Russo Lewis...The Interview
Russo Lewis appeared many times with Brooklyn Birch on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Steve Allen Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Mike Douglas Show and The Hollywood Palace. At the height of his career, Russo appeared in a command performance for the President of the United States. One of the greats in the business, I had a chance to sit down with him recently and discuss his career, views on ventriloquism, as craft, art and philosophy.
It is my understanding that you received a copy of the book Pinocchio by Collodi when you were very young. What happened inside of you when you read that book?
The distancing effect of ventriloquism hit me. I didn’t know what it was, I couldn’t explain it, but it gave me a distance from myself, from what I was going through in my personal life. I think it was the first objective focus I had outside of myself. Something I could play with because Pinocchio was like an imaginary toy in the mind.
Explain more what you mean by distancing yourself?
As a little boy of 5 or 6 years, the drives, the instincts, my fears were all unrecognized but prominent. That was my center self. It was the creating of someone or something outside of the self, that I could refer to, something I could identify with that was magical. Pinocchio was magical. As a little character he could go through problems and struggles and still survive. It was very hopeful.
Was Pinocchio the impetus that moved you to the ventriloquial arts?
Definitely, definitely, yes.
How did that happen?
There was a jump from Pinocchio to Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney. All of a sudden it all clicked. I watched Paul and Jerry and there was the puppet coming alive along side of a human being. I sensed that, and I think my instincts generated an impetus into that direction. It filled up my whole life. It became what I wanted to do. Any money I earned at that time went towards the purchase of a Jerry Mahoney doll.
Were you performing with the Jerry Mahoney doll at the time you were working 12 shows a day at the 42nd street flea circus in New York?
No. The Jerry Mahoney doll had been set aside when I first met Professor Heckler at Hubert’s Museum. (Hubert’s museum was the last dime museum to exist in the old Times Square in New York 1925 – 1969. Heckler ran a flea circus) A fella named Eddie Marino, a ventriloquist and ticket taker at Hubert’s, had placed a professional figure on consignment in Al Flosso’s magic shop on 34th Street. (Martinka and Co.) They told me if I had a professional looking puppet they would give me a job. I went down to the magic shop and there was the puppet on consignment in the display case. Mr. Flosso gave it to me on time payments. I really got lucky with that.
Is this the puppet that eventually became Brooklyn Birch?
Yes. Eventually I ended up in Los Angeles. Went to work doing club dates, worked for the USO, came back to the States and a Mortgage Company saw me at a night club that was on the west coast in Santa Barbara and wanted me to do a television show. (The Russ Lewis Show KTTV) Well, I had come up through burlesque and strip houses as well as circus and sideshows. I knew I was going to have to set aside all of the material that I was doing at that point. So along with a change of material, I had to remake Brooklyn Birch.
Rene’ Zendejas (1927-2014) a wonderful puppeteer and puppet maker in California was going to do the puppets on the Television show. He remade the features of the doll. Gave him a pointy nose, large eyes, brand new skin and hair. And so, that is how Brooklyn Birch came about.
To be clear, who originally made Brooklyn Birch?
Here is the best answer I can give you. Eddie Marino (Hubert’s Museum) came from England with the puppet. I think it was made somewhere in Great Britain. It had been in use about 70 years before I got it in my hands.
So, this means Brooklyn Birch, in terms of his actual origins is a mystery?
It is a mystery, but I’m quite certain he came out of Great Britain.
So, you went out to LA and started doing the television show at KTTV. How much time had elapsed from the time you were doing the flea circus in New York to the time you went to LA?
That would be 1953 and I arrived in California in late 1959.
From the time you were young until you actually decided you were going to venture into this career as a ventriloquist, what kind of a vision did you hold in your mind in terms of what you wanted to accomplish?
KTTV Television circa 1960's
I think the original vision of Pinocchio was in my mind. I had written a letter to Walt Disney. I wanted to create Pinocchio for him according to my vision. But, I could not articulate myself at that time. Perhaps it was a missed opportunity that would have enabled me to create a vision. Most of my life to that point was driven by instinct. As the act was presented to audiences, the audiences would really write my material. What stayed in was what they responded to and what went out of the act was what was not responded to. That is the way I worked. Many years later I realized that it was a spiritual vision. In other words, searching for a central point of focus in my own life.
Did you feel that you had a destiny as a ventriloquist?
Oh, I’m sure I did. I’m sure I did. I didn’t know what it was. Even to this date in my life I’m still trying to figure it out! But, I believe yes I very much had a destiny. I believe everyone does.
You’re one of a handful of ventriloquists from that period that experienced a significant amount of success. You talked at one point in time, in one of the 60’s Vent-O-Gram issues about running into obstacles in the entertainment business. You talked about breaking out of the vicious circle. Can you speak about that?
The circles we are talking about are ever changing circles. In order to stay in a particular circle you must become adept at writing new material. I’m thinking that a master at this was Senor Wences.
Senor Wences for Ed Sullivan constantly was able to present to that circle what I would have had to break out of because I couldn’t find new material fast enough. Senor Wences was able to stay within that circle. He was able to always create a new piece for Sullivan. Once I had gotten into a circle, I had used my act up. I had to break out of the circle in order to survive. I could not stay within the same audience.
Senor Wences and Pedro
So adaptation is critical to any entertainer if you want to ascribe to certain heights of success?
They say in the business you’re only as good as your last performance. You’ve got to be prepared to lay a ground-work for creating new material for the same audience.
I remember, I used to go and see Lenny Bruce in LA.
One wise thing he always did: He always recorded his shows so that he could go over the material and he could spin off it to create new material as he went along. If you have and can afford writers around you, then you can stay within a circle.
