Monday, June 27, 2005

Ventriloquist Days

The obituaries for Paul Winchell tended to focus on his voice work in animated films, including as Tigger in various ''Winnie the Pooh'' productions. But those of us who grew up watching TV in the '50s and '60s also remember Winchell as a TV ventriloquist, the human companion to the mannequins Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff.
As references like ''Total Television'' indicate, Winchell had a busy TV life spread across the networks and syndication. Part of that stemmed from his genial manner and his banter with Mahoney. Part of it came from being on television at a time when ventriloquists were still an attraction.
Not just Winchell, either. ''The Ed Sullivan Show'' was a regular home to performers like Senor Wences. Commercial fans well remember Jimmy Nelson, who with his mannequins Danny O'Day and Farfel (a dog) plugged a brand of chocolate. Sing it with me: ''N-E-S-T-L-E-S...''
Before them, of course, there had been Edgar Bergen (successful as a ventriloquist on the radio, where ventriloquism was superfluous -- to the advantage of Bergen, whose onscreen performances show he wasn't very good at it). After them came the likes of Willie Tyler & Lester, Wayland Flowers & Madame and Jay Johnson (the ''Soap'' co-star). But I remember Winchell more fondly because he was part of my childhood.

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