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Dummy Days: America's Favorite Ventriloquists from Radio and Early TV Hardcover – July 1, 2003
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About the Author
A twenty-year veteran of the animation industry, Kelly Asbury has worked as a director, storyboard artist, art director and designer for some of Hollywood's most popular animated films including Shrek (2001), The Prince of Egypt (1998), Toy Story (1995) and Beauty and the Beast (1992). In 2002, Asbury made his directorial debut with the Academy Award nominated animated feature, Spirit--Stallion of the Cimarron. He is one of the directors of Shrek 2, slated for release by DreamWorks SKG in 2004. In addition to films, Asbury is a noted author and illustrator of several children's books, including Where is Snowy's Nose? (2000), Rusty's Red Vacation (1997), Bonnie's Blue House (1997) and Yolanda's Yellow School (1997).
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They said it couldn't be done. And DreamWorks' animation maven Kelly Asbury, author of Dummy Days, has proven them totally WRONG. Dummy Days matters-- and it works on every level.
Dummy Days is a book with INCREDIBLY wide appeal. In wonderful, painstaking detail, Asbury takes you through the lives of the 20th century's greatest "belly talkers" Edgar Bergen, Paul Winchell, Jimmy Nelson, Senor Wences, and Shari Lewis. Lovingly crafted bios of these five performers (plus mini-bios on variety show host Ed Sullivan and legendary dummy builder Frank Marshall) make you feel you actually KNOW them personally, and you learn surprising never-before-disclosed details about them and the evolution of their acts.
But the underlying and skillfully developed subtext is the entertainment industry's brutal, take-no-prisoners evolution through the early to mid-late 20th century and how top "vents" adapted to it, then largely vanished from mainstream entertainment media's radar screen once Sullivan's landmark CBS TV show (a vaudeville show) was canceled in 1971.
Dummy Days is a book about highly-adaptable performers' sometimes roller-coast-like lives -- but it's also a vital entertainment history book. This makes it of interest not only to
ventriloquists and aspiring ventriloquists, but to ANYONE seeking to understand modern entertainment's roots -- from vaudeville, to radio, to vaudeville-influenced early TV. Each
time a dominant new entertainment medium eclipsed the previously dominant one, tastes shifted and successful performers had to adjust (their attire, their act, their persona) to survive.
Asbury, a highly acclaimed children's author, focuses on the five most famous ventriloquists:
--EDGAR BERGEN: He details the father of 20th century ventriloquism's evolution, from his adaptations to survive, to his big breaks, to his poignant last show and death shortly
afterwards. "For the first time in the history of ventriloquism,' he writes, "the art took a non-visual form'' with Bergen's hit radio show featuring life-like, carefully-etched characters. Asbury answers the raging question about whether Bergen ever had good lip control and shows why Bergen was the Gold Standard for ventriloquists.
--SENOR WENCES: A loving look at what Asbury calls the "surrealist" Spanish ventriloquist. An Ed Sullivan darling (48 appearances), Wences was pitchforked into national cultural consciousness by his hand-as-puppet Johnny and his head-in-the-box Pedro. Asbury tells you HOW and WHY these beloved 20th century characters came about . Superb account of Wences performing into his nineties (he died at 103).
--PAUL WINCHELL: The chapter is bittersweet since so little remains of pioneer Winchell's wonderful TV work. A great account of Winchell's rise from talent show contestant, to TV star, creator of innovative puppet/ventriloquism techniques, and interest in medicine, which led him to invent the first patented version of the artificial human heart. According to Asbury, Winchell, known as "The Television Ventriloquist," shaped early TV and "practically invented the idea of children's programming." .
--JIMMY NELSON: Called "Gentleman Jim" by peers, Nelson, who Asbury calls the "consummate professional," is most famous for his early TV work and legendary Nestles commercials with dummy Danny O'Day and dummy dog Farfel (N-E-S-T-L-E-S).
He recounts the accident that won Nelson the lucrative Nestles contract, propelling Nelson into ventriloquism (and advertising) immortality. This most affectionate chapter traces
Nelson's big breaks, savvy adaptation to changing venues, and key role in helping keep ventriloquism alive by ceaselessly promoting it, the Vent Haven ventriloquists' convention and
encouraging every aspiring ventriloquist who approached him (he even encouraged some like ME to go into ventriloquism fulltime).
--SHARI LEWIS: The most poignant chapter, due to her untimely death. Asbury calls the former Phyllis Hurwitz "the First Lady of Puppeteering." He offers NEW insights into why Lewis dumped using a dummy for sock-puppet Lamb Chop, how she tirelessly worked other entertainment areas when her TV worked ended, her extending her art beyond ventriloquism, and her work to educate kids. Superb account of a talent successfully re-inventing herself.
With its rare photos, short articles, multi-colored pages -- even page-corner animated flip photos so ventriloquists and dummies move -- Dummy Days is a feast for the eyes. From Dummy Days' meticulous research, to its superb writing, and creative design, Asbury gets everything perfectly right. Dummy Days is the best book ever written about ventriloquists -- and will likely remain the best book ever written about ventriloquists.
Dummy Days is well-researched, beautifully written, and well-produced. I am grateful to Kelly Asbury for doing this work. It reproduces with uncanny accuracy a time that was magic to me, a time that I remember very well; it returns me to my childhood when I was a performing ventriloquist and following these five stars closely. But more than transporting one elder fellow down memory lane, this book serves a larger purpose. Like the Foxfire books of years ago, this book captures and preserves part of a culture as it existed in its golden era, an artform that in its original format has been mostly unattended for far too long.
Most literature about the culture of the 1950s misses the mark. Asbury got it right, and he gave comprehensive coverage of the subject. This is an important book. It recalls and records important things that otherwise exist only in the memories of my generation.
Highly recommended, not only for those who remember the dummy days, but also for those who do not and are unaware of just how golden they really were.