- - Monday, September 28, 2015

Love it or find it creepy, ventriloquism is back in a big way thanks to the massive success of Jeff Dunham and Terry Fator. Decades before those gentlemen every put their hands inside a puppet head, Willie Tyler and Lester were entertaining audiences across the world with packed live shows and TV appearances too numerous to list.

With a new documentary in the works, the legend of ventriloquism reflected on his 50-plus-year career in show business.

Question: When did you get your start in show business?

Answer: When I got out of the Air Force I went back to Detroit. I got with Motown because they needed an MC. Lester and I would get on the bus and travel with the Motortown revue with acts like The Temptations, The Supremes, The Four Tops. Little Stevie Wonder.

Q: What drew you to ventriloquism?

A: I had seen a gentlemen by the name of Paul Winchell on television when I
was growing up. It really fascinated me how he made his little character, Jerry
Mahoney, come to life. The next day I took my sister’s doll and jerry-rigged
him and made his mouth move.

Q: Who was your first store-bought character?
A: The first one I got was a Jerry Mahoney. I saw an ad in a magazine that
said “Learn Ventriloquism” from The Maher School of Ventriloquism. Lucky enough for me, being from Detroit, the school was in a suburb of Detroit.

My teacher knew I was interested, and we drove out there one day to the school. We met Madeline Maher, the window of Fred Maher. For $35 I got the whole course and the figure as well. I wasn’t Lester at the time, [more] like a Jerry Mahoney. She painted him brown for me. Later on I picked a figure out of her catalog.

Q: How did that become your most famous character, Lester?

A: I brought him home, and I was trying to figure out a name for this
character. Couldn’t. My brother came home from school one day and said,
“Name him Lester! There is a guy in study hall who looks just like him.”

Q: So he was based someone you knew in real life?

A: The name only. Lester’s personality was based on a combination of characters in the neighborhood.

Q: What was your best show ever?

A: When Diana Ross and The Supremes did their last shows ever together as
a group at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, Lester and I opened for them for
two weeks. Celebrities came from all over. Dick Clark. Marvin Gaye.

Also playing the Copacabana in New York. Legendary club. We worked there with The Four Tops and with The Temptations.

Q: What do you think of people who are afraid of ventriloquism?

A: “The Twilight Zone” had three different episodes, and the characters were
kind of creepy. Then there was the movie “Magic.” Then those “Child’s
Play” movies with Chucky. Some people are afraid of clowns. You can’t fault them.

Q: Have you ever lost Lester on route to a gig?

A: I used to check the body in when I flew and carry the head in a hard case
that I would put under my seat.

I was playing Lake Tahoe for two weeks with Sammy Davis Jr. Three days into the run, my manager called and said, “Come down to L.A. for this commercial audition.” I didn’t want to go. In order to get to L.A. you had to drive down to Reno, then fly to L.A., then fly back the same day and drive back from Reno to Tahoe. My manager talked me into it.

I flew down to L.A., did the audition, flew back to Reno. When I got to Reno I went to baggage claim. Four o’clock in the afternoon. The first show wasn’t till 8:00, so I had plenty of time. All the bags come off except mine with Lester’s body.

I went to the baggage service. They said, “Oh, don’t worry. It’s in L.A. It will be here later. At 8:30.” The show was at eight. The drive from Reno to Lake Tahoe was an hour. I wasn’t gonna make it.

I called Sammy’s assistant and told her what happened. She said, “Just get here
when you can.” At 8:30 the body came in, I got in the car and drove to Tahoe. I
had missed the first show. When I arrived I went to the dressing room. Sammy said, “It happens.” I went on and did the second show, and it went great.

After that Sammy would stop in my dressing room every night before the show and ask, “You got the head? You got the body?” [laughs]

Q: Where do you perform these days?

A: I do the cruise ships and Indian casinos. Thanks to the Internet a lot of
people remember us and see us. I feel fortunate that it is still working for us.
And with any luck it will continue. Knock on Lester. [laughs]

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