Todd Oliver...The Interview Part II
Updated: Dec 22, 2018
Over the years, Todd and I have spent many evenings talking about the business. Everything from figures, to figure makers, to other ventriloquists, agents and the biz in general. One underlying feature of our conversations has always been his commitment to style and class as a showman. This commitment has a foundation that I refer to as "duende." A Spanish term that alludes to a heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity. It comes through in every performance. There is character and soul to every gag and every action and reaction that audiences identify with.
Todd is a showman through and through and brings a standard to his performance and life that is of the highest caliber. Wherever that brass ring may be, I can assure you he never tires from the pursuit of it. Never resting on his laurels, the discipline is self imposed. Through the years, if anything, this standard has gotten even more demanding for him. As you shall see in what follows, his commitment to excellence, even in the face of some extremely difficult obstacles is unrelenting.
And now, Part II...
Ok, everyone reading this is going to want to know about the talking dog. How did you come up with it?
The Medora Musical in North Dakota.
I got the gig at Medora. At that time I had Joey and Pops. (Conrad Hartz) I got there and was working with a Hungarian Juggling act. This was 1989. The woman in the juggling act, all circus people, said: “You know Todd, (mimicking Hungarian accent) we saw talking dog in Vegas, but he no good. He had wife doing voice off-stage and it no work. You get talking dog Todd. Nobody do that. There was guy in Europe doing that but he dead. Why don’t you do talking dog?”
I procrastinated. I was playing cruise ships and the Medora. I was on the road always flying somewhere to hook up with the cruise lines. Well, what happened is that I eventually ended up on a showboat in Nashville, Tn doing their production show. (The General Jackson)
As a result I did all the television shows in Nashville. One day a producer, Bill Turner comes up to me and says, “what else do you have, we’ve seen the dummies, what else do you have?” Well, I said, “I’ve got some other material” and he said, “No, no, no, what else do you have besides the dummy?” Bill is the nicest guy in television, just a great guy, so I tell him about the dog idea and he says, “Well, why don’t you do it?” So, I started looking at dog breeds. I looked at bassett hounds, they were too big. Then I looked at pugs and couldn’t find the right dog. My brother, bless his heart said, “Todd, why don’t you look at a Boston terrier. I saw a Boston terrier and I said, “That’s it. That’s it.” And then a magician friend of mine named Maverick helped me find a magic illusion maker to make the first gizmo for the mouth. I paid for the research and development.
Was Irving the talking dog successful right out of the shoot?
First night. He killed. And, I didn’t have much of an act with him. But, you know as vents we know how to break something in. As a vent you have to have a great opening and a great closing and whatever you do in the middle, you have to be quick about it! (Laughter) So I had a few jokes and a closing song for the dog. November 1996. I was so nervous. Irving the dog went on stage the first night and sang ‘I left my heart in San Francisco’ and the place went nuts.
Was it difficult to train Irving?
No, no. The dog doesn’t have to do anything, he just sit’s there. (laughs)
You were in Nashville for seven years doing the review show. Then you had a number of successful years in Branson, Mo. on another showboat. Then, something happened in your life where you decided to leave the engagement on the boat. Talk to me about that and the consequences of your decision.
Yeah, that was the worse decision I ever made. But at the time, it seemed like the right thing to do. I had spent twenty-one years in review shows. I had developed a lot of material and I had a manager in New York. It seemed like we needed to go to the next level. And the next level, we thought, was to do my own show in a Branson theater. I didn’t know, nor did my manager know the reality of working in a Branson theater.
In terms of the politics?
The politics and the money. We were given an offer to go into a theater and do our own show. The idea was to do a lunch and a show. In other words, it was going to be a 12 noon luncheon show with Todd Oliver. As far as I'm concerned, what was served was the worst food you could serve anybody. A hot dog, a bottle of water, a cookie and strawberry yogurt. I think the audience was ripped off on lunch. In other words, even before the curtain went up the audience was angry. Another thing, we didn’t know what they did with the marketing money, but they sure the hell didn’t market the show, at least in my opinion.
If I recall you were playing to pretty much an empty house during this period correct?
All the time. It was an 800 seat theater and we played to about 6 to 30 people a show. It was the worst situation I had ever known. I had just come off a winter tour on the East coast with my band, the dogs and the dummies. I was doing this rockin’ comedy thing. The show played great on the road. We got to Branson and the show died. It bombed. It was awful.
It almost took you down, Todd. What did you learn from that?
I lost a lot of money. Wasn’t getting paid, had to live on savings, had to pay the band and crew out of my savings. I learned that there has always been a dark side of show business and there probably always will be. I would have never of dreamed it would have happened in Branson, MO. Here’s the thing…out of a $35.00 show ticket, I was seeing less than five dollars a ticket. Do the math. (Laughs) Do the math. Twenty people times thirty five dollars.
Well you had to do something in order to survive. What did you do?
My manager flew the coop. He had invested money in the show and lost it. I had invested money in the show and lost it all. The spreadsheets we received when we asked for an accounting of the money were suspect, again my opinion.
Remember, on the showboat, I got a paycheck every week.
