THE Dale Brown….THE Interview
It is always fun to run into a kindred spirit in this business. And, it is always fun to explore the many different aspects of ventriloquism careers. Dale Brown was president and CEO of Brown and Martin, Inc., a marketing and public relations firm serving companies across the country. He is also a master ventriloquist. What does that mean? Well, in his long career, it means using ventriloquism effectively in the corporate market. Not an easy task. Corporate performing is a very unique genre and requires not only a professional act and attitude but also an ability to relate to Presidents, Vice presidents, CEO's, not to mention business people on the whole. Sometimes, a daunting task given today's politically correct charged business atmosphere.
Dale has done it all in his long career. Appearances on Good Morning America, ABC World News, CBS This Morning and other news and talk shows, all part of his resume. He has done film, commercials, trade shows, and sales meetings. He is the author of 'Finding and filling the banquet niche,' How to Thrive as a Banquet Performer,' 'How to Write Original Comedy Dialogs,' 'Audience Participation and Ad-libbing for Success,' (with Mark Wade, a great man) 'Putting your Money where your Mouth is,' (with Leslie Brown) and 'The Business of Ventriloquism.' (with Jimmy Vee) Holy moly, as we say in the midwest, that kind of bibliography is a full time job all by itself!
With many Fortune 500 clients, Brown and Martin were the recipients of several professional and trade association awards. In 2012 Dale received the prestigious Dorothy Thomas Black Award for lifetime achievement in public relations and marketing.
You think this guy had a successful career? And really, it was all 'under the radar' so to speak. No shining lights, no marques, just a lot of hard work at our craft. I could go on and on, but it is technical and I had a better time just chatting with Dale about his story in ventriloquism.
Join me now. Here is THE Dale Brown...THE Interview.
How is the crypt coming along at VentHaven for Al Getler? (Raucous laughter)
I haven’t decided yet. We will have to see. I had planned to name one of the bathrooms after him, but apparently someone beat me to it. (Laughter)
Well, in lieu of that, maybe a large cornerstone? (More laughter)
You know David, I read your book. (Bellytalker, Life and times of a Ventriloquist). You and I have so much in common. Winchell was the reason why I became a ventriloquist. My first dummy was a Jerry Mahoney out of Sears and Roebuck that I got from my paper route. That’s kind of your story too right?
Yes, I mowed lawns for .50 cents a lawn to buy my Jerry.
I was in 6th grade then. In 7th grade I painted Jerry Mahoney black. I thought I would have this great act. I did the act for my Mother. This was in the 60’s at the height of racial unrest in this country. So, I did my act for her. Once. I never saw the puppet again. (Laughter)
Well, you know, at least you were being creative.
Obviously, my Mother was much more in tune with the times than I was.
You know, I wanted to talk with you about the upcoming ‘Al Getler action figure’ that you’re producing, but….(laughter) since you brought it up, let's talk about Jerry Mahoney. So you bought the Jerry Mahoney out of the Sears catalog.
I did. I went down to the Sears store to pick it up. Remember those days? They were the Amazon of today.
I went down to the Sears store. I was so excited I couldn’t stand it. Those Mahoney’s at that time were like professional figures with the control stick in the body, not like the later one’s where the string just came out of the back of the neck.
You’re exactly right. I got my Jerry Mahoney and I instantly became a ventriloquist, or so I thought. There is something else, I remember reading Popular Science magazine and Maher always had his ad in the back. Well, I sent for the Maher catalog and drooled over those figures. I couldn’t afford one so the Sears catalog was the next best thing.
Did you cut the ad out of the catalog?
Yes, I did. It’s funny, you talk about fairs and banquets in your book. You and I did exactly the same stuff. I did ventriloquism when I was young. When I was in college I was in a band. I figured out that you could get more girls by being in a band as opposed to being a ventriloquist. (Laughter).
But you had the Jerry Mahoney, and this is a universal story. I never tire of it because there was something magical about that period in our lives. So, it is fun to remember. What was your first show with the Mahoney doll.
I know exactly what it was. It was a Boy Scout show. Everybody loved it and thought I was great. But here is the thing. Scouting encouraged me to do ventriloquism. So, when I became a pro, I always went back to my roots every February and played a couple of Blue and Gold banquets. Because that is where I got my start.
How old were you when you got started.
Universal story. Here’s the thing. Today, the how-to of ventriloquism is everywhere on the internet. But when we were kids, information was very difficult to come by. Where did you learn to do ventriloquism?
