Sammy King...The Interview
Updated: Oct 9, 2018
When it comes to precision of execution, timing, attention to detail and superb technique, there is only one entertainer that comes to mind...Ventriloquist Sammy King. Through his career, Sammy spent approximately 50 weeks a year on stage, for 60 years. That's a lot of shows. About 26,000. They say that if you spend 15 minutes a day at something for five years, you become a genius. By that definition, Sammy King is cosmic. More importantly, he is a genuine human being who freely gives of his talents and wisdom to those who seek it. What follows is a glimpse into the man who showed us and the world, how it should be done.
When you were young you heard Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on the radio. And you had a sense that one man was creating the voices. How did that affect you?
That was in 1949. I just figured, hey, that’s something I can do. In my particular environment in south Texas, especially growing up the way I did with animals and all, (Sammy’s Father was an exporter of exotic animals) I would be outside visiting with a monkey, looking at him and talking to him. I was about six or seven years old. In my mind, he would be answering me. I still do it with dogs. A lot of people do, you know. Where you do the dialog for the dog…the character. And so to me, to begin vocalizing that was no different. Now the technique of talking without moving my lips, the distant voice and all those other things, I taught myself.
Was there any written material that was influential to you?
No. I wasn’t much of a reader to begin with. I was a terrible student because I was always play acting in my mind with everything. It was harmless, but not very educational. (Laughs)
What did your parents think about all this play acting?
I don’t think they noticed it much.
But your Mother did give you a figure didn’t she?
She did. She bought me a Charlie McCarthy from the Montgomery Ward catalog. I remember it had the monocle stuck in a hole in its eye. (Laughs) And then she got me a Jerry Mahoney with the string out of the back of the neck. The eyes were turned to the left and I thought: ‘That’s dumb.’ So I painted over the eyes and centered them. He never looked the same after that. (Laughs). It made more sense to me rather than having him always look at me.
Didn’t she also give you a carved figure?
Yes she did.
Do you know who made that?
I don’t know who made it but it was definitely someone in Mexico.
Whatever happened to that figure?
I don’t know. I had replaced it with a Frank Marshall figure. I got that Marshall from a carnival ventriloquist. It was a trade. I got the Marshall, he got a deodorized skunk! But, I think my Mother passed the Mexican figure on to some aspiring kid who wanted to be a ventriloquist.
So, you were young when all this was happening. Then one night you tuned in The Ed Sullivan Show. From that experience you had some type of inkling that you would appear on the Sullivan Show one day.
Yes, yeah an intuition if you will. I had this image, but I kind of shrugged it off as a dream. Then, years later I actually did the show and I realized, ‘oh, wow,’ this was more than a dream.
This was the same intuition you had internalized all those years before?
Yes, absolutely. But, like I said, I had written it off. The way I got to the Sullivan show was unusual. It was not by any of my own doing. He was in the audience at one of my shows. I was at the Landmark in Las Vegas working with Connie Stevens and the Righteous Brothers.
Did he send a note back stage to you?
He did not. The singer Sergio Franchi was backstage visiting Connie Stevens and he said to me: “Ed Sullivan’s in the audience.” The last thing you want to hear before a show, right? (Laughs). The next morning in The Las Vegas Review Journal an entertainment writer said: “Sammy King’s act is not ready for the big stage. He should find a lounge to develop his show.” (Laughs).
But then within two weeks of that review I received a telegram offering me the Ed Sullivan Show. By the way when I got to the Ed Sullivan Theater, I remember approaching the dressing room that had my name on it…everything was exactly as the dream. That really freaked me out.
What then did that tell you about dreams?
Oh, that they are real. You know, I’ve always had this thing for Native Americans, especially the Sioux Indians. They believed that the dream world is the real world and that what we experience here is an illusion in this life. Damned if all my dreams didn’t come true…really. There is something about dreams. If you have a dream, no matter what the obstacle, go for the dream.
You did Ed Sullivan and yet you turned down Johnny Carson, why?
You know, by the time the Carson show came around in the early 90’s he was close to retiring. I had done over a period of a few years maybe 25 national television shows. I never liked anything I ever did. It was usually limited to 3 to 5 minutes and my act didn’t lend itself to that.