As you climbed new vistas you had a command performance for the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter. Did you feel that you were ready for that?
I don’t think I thought about it. But, I had confidence in the act. I had to go with that. I didn’t question myself as to
whether I was ready or not. I had no alternative. I had to go with what I had. And, it worked just fine. Jimmy Carter thanked me later. I did not acknowledge him in the audience, I did not poke fun, and I did not do anything political. Although i did do one joke where I got a big response from his table:
Russo: It's not easy to get lost. Look at Hansel and Gretel little fella.
Brooklyn: Oh, yes, yes.
Russo: They were lost in this great forest.
Brooklyn: Oh, in the great forest
Russo: That's right. In the great forest. It was dark and tangly. And they couldn't make any progress. Do you know the opposite of progress?
Brooklyn: Yes, congress!
That was my political joke there and they enjoyed it, but, I didn't want to go further than that.
When I watch your earlier television performances your act was often set up and punch type jokes. But as your act evolved you began using traditional fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel and Pinocchio. Why did you decide to go in that direction?
I didn’t know why I did this. I was doing a fair date and I was watching a comedy team and they used a fairy tale reference. Something went off inside of me. It was like a light inside my head. There was something there. What is it? I adapted it into the act. And when I did shows it was successful. I think fairy tales have a spiritual metaphor. I always, inside of myself, was struggling to articulate, something I didn’t understand. Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel or Pinocchio was the tie in. Now I look back on it, fairy tales are a metaphor for the reality we all struggle in. So this is a different way to talk about these spiritual strivings that humanity has searched for. It gave me a historical perspective that I could bring into a modern day focus.
What you’re doing today then, in addition to entertainment and comedy, is presenting a metaphor that can be taken at a deeper significance?
Oh yes. It has a deeper significance. Our gift of humor and comedy is a gift that is registered in a region of the brain that goes directly to the health of the individual.
Where do you see ventriloquism going in the future?
Well, it is always going to be with us. The metamorphism of taking a lump of clay and forming it into the shape of a human being expresses something that is within all of us. Ventriloquism is Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, two opposites within one man. Ventriloquism is an illusion, but it is an illusion without deception. The audience knows that it is coming from within that person. It happens in words and through puppets. In fact, it happens whenever we speak to one another. Ventriloquism is not limited to still lips. It is the projection of self.
So the definition of ventriloquism is broad in its application to life. What then is the roll of acting in the practice of the art form?
Acting slowly showed me that when we create a character as an actor, once again we are taking on the aspect of ventriloquism. The actor creates a character outside of himself. It relates directly. It is the same process as ventriloquism. The projection of self into another character.
Who is Brooklyn Birch?
Brooklyn Birch is fear. He is fear that takes many directions. Fear of the future, past of himself and the problems he gets into. He is also evasion. He is the evasion of fear. He might have gotten in trouble with a policeman who stopped him in his puppet mobile running a stop sign. He is about to be reprimanded for it and he takes a sidetrack into a joke. He will not address what makes him afraid. He will not talk about his fears. He’ll joke and constantly digress. Which is what we do when we talk about something that makes us feel uncomfortable.
Obviously you’ve thought about this. I’m guessing that this characterization that you have described has been an ongoing evolution for Brooklyn Birch?
Ongoing, ongoing and still going.
Before you went on stage did you ever have any sense what your job was? A sense of a purpose for that audience?
Yes, the purpose was to give them an opportunity to laugh. Give them something to laugh at because we all feel better when we do. My Father, my Dad, a hard working man was a very good man. When Dad broke down and laughed, the family relaxed. When Daddy got hysterical everything was fine, everything was all right. All the troubles went away. He laughed at them. Laughed at the troubles and you could feel everyone around the table just relax. So my expectation was to create an opportunity where Daddy could laugh.
So, did you consider your talents a gift to the audience?
Oh? I never thought of it that way. I never thought of it as a gift. I realize objectively now that it would be considered a gift because I believe everybody has gifts. But, I did think that I had something special to offer them. I had Pinocchio to offer them. I had the happiness that I felt inside. I learned that I could share it. That’s where ventriloquism came in. It was the magic that enabled me to share it. I didn’t understand it but I felt, yeah, this is something good that people will like.
Risking being trite, as you look back on your long career, any regrets?
Oh, yes. Definitely. My regret as a journeyman, being on the road constantly is a detriment to family. The time spent on the road instead of with family was way out of balance. This is a detriment. It is very hard and painful for people. That is my regret.
In our business, is that controllable?
It’s controllable yes, if you’re in a position to control it. I was never in that position. The business world can take over the family world. It’s always a juggle. I never met any family that doesn’t struggle with that even outside of show business. It seems all families seem to struggle with this impasse, between family and business.
How much performing are you doing these days Russo?
Very little, very little. Now, I’m mostly writing. I go out to some nursing homes, I did Cajun Comic Relief and a few of those things. I’m trying not to go out. I don’t want to get on another airplane. Really. I’ve been around the world a few times by air and ocean. I’m trying to concentrate on my family life. I’m very grateful to hear from my children and grandchildren these days. That is a gift.
Well, Russo, for those of us in the ventriloquist community, you have been an inspiration. While you were practicing your craft and appearing on all those network shows, there were many young ventriloquists, myself included, that were inspired by your excellence in the art form we all love so dearly. You inspired many of us, and I want to let you know that.
Thank you sir, thank you so much.
“My method of approach is to present the human quality, recognizable to my audience, with humor, comedy and sometimes dramatically inclined passages. Sculpture in the form of the figure, skill in the control of lips and the sensitivity of delivery and talent in the interpretation and presentation of ideas.”
Ventriloquist Russo Lewis (Quoted in 'Vent to Vent' article, Vent-O-Gram 1965)
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