I had nobody. I was self taught. I just did it, I thought it was funny and apparently I was marginally good. And, I emphasize marginally….you know, I was a high school teacher for six years and one time I had to emcee an awards banquet.
So, I ordered a figure from Maher and did the banquet with this dummy. So I’m about 30 years old, and it went over really really well. I couldn’t believe it and trust me, I really sucked. (Laughter)
Is there anyone that helped you along the way?
Bill Boley. I went to a convention once, I didn’t know anyone, I knew nothing about it. I watched everybody and after the convention I thought, “You know what, I think i’m as good as most of these people that I saw.” So, I started writing letters to Bill Boley. I would say to Bill, “this is what I want to do.” And he would write me back! And he was so encouraging. Then I met him at the next convention and he was great. He was really the guy who told me I could do it.
And again, you were self taught at this junction.
That’s amazing because most would say, ‘well, I got the Jimmy Nelson record,’ or ‘I read the Winchell book.’ Believe it or not, I learned ventriloquism through the Robert Ganthony book. And, then I moved on to Winchell. I was doing his routines all the way through the Blue and Gold dinner years.
Right. We all did! I probably read books. I know I took routines out of books.
Bill Boley was great. I exchanged a few letters with him as well. He was so gracious. He would always reply.
Bill Boley by the way was also a very funny man.
Did you ever give up the dream so to speak to get a real job?
I gave it up in high school and college because I was playing in that band. I didn’t pick it up again, as I said earlier until I was teaching.
This is where you got the figure from Maher studios and did the banquet.
Right. Because of that Clinton (Detweiler) and I became friends. I took his course while I was teaching.
Tell me more about Clinton.
The greatest man I ever met. You know what? He inspired me to always want to be like him. I would go to Colorado to see him. He was my biggest mentor. He was the guy who made me a ventriloquist. He was the guy who said, ‘you can do this.’ It was because of him that I ended up on the board of advisers at VentHaven museum.
How did he inspire you?
His encouragement was unbelievable. We went from a relationship of letters to just picking up the phone. Sometimes I would be doing a show and I would stop by their house and be treated like one of the family.
Why did you leave teaching?
I loved teaching kids. . Many are still in touch with me. But, I didn’t like the politics of teaching.
But you were pulling a steady paycheck. I went through something similar. I had a twenty year broadcast career. Somewhere inside of me I just knew I had to leave radio to pursue a performance career. So, I very abruptly and in some respects stupidly left a lucrative career to be a performer.
You were braver than me. My path was different. I was a teacher for the six years. But during that time I would get offers to work for various corporations. Eventually I thought, ‘you know what, I’m-not happy teaching so maybe I should take another job.’ So I went to work for the Kohler company in their public affairs department. I worked there for three years and learned public affairs and marketing. But, during this time, I was also doing more and more banquets as a ventriloquist. Then I left Kohler and went to work for a PR firm. That’s where I started using the puppet as a public relations vehicle.
Did you get any advice?
Yes, Bill Boley. I wrote him and told him I was thinking of quitting my job to become a ventriloquist. He said, “I don’t think that’s a very good idea.” (Laughter).
Maybe he had seen my act! (More Laughter).
He said, “I think you should combine your corporate work with ventriloquism. You’ll still have a paycheck. But, you’ll be able to still do ventriloquism.” He was the guy that set that in my head. I was going to quit everything and just do ventriloquism. But, Bill convinced me not to do that.
There is an old adage, ‘take the first step, and the rest will be revealed to you.’ Do you think there is some truth to that in your own life in terms of goals you may or may not have set?
I’m a big believer in goals. I used to do motivational speaking and would talk about that all the time. With puppets by the way. So yes, I do believe that.
Well, you did figure out how to make it work.
You know, I loved your book because you talk about making your living as a ventriloquist and nobody knows you. I was that person for a long, long time. I always liked that, I could make a good salary and at the same time nobody knew who I was.
It is an interesting point. I have talked with many about this. Often times the headliner is not making a lot of money because their overhead is enormous. It’s the guy that’s on the tier below who is making the bucks. I have worked with a lot of musical acts for years in the fair market. I know for a fact that after the act pays their road expenses along with band salaries, costumes and agency fees, they weren’t making anymore dough than me. And, I just showed up and did my act!
You're absolutely correct. Plus, the headliner has to change his show all the time.
I can’t imagine that. My act, what I have discovered, is a slowly evolving entity.