Well what is curious to me is this: you were influenced by dreams or intuitions but you also seemed to know what to say ‘no’ to. How important is that in a career?
Well, I was told by agents and managers in the business that I was making a big mistake by turning down television and not pursuing greater things. But, I saw myself as a live cabaret performer. My act was perfect for production shows. In the 60s and 70s those shows were prevalent. You could work 50 weeks a year. So, that’s where I liked to be. Curiously an agent once said to me that I would become successful in spite of myself because I turned so many things down. Television just wasn’t for me.
In addition to being a ventriloquist you were intensely attracted to the guitar and in fact became quite proficient at the instrument. What kind of conflicts resulted from being a guitarist and a ventriloquist?
The time. I used to practice the guitar four to five hours a day. If I had put that much time into ventriloquism, meaning writing material, creating new characters, whatever, I might have achieved more fame than I did. But to tell you the truth I never cared for fame. During my national TV time, a couple of years of doing two network shows a month, people would do a double take on me in public places. I didn’t like that. That sense of losing your privacy. Celebrity rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t like it.
But this was a period in your life when you were very serious about the guitar. When people asked you what you did for a living would you tell them you were a guitarist?
Yes, while doing my act in Miami, I was taking lessons from Juan Serrano, a concert flamenco guitarist. (Note: Juan Serrano is considered one of the great Flamenco guitarist’s of the 20th century) I was serious about it and loved it. Mostly though when people asked me what I did, if I said I was a guitar player they would see I didn’t have a guitar and wouldn’t ask me to do something.
But if I said I was a ventriloquist, here come the questions: throw your voice, how do you do that, when did you learn that. You know, a series of questions that go along with being a ventriloquist.
In spite of the fact that you became a fine guitarist did you get to the point where you realized that ventriloquism was in fact your true calling?
Yeah, I did. My bread and butter was in the act. I couldn’t find work as a guitar player for sure. But, one thing led to another. The guitar became part of the act. I played enough in the act where people would say, ‘oh, he really does play.’ Not that that matters but it reinforced the comedy in the act, like a serious opera singer being hit in the face with a pie.
So, the guitar became a support to Francisco?
And what you really created was a contrast between yourself being a serious musician and Francisco continually interrupting your efforts to do something serious with the instrument.
Well put. That is exactly what it is.
Ok, you were doing review shows and you were comfortable with that but then one day you received a call from Paris to work at the world famous Crazy Horse Cabaret.
The owner of the Crazy Horse was touring around the United States looking for acts for his show in Paris. I didn’t know anything about it, but he saw me work and offered me two weeks in Paris including transportation , hotel blah blah, blah. So I said, all right I’ll try it. It was like six months ahead of time so I started little by little learning French phrases and translating the act into French…which was stupid. It does not translate no matter how you do it.
Did you know anything about the Crazy Horse reputation?
No, I did find out though that Senor Wences had played the Crazy Horse for ten years off and on. And other acts I knew, sight acts mostly, had claimed it was a world famous cabaret. That’s as much as I knew. So, opening night, unknown to me, a Japanese tour group had bought out the room. Nobody told me. I went out there and tanked. Not ONE reaction. I came off the stage drenched. I went to the hotel and told my wife, ‘pack your bags we’re out of here.’ I wasn’t going to put up with two weeks of that. I went back to do the second show and told the manager ‘I’m not going to hold you to the contract but my act isn’t going to play well here.’ He said, “Why, what’s the matter?” I said I don’t know, I don’t know. He said, “Just go back out there and slow down.” That’s all he ever said to me. So I went back out there and it was kinda, sorta OK. By the end of the second week though, I had figured out how to perform in English to an international audience.
You have often said your act was an international act. Explain what that means.
Since English is the international language there is a certain way of talking and being physical and repeating things, especially to a Mexican character who needs interpretation. Those things contributed to making itself an international vocal performance. It’s not easy.
Would you consider that first performance at the Crazy Horse one of your worst performing experiences?
Yes. The most memorable and terrifying. Like I said, I came off just drenched with sweat. (Laughs)
Wasn‘t the Crazy Horse Cabaret an extremely prestigious venue to be associated with at that time?
