Todd Oliver...The Interview Part I
Updated: Dec 15, 2018
When you talk about credentials in show business, there are few that can match the resume of Todd Oliver. His national TV appearances include The Today Show, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Howie Mandel Show, Walker Texas Ranger, CNN Entertainment News, and America’s Got Talent, where he was a Top 4 Finalist, as well as The Late Show with David Letterman, where he was selected one of the world’s top 5 ventriloquists.
Todd has also been in the trenches. Early in his career he was a school assembly performer doing 3-4 shows a day 5 days a week or about 500 shows in a 9 month school year. He also spent 21 years in revue shows, has recorded four childrens albums, (The Positively Positive Day Plays Vol 1-4) and an Irving the dog album. Of course, Irving the talking dog set the vent and showbiz world on fire. Today, Todd continues to stay busy with his cast of characters working theaters throughout America with comedy, ventriloquism, magic and music.
Todd Oliver, a true renaissance man, sat down with me for a no holds barred discussion about the business of show business. The interview, in two parts, follows:
How did the death of your Father affect you?
I still remember the morning. I woke up, it was December 28th. We ran into the living room to get the stuff under the Christmas tree we had been playing with.
Mine was a Charlie McCarthy doll. My Mother was lying on the couch half asleep. She got up and she said, “Kids, Dad died this morning.” I fell back into a chair. I can still see it.
How old were you?
Ten years old. I fell back into a chair like somebody had knocked the wind out of me. I just sat there stunned, you know.
So there was a connection between the death of your Father and the Charlie McCarthy doll?
Yeah, yeah, because I had gotten the dummy for Christmas just three days earlier. Boy, I can still remember that red and white box…opening it up and pulling the doll out of the box and sitting with my Grandma on the couch and trying to do something. I remember saying, “Grandma, did my lips move? Did my lips move?
And my Grandma said, “Yeah, they sure did. (Laughs)
So you were ten years old. Was the Charlie McCarthy doll something you had requested?
Oh yeah, absolutely. JC Penny catalog. You know back when we were kids they had those big thick catalogs. And there he was. I had seen Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on television. I don’t even remember the shows, but there he was. Oh my, those Juro dolls to a ten year old kid looked like the greatest thing. It was all I could think about. I also remember being instantly confused because I couldn’t manipulate the figure. It was like, “Wait a minute. Why can’t he turn his head and look around? He’s just a stuffed doll!” As beautiful as the Juro doll was to a ten year old kid, it was kind of a let down.
What I’m hearing you say is that you were a pro from the git-go. (laughter)
I was so bad I had the dummy in one hand and the joke book in the other. A ten year old kid doing mother-in-law jokes didn’t put me in high demand. (laugh)
So this is the doll with the string out of the back of the neck.
At the time, that is all they had. From 1968 until I got the Pelham figure in 1971 you couldn’t find in the toy stores a figure with the head on the stick. When I was about 12 there was an Irish barbershop and my Mom used to send my brother and I down there for haircuts. It was an old fashioned barber shop. There was a Popular Mechanics magazine there and in back it had all those ads. And there was an ad that said ‘magic, jokes and ventriloquism.’ It was Fred Maher’s ad. I cut it out or wrote something down I can’t remember. I think you had to send a quarter to get the catalog.
Did you actually get the Maher course?
Yes, but I didn’t actually get the course until ten years ago! (laughs) I took the course and finally got my certificate. I called Clinton one day and I said, "you know, I never did take that course." So he sent it to me. By the way, Clinton and Adelia were life long friends. Anyway, he wrote a little thing in Newsy Vents about me finally at 50 years old taking the course! (laugh)
Well, you know, the child never dies.
It certainly doesn’t. But, it is really a good course. Dick Weston told me he wanted to buy a figure during World War Two. Because of the war, they were really hard to get. Fortunately Fred Maher was able to acquire for Dick a Martin Stevens figure. But, Fred would only sell him the figure if he bought the course! So he bought it.
Later on in your career, you became pretty good friends with Dick. It seems to me when Dick passed you acquired his joke file didn’t you?
No, I bought it from him when he was still alive.
Tell me about your relationship with Dick Weston.
