In another life so to speak, I had a 20+ year career in broadcasting. During that time I conducted hundreds of interviews with the rich and famous as well as the wannabe's. Doing it day in and day out, like a ventriloquist act, you get good at it.
I can honestly say when I first approached David Strassman's management for an interview on this blog, I was a bit nervous. David has a reputation and indeed is a renegade in the art of pushing the boundaries in ventriloquism. Like he says, "I don't do birthday parties."
But, as I have so often found among successful people, Mr. Strassman, (and yes he IS a renegade) was open, intelligent and gracious in the time we spent together. Considering that this is a man who has single handedly changed the art form (to critical acclaim I might add) throughout the world I was impressed by his willingness to accommodate me on this blog. His accomplishments are extraordinary. He is truly a superstar in many parts of the world with a cast of characters incredibly unique in the universe of ventriloquism and the whole of show business for that matter. If you haven't had a chance to see David in action, you owe it to yourself to do so. A good place to start would be the numerous youtube videos available. But, I would also suggest viewing some of his concert DVD's in their entirety. They are a tour de force of the highest caliber. Not bad for a kid who started out busking in the streets of New York. Which brings us to the interview...
What did you learn in your busking career?
When I started busking in 1977 I was one of 6 or 7 buskers in all of New York City. It was amazing that I could go out do Wall Street from 12 noon to 12:45, then I would go to 44th and Broadway from 7:00 pm to 7:45, and then on Saturday and Sunday I would be in Central Park. On Friday and Saturday night I would do Bleecker street in the village from like 11 PM to 3 AM. It would earn me about 500 bucks a week…that would be about $3000 in today’s money. Considering that my rent at the time was $125.00 a month I realized that in case of a nuclear war, I would always eat.
Do you think that because there were only six or seven guys in all of New York busking that there was something really novel and trendy about that experience for New Yorkers?
I kind of want to say that we were all really talented. There are so many different buskers now, very talented and some not so. When I see someone standing as a silver or gold person like a statue, I don’t see that as talent. To be able to do a show and hold the audience for fifteen minutes amongst the din of traffic noise, and then to build the show to a crescendo so that the biggest and funniest reaction was at the end, well that was an accomplishment which would cause people to want to put money in my little basket.
This was school for you?
Totally. I did 50 shows a weekend. It really honed my ability to gauge an audience and have them in my pocket. My show would have a beginning, middle and end so that my audience would want to leave putting money in my pocket.
Your Father had a distinguished career in his own right. (Harvey D. Strassman, 1922 - 2011) He was a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, medical educator, and clinical researcher. Was he supportive of your efforts to be in show business?
Not at all. Not at all. He wanted me to be a doctor and I really wanted to go into acting, because I was involved in theater in my high school in Chicago. My high school was so amazing, it was the same one where they filmed The Breakfast Club.
The theater in my high school had better facilities than some of the Broadway houses I played later on. So, I really wanted to go into acting. When I said, I don’t want to go to college I want to go to an acting school he said, “No, you have to go to college.” So I went to Western Illinois University, pretty much an agricultural school in the southern part of the state. I hated it. I hated it. I wanted to be in acting. But, I finally convinced him to let me go to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (New York City) and he said, ”OK,” because it was an accredited school.
So I went the first year, which I think had a student population of about 800 kids. The second year they whittled it down to about 40 students. I was accepted for the second year. However, I didn’t go because I had found busking. I realized I could actually make a living being a ventriloquist.
So did your Dad eventually come around?
Well he was the one that said, “Why don’t you bring your puppet out at Central Park and earn some money.” I said, “What are you crazy?” To which he replied, “No, you ought to try it.” (laughs) He was visiting New York for some reason and I thought it was just a stupid idea. He actually came out the very first day. I went to Central Park. I pulled Chuck out on a park bench, got a crowd and made like thirty bucks the very first time I ever did it. In front of him. It wasn’t that he didn’t want me to do it. He didn’t want me to follow the path of the acting world which has 98% unemployment rate. He wanted me to go and have a proper career. Because he was a doctor he wanted me to go into medicine. He said, “If you go into medicine you’ll be guaranteed a million dollars in your life time.” (laughs) And I said, “Yeah, well I don’t want to do eight more years of school. Screw that.”
I was reading an interview the other day with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. He was talking about the creative process and the fact that he wrote California Girls while on LSD. That got me to thinking about things because I had heard through the grapevine that one night you were imbibing in some alcohol and you came up with the idea of robotics in ventriloquism. Do you think that substance usage can contribute to the creative process?
Totally. Totally. In my high school years I was a complete stoner listening to Pink Floyd and tripping out on psychedelics and I dabbled with LSD.
This was in the late 70’s. I was doing magic at the time and my magic act became really amazingly beautiful with classical music and silks and colors and productions. I used to do a 30 minute magic show with 10 minutes of ventriloquism. I totally ascribe psychedelics allowing me to peer over the edge of normalcy, or what I call “birthday party lame.”
But at one point in time you were doing set up and punch with the dummies. And you decided that in itself was lame, so you took yourself out of the loop to come up with something new.
That was in 1985. I was pretty much an opener/middle act and I couldn’t see where my art form was going. Nothing inspired me in ventriloquism, though I was making a living at it.
