Updated: Nov 20, 2019
20 years ago I was reading a book on classical guitarists in Spain. Under the section devoted to Andres Segovia, there was a note that Mr. Segovia had taken his first lesson on the guitar from the ventriloquist Paco Sanz.
I was stunned. As a guitarist myself who had studied guitar in Spain, and as a ventriloquist, the connection I felt with Sanz was stupendous.
Thus began a long search finding out about Paco Sanz.------->
That is another story but one that led to my association with the Spanish ventriloquist Elvi.
The two of us have corresponded over the years and finally had a chance to meet on a trip I took to Spain last year. One afternoon in his studio, we sat down and had a fine discussion about the art. Of course with my limited Spanish and his limited (but not as limited as mine) English the interview was one of fumbling through the two different languages to come to some kind of synthesis in our discussions. Funny moments to say the least. But, I was struck, as well as he, with the universality of our craft. And in that sense, language became no barrier at all.
Elvi is a superb ventriloquist. At dinner one night he demonstrated his telephone voice and it was stunningly good. He understands the nuts and bolts of the craft and is a true pro. I'm honored to call him a friend. Here is the interview.
Elvi, how long have you been doing ventriloquism?
I began doing ventriloquism when I was 18 years old. (Editors note: 40+ years ago) I was performing with a friend who was a magician, a juggler and singer. I was doing clowning but our show was short. I had an old book on ventriloquism, it was Spanish of course. So I decided to learn. I purchased a stock cheeky boy puppet. So, in this show I did clowning and ventriloquism.
Was ventriloquism easy to learn?
The Spanish book was fantastic. I mean, a very very good book. The title is Ventriloquism by Wenceslao Ciuro. A famous Spanish magician.
Ventriloquism was easy for me to learn. First of all, I was young. Second, I was enamored with the puppet. It was magic. Every day in front of the mirror I practiced. And then I purchased another cheeky boy figure around 2002 from Maher studios. It was fantastic. I also did the Maher course.
You mentioned being a clown. Is this something you did when you were young? Tell me what the art of clowning is like in Spain?
Ah…clowning in Europe is very different than clowning in America. The American clown uses a lot of makeup while the European clown uses very little makeup.
Plus, the rings in the circus are much smaller.
Is the circus in Spain still presented in tents?
Yes, yes. But now it is difficult because we have problems with animal rights groups. At this moment in Spain, the circus is not healthy. But, in other countries in Europe it is still good, especially in Russia.
Tell me about ventriloquism in Spain.
When I first began watching TV, there were two great ventriloquists.
Jose Luis Moreno....
and Mari Carmen....
The Moreno family was related to Senor Wences. The Moreno’s are a very great ventriloquist family in Spain.
For instance, from an earlier generation, Felipe Moreno, was the brother of Senor Wences but he only performed in Spain and France. He performed with a parrot puppet named Kiko. When I was young, I saw also saw Jose Moreno with a crow puppet, whose name was Rockefeller.
What year was all of this taking place?
So, you were very young.
Yes, the Moreno family were my first influences in ventriloquism. But I really didn’t even begin ventriloquism until I began watching on the internet, the American ventriloquists.
Before this, did you know anything about American ventriloquists?
No. Nothing. Only until I started watching ventriloquists on youtube. It was on the internet that I discovered Maher studios and their catalog. I bought books, cassettes and figures from Maher. I bought all of Bill Boley’s books and of course, the video by the great, great Paul Winchell. It was from the Winchell book that I really learned the techniques of ventriloquism.
Do you have the Paul Winchell book, Ventriloquism for fun and profit?
Yes, I have a first edition, signed by Paul Winchell. I also have Sammy King’s book and the Clifford Guest course.
The Guest book is rare.
Yes. It is very short, but concise.
Do you like Clifford Guest?
Oh, yes, yes. I think his bit where the figure is running is absolutely fantastic. But to me, it is Winchell.
How did you find about about the vent convention?
Once again, the internet. I attended my first convention in 1998. I had the pleasure of seeing Bill Boley, Jay Johnson, Jeff Dunham, John Pizzi and the fantastic Ronn Lucas.
Let’s go back to Spain. What is humor like in Spain.
It depends on the venue. All in all, it has to be very quick. Very precise. Setup, punch. Setup, punch. But, as I said, the different markets require a different approach.
Do like working quickly like this?
How do you like to work?
I enjoy theater performances the most. I can work slower and create better situations.
Have you ever worked on television?
I did television years ago in the Basque country. I did 60 programs. It was very difficult work because I had to perform in the Basque language. My language is Spanish. It was very difficult working in a different language. Not only did I have to memorize the scripts weekly, but, figure jaw movement and manipulation took on a whole different significance, speaking a different language. Everything was new.
Tell my about the figures you work with now.
The first figure I had was a Maher cheeky boy. It worked well, but it always felt rigid to me. But then I discovered the great Conrad Hartz. Fantastic.
I ordered from him another cheeky boy. I like this figure a lot. He is small, but sarcastic. Great for children. I also use a latex monkey.
Who made that?
It is Spanish. But there is a problem with latex. With the passage of time, it wears. I called him Lester, and he is a jazz singer like Louis Armstrong. I used him when I was working in television.