Crazy Horse Interior
Absolutely. I did not know it until I got there. And then I realized that I was working with world class variety acts. The acts changed periodically. Yes, it was the most imitated cabaret around the world. A very prestigious gig. I was extended to four months and then they offered me
four years at ridiculous money. Twice what anyone would pay me in the States.
All in all though it was about a ten year run wasn‘t it?
Yes, about eight months out of every year.
Sammy, in recent years you have been faced with your own mortality through various health issues. It’s not necessary to get into the details of that but I’m wondering as you came out on the other side of those health issues, how did it change your perspective?
Initially I missed being on stage. That was very difficult because I did it so much. So many days out of the year I was on stage, at least once or twice a night . That was hard…the sun would go down, my body would start twitching and I would start thinking: ‘I gotta prepare for the adrenaline rush,’ cause that never went away. I can truthfully say I was a nervous wreck before every performance.
And that’s out of 26,000 shows.
Yeah, yeah, that’s true. That never went away and I’m grateful for that. The big people I worked with in my career, when questioned about that all told me the same thing. One of my favorites was Tony Bennett. He said: “Yes, I get that every show, but once you get out there isn’t it fun?” I said: “Yeah, yeah, exactly.”
But anyway, my mortality. The first thing I do in the morning is pee, then I get out of bed. Ba-da-boom. (Laughs). Stupid old joke. But anyway, I’m a more serious man now. I’m battling cancer, heart disease and arthritis which keeps me from playing.
What’s become important to you now?
Finding something that can give me purpose. Contributing to other people’s lives.
Is that how coaching came about?
Yes. Yes. I suppose I have had more than fifty students. Though I don’t like that term, we are all students. I certainly consider myself a student. I never did a perfect show. And I always strive to help others improve.
If we are all students then what separates the pro’s from the amateurs?
The ‘It’ factor.
What is that?
Well, it’s that special thing that makes someone feel at home on stage. It was pointed out to me one time that I looked comfortable on stage with my guitar. It was an interesting statement because it was true. But it also applies to how you walk onstage, how you look at your audience, and how you react to the unexpected. Those things, body language, laughing at yourself and knowing that whatever talent you have is a gift and not anything that you have created. All of those things and more amount to what I call the ‘It’ factor.
You once said there is a difference between being one who plays the guitar and a guitar player. Does that principle apply to ventriloquists?
Absolutely. There are so many great ventriloquists out there. But they are not all destined to become performers. You may have a great distant voice, but what are you going to do with it? It doesn’t always translate into entertaining an audience. A regular audience when it comes to ventriloquism is impressed because they think you are throwing your voice and talking without moving your lips. They think it is absolutely amazing. That it’s magic. When in fact it’s pretty simple. You know, ‘a’ voice from someone goes into ‘a‘ microphone and comes out speakers that they hear and they think it’s coming out of the mouth of the dummy.
What is the state of ventriloquism today. How have the markets changed?
There is a big church market today. That’s different. Cabarets are yesterday. Production shows, gone.
And yet, ventriloquism is more popular than ever.
Absolutely. Three winners of America’s got Talent. There are more of us out there than ever before as evidenced by the conVENTion.
But, in all of this popularity you can still recognize the ‘It’ factor?
Oh, yeah, yeah yeah. There are not many that have it, but, it really doesn’t matter. Not everyone is suppose to have it. I see ventriloquists in nursing homes and the people there have smiles on their faces. They may as well be watching a Jeff Dunham production. I always point that out. If you want to be on a stage there is a place for you. It may not be a Vegas stage, it might be a corner of a room with a light bulb. The energy is exactly the same. I have done my act in front of as few as five people. All five laughed and enjoyed it as much as five thousand.
Any parting shots Sammy?
When I reflect on my career, the only thing that comes to mind is gratitude for my almost 60 years of having the opportunity to entertain people by doing the thing I love most in my life. My entire stage history was an evolution that simply happened. I was always at the right place at the right time, and I was very lucky. So, I’ll close with my golden rule. “Be kind to one another and try to be one of a kind.”
Sammy’s memoir ‘Time on the Boards’ is available at: https://www.amazon.com/Time-Boards-Ventriloquists-Sammy-King/dp/1516826612/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1538991249&sr=8-1&keywords=time+on+the+boards+sammy+king
If you don’t own it, you should.
Sammy and the Author
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