
How long did it take you to work the routine out?
I worked on it off and on for about 10 years.
You did 'Row row row your boat' on the Letterman Show a few years ago. How did the band handle that chart in rehearsal?
They couldn’t do it. I had the chart, I told them I would rather do the track because the track is guaranteed. They said, “We don’t do tracks.” So I hand them the chart, we had a rehearsal and it was a disaster.
Paul Shaffer couldn’t do it. Now understand, Paul Shaffer is brilliant. But the band couldn’t do it, so we went with the track.
I’ve noticed through the years that you have done different ‘set ups’ for the row your boat routine. Talk about that.
I used to do a back-story before the routine that ventriloquists used this type of contrapuntal singing in antiquity. I made that story up. Now, I’m not upset, I’m not mad, but the vent community took this to mean that the bit was not original, therefore they could copy it!
What does make you upset? What does make you mad?
Hmmm. There is an old saying: whenever you get two or three magicians together you have a convention. Whenever you get two or three ventriloquists together you have a fight. (laughs) We don’t want to be copied and yet we all kind of depend upon each other.
Magicians seem to know and accept this. They need other magicians to create magic. If they want to protect a trick they just publish it. The trick then has their name on it. Then, if someone wants to do the same trick, they are supposed to pay for it. In other words, magicians have some ethics involved in their original works.
It appears that many ventriloquists don’t. It is hard for some to be ethical because if they see something on TV they feel OK about using it for instance in their school shows. OK, I completely understand this, but frankly, what I really hate seeing is my best material done on something like America’s Got Talent by someone who didn't ask me.
Understood. I think the entire community would agree with you at this point in time.
At this point in time, yes. But I admit, I kind of started my anger riff on these kinds of things, a little TOO angry I might add, going back about two decades ago. I've since softened. But I still have NO trouble being critical about stealing on any elevated level.
It adds insult to injury when a specific AGT contestant makes a statement that I didn’t create 'my mask.' That’s BS. I did. Every vent historian knows I did. I called the producers of AGT when I was copied on National TV and they said, “Well, we know who you are, and Mr. Zerdin has an attorney. Here is his name.” He was already lawyered up.
So, let's set the record straight. What is the origin of the mask?
Years ago, I saw Joel Hodgeson (Mystery Science Theater 3000) do something similar. It involved two rubber ape masks and squeeze bulbs to make the mouths open and close. Joel 'forced' two participants brought on stage to lip-sync a recorded song, playing the part of his background singers.
I saw its potential for ventriloquism and eventually got his permission to use it. It was a long drawn out process, and I made mistakes with Joel along the way, but Joel was forgiving and kindly sold ALL of his rights to me.
Are you still in touch with Joel?
All the time.
He's a funny guy.
In a very unique and interesting way. He is one of the funniest guy's I know.
Anyway, back to the mask.
Well, I converted Joel's concept into a spring powered, hard-style, slot-jawed, lower "dummy" face. It was an instant hit. Beyond being a hit, every vent had to have it! Everybody started copying the mask. I spent a lot of time and money trying to protect it.
Early on, I had done a lot of research on copyright and patents and basically they are in its crudest definition a "license to sue." It is using the government to establish the fact that you did it first. Over time, I came to the realization that sending out legal letters was expensive and becoming futile. But, I never wanted to sue anyone and I never have.
Hindsight is 20/20. I probably should have, like the magicians do, manufactured to sell it from the very beginning. You know, there have been many instances in history where something became so popular that the owner simply lost control. Roller Skates for instance. The guy who invented roller skates had the copyright AND the patent but so many people manufactured them world-wide that the market was flooded and he lost control.
On a fan website there is a very detailed history of the mask. https://www.ronnlucas.net/mask.html Are you now happy with the arrangement you have with Joel Hodgeson and Steve Axtell for its manufacture?
Oh heck yeah! Fine. Steve Axtell is selling a lightweight, sturdy, and superior product. Joel came up with this legal arrangement and it works for everyone who has a conscience.
Here is the thing: I know in the world of ventriloquism I did it first. I will be happy going to my grave knowing this. I’m not trying to be selfish about it. Joel said I popularized it. But to me it's more. I created a vent act that previously did not exist.
That act was a vent audience participation routine whereby an unplanted, unrehearsed, person from the crowd is brought onstage, totally cold, and becomes a willing/unwilling puppet of the ventriloquist. The routine is all enabled thanks to a funny looking prop that looks like the giant slot-jaw mouth of a vent figure. My goal was to bring something to ventriloquism that previously had not existed. It is something I contributed to the art form. Something that had never existed quite this way in ventriloquism, before I did it. That is important to me. Thrilling in fact.
And it is very satisfying.
Next week Ronn talks about Jerry Lewis, writers and writing, the value of laughter and more. Don't miss it!
Find out more about Ronn at: ronnlucas.com