I also bought a duck figure from Maher. A lady duck. She speaks very little …you know, "yes, yes, no, no." I was inspired by Bill DeMar’s frog puppet. That was a fantastic routine. Anyway, I used the duck on television with the Basque people. I built many routines for TV with the duck figure inspired by Bill DeMar’s frog. This was around 2000.
As you can see, I have many beautiful figures.
Did you like working on TV?
I worked television for six consecutive years. The shows were shot in the theater.
Were the audiences live?
Yes, like the Ed Sullivan show. A variety show. But, it was difficult because I had to come up with new material every week for 60 weeks!
Working on TV must have given you some fame amongst the Basque people.
Did you like that?
Yes and no. Everywhere I would go people would recognize me. That got old rather quickly. Fame is good from a career standpoint, but it gets tiring. You know being recognized everywhere you go. (laughs)
After television, I wanted to work more for adult audiences. I bought a Brant Gilmer figure. I wanted something that was similar to a McElroy. In 1998 I also purchased a soft puppet from Verna Finley. Great puppet. He is a priest.
What is the name of the priest?
Like Senor Wence’s Cicelia?
Yes, the same, but in Basque language. It is a great figure especially for seniors. I also have an Axtell rat. Very funny figure.
You have a practice studio. How much do you practice?
It depends. If I have shows, I practice every day. 30 minutes to an hour. The most important thing to me is the voice. To control the lips you must control the voice. Once you have mastered these, you then can concentrate on manipulation. I learned a lot from the great Bill DeMar. I practice a lot.
What makes a ventriloquist, an artist?
The most important thing to me, is the ability to communicate with your audience. This is true of all artists. You must communicate, communicate, communicate. When you are on stage, you have to capture the audience. How? With communication. What is that? Communication is to know what the audience wants. Again, the ventriloquist needs to know how to capture the audience. The audience wants to laugh and the ventriloquist needs to know how to give them (the audience) that laughter.
But, there is a problem. Each audience is different. Each audience has a different character. Often times, they will respond to one puppet or another. For instance, I know that my cheeky boy is good for children. And I also know that my priest is perfect for senior crowds. Before performing then, I need to know my audience and what they will respond to. In other words, I need to know how to communicate with that particular audience. Very very important.
What about timing?
Oh, very important. The beat, the beat, the beat. The secret of comedy is the beat.
How long is your show
45 minutes to one hour.
Now, you still do clowning. You work with the circus every year. What are the similarities between clowning and ventriloquism?
In European clowning there are two classes. The straight man, and the comic. This is very much like ventriloquism. The ventriloquist is the straight man, and the puppet is the comic.
The comic wears the red nose.
And you, in your profession as a clown, are the comic?
Laurel and Hardy?
Oh, the best. But even though Hardy is the straight man, he is very very funny.
What about Charlie Chaplin?
Frankly, I like Laurel and Hardy more than I do Charlie Chaplin. You know the sketch with the piano? It is perfect, marvelous.
Do you work with the same clowning partner?
Yes. Very much like Laurel and Hardy. We have worked for 20 years or more.
So, the two art forms, ventriloquism and clowning are very similar.
Yes. Because we want to make people laugh. And the contrast between the straight man and the funny man is the formula to accomplish this laughter. It is exactly the same with Laurel and Hardy.
Now a predictable question. What advice do you have for young people who wish to become a ventriloquism.
First, learn good technique. Then, learn from the greats. Watch a lot of performances. Watch Jay Johnson, Edgar Bergen, Paul Winchell, Jimmy Nelson and others. Single out what is good to you. Learn. And then innovate from what you have learned. But, don’t just watch ventriloquists. You have to watch all of the artists. Ventriloquism is not an art that is separated from the others. Interestingly, because of Harry Potter, magicians have a greater reputation in Spain today, than ventriloquists. This is another reason why ventriloquists need to be innovative.
Does attending the convention as a learning experience help?
Yes, yes. I have been twice. It is so great to know that there are other people who practice ventriloquism. In many ways, I am alone in my practice in Spain. Here we don’t have an association like in America. If I want to meet other ventriloquists, I have to go to America.
What about in Spain? Any other ventriloquists? Contemporaries of yours?
Well, I don’t know. But, I can tell you this: I work with a lot of magicians and I know that magicians are ventriloquists in their souls. But, they are not ventriloquists. Many artists do many different things. For instance, Sammy King is also a wonderful guitar player. But, he is a ventriloquist first.
I read once in one of Bill DeMar’s books that to be a great ventriloquist you have to know many aspects of the performance arts. It is very important.
You are also a musician.
Yes, I play saxophone. I began when I was 17 years old. I knew intuitively that if I wanted to be a clown, I would have to have other talents. For me, it was music. In the European tradition, clowns often play music in their performances.
Did you go to school for music?
Yes. I attended a music school in Spain. Today I not only use the saxophone in my clowning, I also play professionally as a saxophonist in jazz combos and big bands.
Do you consider yourself a renaissance man?
Si, I think so.
The Author and Elvi in Spain.
For more info on Elvi check out his website: http://elviventrilocuo.es/
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