It was a good deal. I earned it, I earned it, but let me say this: nothing makes you start writing new material and nothing makes you start hustling like when you lose a lot of money. All of a sudden, I had to reinvent myself. Agents that used to book me, well, most of them were dead. The economy in America was in trouble as well. A lot of places I used to play were all closed. I couldn’t take the dog on cruise ships and I didn’t want to go backwards and work without the dogs. Plus, I was older. I wasn’t a young hip guy. Like I said, I had to reinvent myself…and I did.
I’m thinking about the whole of your career now. You had done school shows, review shows, club dates, cruise ships, television, fairs, and theaters. But with all of that success you still had to reinvent yourself. And along comes America’s Got Talent. Why did you feel the need to do that?
I had done the Letterman show and it was a killer. I had done a couple of cameos on the Tonight Show and I had done a bunch of other television specials…Penn and Teller, a Las Vegas Special, the Oakridge Boys, a lot of TV. So here’s what happened. I switched theaters in Branson thinking that a different theater might be a better situation. The second theater people were nice guys but the fact of the matter is that the time share people politically control the shows in Branson. (editors note: they determine which shows the potential clients are going to attend) They won’t admit it but as far as I’m concerned Branson became Bran-scam, which is another word for time share disposal. I was actually approached with payola scams, you know, you scratch my back and we will get people to your show. Anyway, I switched theaters and the night before I was to open, a tornado tore the roof off the theater. I was out of work for three months with nowhere to go. It went from bad to worse. (laughs)
So, this is where America's Got Talent came in?
They had called a couple of times, but I had always turned them down. Because I didn’t think it was a good fit. I don’t like talent shows, I never have.
Plus, I thought I was a little old to get a report card. But then, I realized it was prime time television that got more viewers than Leno and Letterman combined. They used variety acts and I knew some other pro’s that had done it. But I was concerned about that Hollywood mentality that animals shouldn’t be used in showbiz. But, nevertheless, I relented and did the show. It was a hit. Right away. My first night, we killed. And then they said you’re going to Vegas! Well that never impressed me. I don’t gamble, I don’t like gambling and casinos, you know all that smoke and desperate people. Mickey Dolenz (The Monkee’s) said it best: “The problem with casinos is that you’re playing to losers.”
When you lose money, they give you tickets to a free show. (laughs) Anyway, I went to Vegas and it went great. But then, Howie Mandel thought the material needed to be stronger. He was wrong. There was nothing wrong with my material. Howie Mandel is a comedy club guy. He thought my material was weak. It wasn’t weak, the audience laughed at everything I did. The problem was, HE didn’t like it. He’s a game show host, I’m a ventriloquist. I don’t tell you how to turn the numbers on a game show, don’t tell me how to do my act. Bottom line, I did that show for publicity, not a blue ribbon. I thought maybe it would open a door.
When you look back on it, are you glad you did it?
Mixed feelings. Every time I go on television, somebody goes on the internet and bashes me. They think the dog looks miserable or sad. Look, Boston Terriers were born with their mouths on upside down. They always look that way, hence the charm and character. (laughs)
Well anyway, after AGT, I met Fred Silverman (Producer All in the Family, the Waltons, Charlies Angels) and we wrote a television show and filmed a pilot. We couldn’t sell it. I was going to be Fred Silverman’s last hurrah. This was long after he was president of CBS and NBC. He was 78 years old and he understood what I do. A lot of these young executives don’t get it. The dog is too weird or they are afraid of the animal rights people.
Have you had issues with the animal rights people?
I got a letter from PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) one time. I called them, we had a civil conversation and that ended it. When I told them what I do, they left me alone. All the dog does is sit there. The gizmo is like a bowtie. He is under no stress. Irving actually falls asleep on stage sometimes out of sheer boredom. (laughs) You know why? He’s heard the lines! (laughs)
You’ve been in this business for decades. Mentors, who are they?
Willie Tyler, Edgar Bergen, Jimmy Nelson, Dick Bruno, The Monkee’s, Roy Rogers, Victor Borge, Alan King, Buddy Lester, Dick Weston and Jay Nemeth who by the way, was a solid, great ventriloquist. Killer act.
Impressive list. Now, Mr. Oliver, what is a professional?
A professional is somebody who works at it every day. Meaning, he works the different aspects of the business. A professional will return your phone call on time. He will make sure his shoes are shined before he goes on stage. He is well groomed. A professional will also dress a little bit better than everyone in the audience. He knows how to make an entrance, keeps his punch lines close together and has everything in the car in case there is a crappy PA or lighting system. He is dependable and shows up on time. He is also flexible and able to do the best he can in a compromising situation. A professional is also someone who realizes that he isn’t perfect but is true to himself and is dependable and responsible. He is someone who doesn’t need drug stimulus in order to go on stage. Why should the audience have to take that risk? You’re going to make an audience deal with that? C’mon. A professional is someone who is self contained, can walk into a banquet room and put on a quality production. Meaning a quality backdrop, quality lighting and sound. Finally, a professional is somebody who puts professional ethics before fame and fortune.
Well it's been a long road. When you look back after decades of being in the business, any thoughts?
Yes, I reinvented myself. I am now playing small and medium size theaters and it is the happiest I have ever been. All of the preceding took me to the point where I found out I don't want to be in Vegas, I don't want to be in Branson. I want to be playing small and medium size theaters, because that's where I belong. I had to go through the mud to figure that out. I know that now and it is a sweet ending. To use an old phrase, "If it's gonna be, it's up to me."
The power of choice...
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