I was doing all the comedy clubs. I started out at the Comic Strip and Improv in New York. I started out at the 3 AM and 4 AM spots, but did the work to move up to some of the better spots. I basically was disillusioned where I was going.
Then a buddy of mine, who was a producer said to me, “you know, you could probably make more money as a producer than you ever could as an artist. You know, when the Beatles played the Hollywood Bowl, there was a producer making more money than them.” (laughs)
So I took a year off to help a guy start up the Bakersfield Comedy Club. I moved to Bakersfield north of LA. I pretty much became a producer but I emceed all the shows, so I kept performing. That was a comedy of errors. This guy I worked with made every wrong decision in the world. Since he was the boss I couldn’t change anything.
But, toward the end, yeah, I was with a friend and we were really drunk and we thought of the idea. (robotics) We both flew radio controlled model airplanes. It was the basis of our friendship. All my life I had built beautiful to scale World War II model airplanes. Some with seven foot wingspans. I had gotten full-on into radio control aircraft, building them and flying them. That is where all of my robotic technology and expertise comes from. The model airplane field.
So we said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could put servos in Chuck and make him move independently? This was 1986.
Now, I want to preface this: I had seen and met ventriloquist Stan Burns in New York. He showed me a very crude Chinese old man puppet. The head moved left and right robotically. I don’t know how he did it, but, I did think it was really novel. But, I never paid too much attention to that. Then I remember in 1981 where I met a guy in Canada who put a puppet on a chair and he had a radio transmitter that caused the puppet to move his head and his mouth. It’s funny. I never once said, “that is really a great idea, I should do that.” It never crossed my mind that that was something that I wanted to do. Then, three or four years later, I’m with my friend. I decided to put this in Chuck and I thought of the idea that he (Chuck) should fire me and I leave the stage and he just sits there frozen and then he comes to life.
Wouldn’t that just freak out the audience? So I thought, I want to freak the audience out, like Twilight Zone. I wanted to blow their minds away.
So, you’re at The Cellar, (NY) and you introduce for the first time the robotic Chuck. Did you realize in that moment that you were truly breaking some new ground in the art of ventriloquism?
Yeah. Having a theatrical background, what I did was reintroduce the art of theater to ventriloquism. Back in the old days there used to be full on ventriloquist shows. I remember there was one, I can’t remember who it was, but there was a set of a cruise ship and the Captain was a puppet, the first mate was a puppet, and the woman in the lounge was a puppet and the ventriloquist would walk from puppet to puppet and form some kind of story on this ship. So that moment at the Cellar I did that theatrical element. I added music too. I took the music from Close Encounters that kind of goes: (sings Close Encounters theme) I just set an eery mood. I had the lights dimmed and put the audience into a state of anticipation which is the whole reason I got into theater to begin with. Which is this: I want to blow people away and make them feel when they're sitting in the audience.
Were you aware of the vaudeville ventriloquists that had preceded you? You know, doing that kind of stage work. Obviously not the technical things you were doing, but in terms of sets and scenes. Were you aware at the time?
I don’t know. I certainly didn’t think of referencing that. I’m aware of that now, but I’m not too sure of when in my life I studied ventriloquy history.
Would I be correct in saying then that what is important to you in your show is the sense of theater you bring to the audience?
Exactly. From that moment on I started adding lighting cues and sound cues and mood music. This turned me into a headliner. When I had this piece I went from a solid middle act to a headliner act. Over the next 4 or 5 years I became one of the highest paid headliners on the comedy club circuit. And, mind you, I didn't do Carson, I didn’t have the Johnny Carson credit.
Do you think it is important for an act to have a signature piece like that?
Yeah, you have too. You have to be ground breaking. You have to be unique in anything you do, otherwise, you’re not. (laughs)
How influential was Disney animatronics to you, if at all.
Well, seeing Pirates of the Caribbean as a ten or eleven year old blew me away.
So I thought, wow, I just spent an hour in line in the hot California sun and suddenly it’s night time in the Louisiana bayou? What the hell? I realized through the magic of theater you can transport anybody anywhere. Again, my robotics were really a function of my knowledge of radio controlled airplanes. When you build an airplane it has to be sturdy, it has to work every time, vibrations can’t screw it up, the linkage has to be secure because when that plane is flying a hundred miles per hour with all the vibrations of those motors, it has to work. Otherwise your very expensive creation crashes. So, when I started building the first Chuck I made sure it worked every time, every night.
Is there a lot of maintenance involved in keeping those robotics functioning?
Always. Always. It's complex.
What is your most ambitious application of robotics?
My last show... iTedE.
Oh you know what, I allowed a link of that show to be on the IVS site. Tom Crowl’s site. (Editors note: 2018 December issue of Spotlight. It is a members only link. You can join by going to VentriloquistSociety.com
I just signed a deal with Universal and it just came out on DVD so I can’t release it publicly, but a version of the show is available at IVS. Anyway, mechanics, in that show...I do a 25 minute six way conversation with five puppets all sitting in chairs. I have a hand held device which controls each one of their mouths while their other body movements are pre-programmed routines. It is mind blowing because I am doing their voices live and operating their mouths live remotely.
In Part II David talks about his new show, The Chocolate Diet, the writing process, improvisation on stage, anonymity, and political correctness.
So, join us for Part II in a week or so. In the meantime, check out David's site.
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