The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox... Pt I
Updated: Feb 5, 2020
This is an interview I have wanted to do for quite some time. The multi talented Valentine Vox, best known for his book on the history of ventriloquism 'I can see your lips moving,' has just published a new revised edition of this seminal literary work. (available on amazon and at valentinevox.com)
Val, as he and others in the biz call him, has had a diverse career through the decades. As a ventriloquist Vox’s career spanned over 50 years appearing in venues around the world in theatre, cabaret and on television. Besides English, he has also performed his act in Japanese and German languages.
In addition to his ventriloquism activity, he had a run as an actor in Canada ultimately winning a “best actor” award at the Ontario Drama Festival in Toronto.
Of course he was the father of the IVA (Int'l ventriloquist Assoc.) and director of the Vegas conventions in the 90's.
There is more to Valentine Vox than many know and I am pleased to say he is also a fine gentleman. Actually, though the phrase is loosely used, Valentine Vox is a 'gentleman and a scholar.' Literally.
Here is Part I of the interview.
What was the impetus behind taking the name Valentine Vox?
Well, I was working in England. My name, as you know, is actually Jack O’Reilly. But I was getting mixed up with a comedian with the same name and another guy in Australia who had a similar name. Anyway, I was about to emerge into the European market which had this wonderful routing called the continental circuit. I had always admired these people like Senor Wences or Fred Roby that had these beautiful acts.
So, I decided I needed a more cutting name. So, I changed my name to Valentine Vox. Now, all of us in the industry know where that came from. But, outside the industry? Not at all. And of course, it ended the confusion factor with those other people that had similar names. All in all the name, Valentine Vox has worked very well for me over the years.
Was it a difficult search for you? Finding the name. Or was it something of a ‘ah-ha’ moment when you decided on Valentine Vox?
Well, I had copies of the book of course and always felt it was a magical name…a Victorian name, like, you know, David Copperfield. Now, I know David very well and we discussed this one day. He said, “You know, I just like the name David Copperfield.”
So that is why I picked it. People said to me, “you shouldn’t do that.” But it worked for me. So, David and I both have Victorian names.
Well, I’ve got to believe there must be many ventriloquists out there thinking, “Now why didn’t I think of that?”
Well, actually, a few did think of that! There were several Valentine Vox’s years ago. Going back to the late 1800’s. The book was published in 1840. And later on in the century there were quite a few semi-professionals that had taken the name Valentine Vox. They never became prominent though.
Well, that settles a question I think many of our readers have probably wondered about. So, let’s move on. Early in the 60’s you ended up in Canada didn’t you?
Yes, I did. A friend of mine came over to England from Canada to visit me. He convinced me to pack up and go out to Canada. Which I did. I was there for about 13 years.
In America at that time, there was kind of a ventriloquism renaissance going on with all of the variety shows and what have you. What was the state of ventriloquism in Canada at the time?
I always considered it all as North America. The major networks, ABC, NBC and CBS were all coming into Canada. So, like others in our craft, I was more or less brought up watching the Ed Sullivan Show. Paul Winchell of course, and Shari Lewis later.
So, these are my greatest influences. It wasn’t a Canadian thing. In fact, there were just a couple of minor stations in Toronto at that time.
Didn’t you do some acting at that time?
Well, I was one of these people that grew up with ventriloquism, did it, then moved on. In other words, I did it as a kid and then forgot about it. Then, in my early 20’s I was watching people like Paul Winchell and thought, “Hey, I used to do that!”
So, I started performing again for a little bit of extra income. I eventually turned pro but then I got an opportunity to be in a play in Toronto. I actually ended up with the lead, (laughs) which was a bit strange. But, anyway, I did have an acting career in Toronto for a little while.
Were the two mediums, ventriloquism and acting ever at odds with one another?
No, no, they complimented each other. During that period one director said to me, “all that time you spent doing ventriloquism has helped you. It has helped you to listen.” Basically, most actors don’t know how to listen. They're always thinking about the next line. But, when you are doing ventriloquism the most important thing is that you’re listening to what the figure is saying, even though you’re the one doing the voice. I always thought that was a very interesting observation he made.
You actually had quite a bit of success as an actor. And yet, you ended up as a ventriloquist. Tell me about that.
Well, it was simply a matter of income. (laughter) There have always been a lot of out of work actors. I found at that time, that ventriloquism was giving me a steady income. I did a few acting jobs, but they were bits and pieces. So, I decided to ride the ventriloquism wave. It’s just the way it turned out.
So the phone started ringing. You were in Canada and smart enough to start putting Canadian figures in your act.
As a new immigrant you want to fly the flag you know…so I created this family of Canadian figures. I had a Mounty, a beaver, an Eskimo and how much more Canadian can you get than that? I had gotten into some television and it seemed to work. So that’s how that came about.
You said you were working in Television. It seems the opportunities kind of fell in your lap. True? Or, did you really have to market that whole idea?