Exactly. You know, I think about Winchell and how great he really was. Having to come up with all that material week after week. Unbelievable.
I’ll tell you a funny story. Remember when Winchell used to come down the slide at the start of his show? I think it was Circus Time.. Well, he would be carrying Jerry when he slid down the slide right?
I used to think Jerry was a paraplegic. (laughter). So what drew you to Winchell?
I didn’t know what drew me. I talked to Clinton about this and he said, “You know, what is it about a puppet. If you sit on a park bench and pull out a dummy, you’ll get a crowd. Why is that? And what is it about you that wants to be the person who pulls out the puppet?” Maybe there was something in me that wanted to be in show business? I don’t know. I wanted to be THAT guy.
You think there is a commonality amongst ventriloquists in terms of wanting to be that guy?
I don’t know, but I’ll tell you one thing that is common. 90% of all ventriloquists are very shy. I’m Johnny Carson. If I’m at a party, I’m in the corner not talking to anyone.
I’m the same way. I love conversation with friends but not with strangers.
That’s me, exactly. I like it fine being on stage.
When did you start Brown and Martin?
I worked for Kohler, I worked for a PR firm and then I started my own firm. I was doing a lot of banquets during this period.
Any horror stories working banquets?
Well, I’ll tell you this. Introductions.
I have a clause in my contract that says you have to read my introduction. The reason I have that clause is because if you have a resume that says you’ve been on television the people know they are getting something special. He’s legit. That’s why I have that clause. Twice it didn’t work. I was working in Illinois at a cattleman’s banquet. Instead of reading my introduction the guy says, “Ok here is our entertainment and I want to introduce you to the only Green Bay Packer fan in the room.” (Laughter). They Boo’ed me before I got out of my chair! (Laughter)
Here’s my story. I’m working a holiday party for a cement hauling company. After the meal the CEO gets up and starts berating his employee’s over the lousy accident record for the year. (Laughter). And he’s using foul language. “You son’s of B#%’s”. Blah blah blah. And he goes on for about 5 minutes and then he says, “Now, here’s our entertainment, let’s see how good he is.” (Laughter)
I’ve been there so many times! I did a class reunion where they lit a candle for every dead person in their class. And there were people in the audience….weeping….weeping. Then, after they lit the last candle the guy says, “And now, here’s our entertainment.” (Laughter).
Have you ever worked post grad parties?
No, they’re bad aren’t they?
For a ventriloquist, it’s a death sentence. (Laughter). Ok, let’s move on. You knew Bill DeMar pretty well didn’t you?
I got along really well with Bill. A lot of people didn’t because he was a bit eccentric. When Bill would come through Wisconsin he would stay at my house. When he did, I always had to make sure that he had a gig, otherwise he would still be here. (Laughter). Bill was very nice to me. He taught me a lot. When it came to manipulation, well, he was very good about it. Soft or hard puppet manipulation. I also learned from Jay Johnson and combined the two techniques. Both in their styles, were and are great.
Here is another thing about Bill…his connection to the JFK assassination. He was living in Minneapolis/St. Paul in the 60’s. And I got to know him pretty well. But, never once did he ever mention to me that he was working Jack Ruby’s club days before the assassination.
When Dan Rather interviewed him back then I didn’t even recognize him. And he really didn’t have anything to say other that he thought he saw Lee Oswald in the club one time. Bill never said anything to me about it either.
Strange happenings for sure….well, you became a corporate ventriloquist. When you look back, on your career as a ventriloquist and Brown and Martin, are you happy with the way things turned out?
I was in the right placed at the right time. I had two huge breaks. The Milwaukee Sentinel did a story on me and it was written by a Pulitzer Prize winner Willam Jans. He interviewed me and Chip and said a couple of things in his column that made my career. He said about Chip, “ The guy is as shy as a tornado and has the sensitivity of a hangman. His work is similar to an ax murderer but he does it in a spotlight on a stage.” And then he said, “Given his choice of weapons, Chip will use a train. He missed his calling…he should have specialized in building gallows or plugging in electric chairs.” Well, when he published that, my banquet business went through the roof.
And the other turning point?
The Wall Street journal did an article on my firms’ use of puppets as a serious communication tool. I will tell you I got shows off of that column for 15 years. Let me tell you something, if you’re advertising in the Wall Street Journal, whatever they charge is worth it.
Do you think that as a result of those articles that you became an attraction to a particular market?
