Friday, December 05, 2008

Blast from the past

People of a certain age like myself will remember watching Ed Sullivan back in the 60s. Those were the days of 2 TV channels up in the cold north of Edmonton, where you didn't have much choice about what to watch. Variety shows were very popular. I remember when Penn & Teller created their own one-season variety show, Penn described how these shows used to work - one minute you'd have an opera tenor singing an aria, and then he'd be followed by a guy with trained performing housecats.

Many performers became famous on Ed Sullivan, and one that I remembered well was the ventriloquist, Senor Wences. He died only a few years ago at the grand age of 103, and I was disappointed to find at the time that there was very little on the web about him. Recently, though some fan has remedied this, and posted some clips on YouTube.

Senor Wences actually got better with the years, I think - his appearances on the Muppets were even smoother than the original ones in the 1960s, but I like those just because they are so historical. He really was a very weird performer, when you think of it - disembodied head in a box, face painted on his hand to make a little face puppet. Everyone else used regular old Charlie McCarthy-style full-body puppets, and he did too originally - the story is that Pedro, the head in the box, had a body which got destroyed in a train accident. Senor Wences was left with nothing but the head, so out of necessity, he came up with the idea of just sticking the head in a box and working it by itself.

What's so good about him is that he can build such a believable interaction with his puppets, with the quick back-and-forth dialogue. I love the "I am not afraid. I am NOT afraid!" byplay with Johnny, and his little under-the-breath muttering that keeps distracting Senor Wences while he's doing his plate-spinning.

This second one is only from a few years later, but colour TV had already come in. This one has Cecilia Chicken in it, and is not quite as intresting as the first one, though it has a great range of voices. And who can resist Pedro roaring at Cecilia when the lid of the box is opened?


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