Went to my first vent convention in 1985. Dick was there. We started talking. He was a very very nice man. I wasn’t on the show, but I knew about Dick Weston as you did because he was a Minnesota boy that made good in the business. I talked with him about Vegas and the business. I had a million questions and he was a gentleman. I’ll tell you what he said one time: We were talking about reacting to the figure and he said, “Don’t overdo it because it will look phony.”
You know that I had correspondence with Dick as well. Let me tell you what he said about you one time. I have never shared this with you. I was asking Dick about different ventriloquists in the biz and he responded with his reactions and then he said: “But for my money, Todd Oliver is the real talent.”
My gosh. My gosh.
In addition to early interests in Vent, didn’t you also have interests in the magical arts as well?
Yeah, yeah. That goes back to the 60’s again and the Harry Houdini movie starring Tony Curtis. I saw the movie and it was terrific. Well, on Thursday nights we used to go downtown Minneapolis to meet my Mother who worked there and then we would all go shopping. Well, one time I was in this department store in the book section and there was this book. ‘The Golden Book of Magic.’ It had a magnificent cover. You know it had the top hat, the bunny with the magic wand.
So my Mom got me the book. Then I got a magic set. We were somewhere, and I found this magic set. Let me say this, I have always been very nostalgic. I still am. So I started practicing. But, here is the thing, I was captured by the nostalgia of magic.
It was the same with the vent figure. This is important. Fred Maher had the best description of a vent figure I have ever heard. In his catalog No. 2 he says, “the figure must have a pixy like charm.” That charm is what lures us into ventriloquism.
If it wasn’t for the vent figure, I wouldn’t be a ventriloquist. The soft puppets never did it for me. I know they're effective, I know Jim Henson was tremendous, I know they are very effective and audiences love em, but they never really did that for me. The wooden head smart aleck dummy is what hooked me. Anyway, after I got that book of magic, and I had the Charlie doll and my magic set, I went to the library and they had all sorts of books on magic. The Washburn Public Library sealed the deal. (laughs)
At a young age you were on your way to being a triple threat. Meaning, ventriloquism, magic and the third aspect of that being music. Talk to me about that.
When I was a kid my heroes were Edgar Bergen, Roy Rogers and the Monkees.
When I was six years old we were going to go out and get a new station wagon. So my Dad and I got in the car and instead of going to get a new station wagon he went to Schmitt music instead and bought a piano! Right off the bat they sent me for piano lessons. Well, later, I wanted to play guitar so my Dad got me a guitar. I loved my Dad dearly. Well, it came in a box with a red and white rope for a strap, a pick and a Mel Bay book. I think it was seventeen dollars. I think it had 100 gauge strings on it. (laughs) I always loved music. My Mom and Dad had a great music collection. You know, 101 Strings, Jackie Gleason dinner music records, all kinds. Then, I saw the Monkees. The Monkees captured what I thought was the coolest combination; happy rock n’ roll music and comedy.
So, early on then, you were inspired by these various elements.
When I discovered the library, I went from being thirteen to twenty. Here’s the thing, all those books were all so nostalgic. They had all been written in the early part of the last century. They were old books. I remember the Van Rensselaer book and those pictures and there again was the nostalgia.
You know, the ventriloquist wearing a beautiful double-breasted suit, the dummy dressed in a tweed suit and now I’m thinking Dick Bruno and Joe Flip, Edgar Bergen and all that.
Well, the library had a great rock n’ roll section and they had a book on how to form a rock group. All of a sudden I was in a new world. Now, I’m learning how to put together an act. I’m playing a little better guitar. I put together a little dance band. I’m thirteen years old. So, I’m trying to book my show or my band. I’m thirteen right? I can still see it. I booked my act for ten bucks. The first show was at the Mt. Olivet nursing home. For ten bucks they slept through the entire show. (laughs)
One of the first music gigs I had was a singles dance at some church. It was some ad I saw and I called the lady and I tell her my band would like to play for her singles dance. She says, “How much do you charge?” Thirty bucks I say, 10 bucks for each guy. She says, “Ok, you’re hired.” Well, here’s the thing. I’m playing guitar and I have a drummer and a bass player. We get to the church and we set up on this little stage behind a curtain. So, the lady introduces us and she opens the curtain. They are all senior citizens. We played ‘Last Train to Clarksville,’ and we cleared the room. (laugh) After one song she came up and said, “Thank you, I think that’s enough now!” (laughs)
I know that early in your career you started doing school shows. How did that happen?