Yes. But let me say this. You can’t do now what I did then. I was unique at a unique time. I used puppets and humor as a communication tool. Today in corporate America you can’t use humor, it offends people. In my time it was a marketing tool and a way to communicate. People would remember the messages and understood the messages better with the puppet than without. But now you can’t do that because we made fun of stuff. Now, people get angry. But, I was lucky with my career.
When you first got into corporate work was it intimidating to you?
Yes. Interestingly, the CEO’s and other corporate officers of Fortune 500 companies, and I worked with a lot of them, were just great. It was the audiences that made me nervous. The CEO’s the good one’s always had a great sense of humor. I was always impressed. They were smart and they were funny. And, they got it. They got the fact that if the message was through the puppet, it would be remembered. Well, it was an interesting time. Much different than now unfortunately.
What’s going on now?
It’s too PC. (Politically correct). I wrote a book on banquet performing and someone did a lecture on banquets. He said, “the reason I do banquets and the reason I do it well is because I read Dale Brown’s book.”
Give me an example of over the top political correctness.
Well, I was doing this banquet and the puppet is picking on people in the audience from a list they had given me before hand. All of a sudden, this lady in the audience pipes up with, “what do you have to say about me puppet man?” It was really aggressive. So, I had the puppet say, “Well, we hope you have a great day,” and I went on with the act. After the show she literally came up to me and ripped my note cards out of my hand and said, “I want to know what you were going to say about me.” Later, we found out she was really antagonistic and really wanted to cause trouble. Now, I had done three shows for that company, but the president came up to me after this show and said, “ We just learned that we can’t have a comedian perform for us ever again.” And, that’s the way it is today. She was upset and I didn’t even say anything about her.
I’ve got so much great material that has gone by the way side because of that.
That’s exactly right.
The PC culture drives me nuts. And I’m certainly not alone in this amongst performers. And, really well known performers at that.
It’s why I retired.
George Carlin said political correctness is America’s newest form of intolerance, and it is especially pernicious because it is disguised as tolerance.
And, what I really hate about it is the hypocrisy of it all. A person comes to your show and is offended by this stupid puppet that weighs 8 pounds. But then they go home and they turn on the late night TV and watch some of the most degrading, offensive stuff you can imagine and laugh themselves silly.
This is interesting. When people come to a banquet, they don’t buy a ticket. They are there for the company. If they get offended, they think, “I didn’t really want to be here in the first place.” If you buy a ticket to the Jeff Dunham show, you know what you’re going to get. I retired two and half years ago because i sensed that this whole PC thing was coming. My show is now passe’, it will offend people in this climate.
Have you ever had a situation in a corporate show where you fire a punch line with the doll and everyone in the audience looks at the boss to see if it is ok to laugh?
Yes. Yes I have. And it's sad. You know, the only one I can make fun of today is Al Getler. (laughter)
How important is character in an act?
I think character is huge. Whenever I was interviewed by a reporter I realized that each puppet I used would have a different answer to the same question. Character is the most important thing. By the way, for all my characters I wrote backgrounds, I knew the history, I knew everything about them. That’s how character is developed.
How do the young ventriloquists coming up survive in this environment?
I have a plus and a minus about that. First of all, there are young people making puppets now that astound me. I’m absolutely amazed. I was a great friend of Verna’s (Finley) and she made all my characters. She was brilliant, but this new crop of makers goes above and beyond that. They really make great characters. For the rest of your question, I don’t really have an answer.
Do you think the singing ventriloquist is a fad?
Well, I think it is THE thing today. Darci (Lynne) has helped that and that is a plus. Darci has helped ventriloquism. She has helped young people get into it. Terry Fator too. Now everyone who wants to be a ventriloquist has to sing. I used to say it was a crutch, but it is the thing today.
A lot of people don’t realize it, but Willie (Tyler) was doing that decades ago.
Yes he was. And, he was funny to boot. You are correct.
What is funny to me is that the public thinks that making the puppet sing is some extraordinary accomplishment. (Laughter).
I know, and we have to keep that a secret, right!
I’ve been having my dummy sing for years!
It’s like when you switch voices and the puppet’s voice comes out of you. (Laughter). It’s a big deal! (Laughter).
Dale, it’s been a real pleasure.
I can’t believe our paths haven’t crossed before this. It sure beats talking with Al Getler.
To see a clip of Dale in action, go here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2uWuHY4ZTeI
Visit Dale's website here: http://dale-brown.com/
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