No, I don’t believe in luck in business. I always believed that preparation meets opportunity. I used to correspond a lot with people in the business. I would pursue people and say, “Look, I have this, or I’d like to try a spot on that.” I just kept writing people, especially in television and eventually they gave me some opportunities.
While you were doing television in Canada, you had an encounter with Edgar Bergen.
Yes, that was wonderful meeting. What happened was this: I got this spot on a local TV show called the ‘Uncle Bobby Show.” Anyway, they gave me a weekly spot on this program. One day I said to the producer, “Hey, Edgar Bergen is coming to town.” He was, at that time, retracing his steps in vaudeville. I thought, maybe we could get a picture taken together and that would be good for some newspaper coverage. Anyway, I left it with them and one day they phoned me up and said “Edgar Bergen has agreed to appear on the program with you!” I said, “What?”
I couldn’t believe it. There was one stipulation though, we had to go to him at his hotel. The television station was about 15 miles outside of town and he just didn’t want to travel out there being that it was winter. So, we brought a film crew to him. Now this was really fortunate, because the Uncle Bobby show was always live. Had we not gone to him, I would have never had a copy of him performing with me.
Was Bergen approachable?
Oh, he was just delightful. You have to imagine, I was just a kid then, you know in my 20’s. I met him at the hotel, shook his hand and he said, “do you have an English figure? “ I said, “yes, it was made by Davenport.”
Well, we just starting talking vent. And then, while the film crew was waiting he said, “You know I’ve read the script. I don’t really like it very much. I think we can do better than that.” So, we sat down at a table, with the film crew waiting, and he started offering different lines and I said, “that’s great” and he said “you give me your line” and I gave him my line and basically, he rewrote the whole script right in front of me.
Was it a single take?
Yes it was. It was shot on 16 mm in black and white. Because of the expense at that time, we didn’t do color. (laughter) That’s kind of funny to say now. They aired the program a week later. In the meantime, I went to see him perform. He came over to my table afterward, sat down leaned over to me and said, “do you do distance voice?” I said, well, kind of. (laughter) You know, thinking I did. Then he did his distant voice and I realized that I really didn’t do the distant voice. (laughs)
Val, I watched the clip of ‘To Tell the Truth.’ I really thought that was amazing. Tell me about that experience.
Interesting. That was in 1967, the same year I did the thing with Edgar Bergen. Anyway, a fellow actor friend of mine, wrote a letter to ‘To Tell the Truth.’ I got this call from the producers and they said, “we’ve been kicking this idea around for some time and we wonder if you could do it. “ Then they explained that they wanted me to answer for two other imposters. “Could you do that?” I said, “Oh, yeah.” (laughter) Like I do it every day! They couldn’t use an American ventriloquist because he would be recognized. So, they flew me down and tried it out with a mock panel and with a mock audience. It was exactly like the program. It worked and the producers said, “Fine, we will call you.” And, they did in a couple of months time. That is how it all came about.
Now, the interesting thing is this. When I got there they said, “do you mind if we redress you? You look too show business. So they went out and got this ordinary clothing. They did not want me to stand out.
Did you have to coach the other two guys?
Oh, yes. You know the idea of moving the throat. Those guys were really good. Now here is what is interesting…the guy in the middle…his real name was Charlie McCarthy! (laughter) Bergen watched the show and got a real kick out of it.
You had to be pleased when you actually fooled the panel.
Oh, yeah I was. I had to do a bit of acting. I would look away occasionally and look down, like I didn’t know where I was. This, while I was doing the talking.
Let’s talk about the HBO ventriloquist specials in the late 70’s. Was that a good experience?
That was a wonderful experience. There were actually four ventriloquist specials. 'The Adult Ventriloquism and Comedy Show-Vent Event.' This was followed by 'The Adult Ventriloquism and Comedy Show-Double Talk,' 'The Adult Ventriloquism and Comedy Show-Dummies, and 'The Adult Ventriloquism and Comedy Show-Blockheads.' I’m thankful for that only because it put on record my act. It was filmed really well and stands up even today. HBO was trying to bring in ventriloquists from all over the place. The program actually kind of proved that they're aren’t too many of us around. I’m talking professionally. They kind of ran out of vents in the end! Otherwise they may have continued making more programs.
Did you enjoy working with Steve Allen? (Host of the special)
Oh, he was so fantastic. He was so genuinely interested in every kind of performing art form. Plus, he was a delight to talk to. Interestingly, it was to Steve Allen that I first mentioned my book. The working title was ‘Speaking Dolls.’ He was the first to see a preview on it. In fact, if you watch that HBO video, in his introduction he mentions the prototype, ‘Speaking Dolls.’
Next week: Val talks about the IVA and the Vegas conventions, plus a detailed look into the conception and writing of 'I can see your lips moving,' his iconic work on the history of ventriloquism.
Editors note: To see the film clip of Edgar Bergen and Valentine Vox go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGsH7NsfYEg
To see the clip of 'To Tell the Truth,' go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xWodEwCePHU segment starts at 2:18
For more on Valentine vox go to: valentinevox.com
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