Well, I was calling around. I was cold calling schools. I’m doing telemarketing in tenth grade! (laughs) I was getting turned down. No one would hire me. Then one day, this one principal said, “You know, I think I can help you.” So, he gave me the number to one BJ Reed. She ran the community resource volunteer office of the Minneapolis public schools. I called her. She was kind of a grandmother type of figure. She was very intelligent and she asked a lot of questions. The next thing I know, she took me to lunch. She said there is no money to pay you but I can get you out of school to do some shows. I took it. She worked it out for me to get out of school and go do my act for assembly programs. They hired a person to drive me to the different schools. I was getting out of school to do this and my school went along with it! Betty Jane Reed pulled it off. This is where I learned how to do my school assembly act. This is where I learned my communication with an audience. I was going out 2 and 3 times a week. I would do three shows at each school. By the middle of September in 10th grade, I was only going to school three hours a day.
Wow. Any influences during that time?
Oh yeah, there was a TV show called The Magician starring Bill Bixby.
That really inspired me. Bill Bixby was such a wonderful personality. There again, the charm of Bill Bixby. And then there was Mark Wilson. Mark Wilson’s charm, and again the influence of a charming personality.
This is very important. Willie Tyler and Lester. Very charming personalities. Edgar Bergen made ventriloquism classy, Willie Tyler made it cool.
Let me tell you a great Willie Tyler story. This is a milestone. Willie and I were filming the Letterman show. We were staying in the same hotel. I called his room up and I’m a kid again. I said, Mr. Tyler, I’m a ventriloquist, would you like to go out to dinner tonight after taping. He said, “yeah, great.” And, we went out to dinner. I remember he had just had some dental work done, he
Willie Tyler and Lester
didn’t eat much and he was drinking tea. We had a wonderful talk. He was very forthcoming and easy to talk to. Anyway, we said our goodbyes. About a half hour later there is a knock on the door and the hotel person handed me a framed picture of Willie, Paul Winchell and their figures. It was signed to me. Total class act. You know, there are a lot of singing vents today, you know that’s the big deal, but let me tell you, Willie AND Lester are great singers. I mean great singers
BJ Reed was an opportunity that happened in your life. How do opportunities happen? What is your role in that as a performer?
Well, you have to go looking for them. You have to go looking under every rock. And that’s what I was doing and heck, that is still what I’m doing. Today, you look at a church, there’s a possible luncheon gig, you look at a school, there’s a potential assembly gig, you look at a theater, there’s a show there. Gotta go find it, gotta go get it. Sometimes you don’t get it, but you sure have to try.
How important is it to know what to say ‘no’ to?
You have got to respect your limitations. You can’t play every date. Marvyn Roy used to say, “I don’t’ do malls, I don’t do fairs, I’m a cabaret act.” Marvin either did his act in the proper setting or he did close up in restaurants. He knew that his act wouldn’t work at a county fair. So he didn’t do them.
There are certain gigs I don’t want to do. Comedy clubs for instance. I hate em. I’ve done them, and been successful but, I don’t like the environment. It is disrespectful. And therefore, the audience doesn’t have the respectful expectation for the artist. Anybody that goes on stage and drops the ‘F’ bomb all the time I don’t have time for. Some of your readers may disagree with me. I don’t care.
A lot of comedians call ventriloquists ‘prop acts,’ and not in a positive light. How do you feel about that?
I played the Improv in LA with Drew Carey and Kevin Nealon and had a killer night. In the men’s room, one of the comedian’s, (not Carey or Nealon) said to me, “oh yeah, prop act. When are you going to quit using the prop? I said to him, “I’m a ventriloquist. You don’t get it.” Listen, I can’t tell you how many comedians from comedy clubs have put down magicians and ventriloquists over the years. They call us prop acts. Well, when they drop the ‘F’ bomb that’s the biggest prop in the world.
Next week, Todd talk's about the creation of Irving the Talking dog, mentors, what it means to be a professional and survival in show business. See you next week!
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