Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Me with Willie Brown

I say it all the time. Oh the gifted folks I know! Just art and mo art throughout my circle. I met Willie Brown and Woody while I was booking comedians for G Mac's Comedy Show almost twelve years ago at the Hollywood Park Casino in Inglewood, California. When Willie showed up, Greg Dalton (G Mac) would always say after the show how great it was to be able to put up such great, rare talent. Almost weekly you could see Katt Williams, Mike Epps, Rodney Perry and to present a ventriloquist in the middle of all that talent to a crowd of people who had never seen such an act and may never again, was...a rainbow. Like how a rainbow appears with all this color from seemingly nowhere? Willie was like that and always very professional. At 6'5" and elegantly dressed with suitcase in hand (Woody's home), he managed to enter the room with a quiet, warm presence. But once he got on stage, pulled Woody out and brought him to life, it was on! The folks, our folks, young and old hip-hoppers, folks they say don't appreciate something different, were mesmerized!

Time has blessed me to call Willie Brown, friend. There is so much to his story that you will never read about or see in an interview. I am honored to hear his stories outside of the resume. These stories, these background stories are the mat holding the puzzle while it's being worked. I am also honored that he allowed me to share this with you.

J* Tell me again about when you were a teenager and took that trip to the convention.

W* I found out about a national ventriloquists convention that took place in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky right outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. It was sponsored by the Vent. Haven Museum, the North American Association of Ventriloquists, also known as NAAV. After I found about it I knew I wanted to attend it. I saved my money from my odd jobs, raking leaves and whatever I could to make some extra cash.

J* How old were you?

W* Fifteen.

J* So you flew by yourself?

W* Yeah. I saved my money and registered for the four day convention. They had seminars and shows featuring ventriloquists, some nationally known others novices.

J* How much money?

W* I can't remember how much, but I paid for a round trip plane ticket from Hartford, Connecticut to Cincinnati, Ohio, plus ground transportation to and from the hotel, plus all four days at the hotel and I had to buy food. And I had the money! I had the money to do whatever I needed to do.

J* Just from cuttin' grass and stuff?

W* Yeah. Cuttin' grass, working for my aunt doing some data entry stuff, whatever I could get my hands on, all legal of course.

J* Of course.

W* But while I was there I met some of the greats.

J* How did you know they were greats?

W* Because I knew my history as a ventriloquist. There was a great ventriloquist named Jimmy Nelson and Danny O'Day (character). He was big in vaudeville and he had a famous puppet named Farfel (a dog) who used to do the nestle commercial. (Imitates Jimmy Nelson and Farfel, singing in dog's voice) N-E-S-T-L-E-S Nestle makes the very best choooocoooolate. And then his mouth would close real hard. (Laughs)
I also met a young Jeff Dunham. He was good even back then. Along with Colonel Bill Boley and Clinton Detweiler, the owner of Maher Vent. Studios. He helped me a lot.

J* How?

W* He was very instrumental in helping me train through a correspondence course that I took by mail. He would grade my test and listen to my voice over cassette tape and let me know how I was progressing. I also met a man who would later become a mentor to me, one of the greatest African American ventriloquists, Willie Tyler and Lester. He was mostly known for his tour on the Motown review where he worked alongside The Temptations, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and many other very talented groups from the Motown stable.

J* I'm interested in how you knew you wanted to do this?

W* I was fortunate in that I was able to catch two annual ventriloquist specials that were on HBO. The first one was called The Vent Event. That was taped at the Mayfair Theatre in Los Angeles, California.

J* Is that still going on?

W* No. That was just that time. It featured some of the most popular ventriloquists at that time. Even the great Edgar Bergen, Candice Bergen's father and Charlie McCarthy, Jimmy Nelson, Daniel Day, Jay Johnson from the hit sitcom, Soap, along with Shari Lewis and Lambchop.

J* Lambchop is the puppet?

W* Yeah, the sock puppet, remember? She had her own TV show for years. And there was Stew Scott, he had a Los Vegas show. He died. Jim Teter with his presidential puppets. Willie Tyler was on it doing his famous hambone routine which I borrowed for a number of years, I didn't know any better.

J* You just stumbled on this show or were you interested before that?

W* Before that. I had already finished the course by then. I was exposed to ventriloquism through my childhood, through Paul Winchell. He had a television show and had his characters Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smith. I remember being very enthralled at that show as a kid.

J* How old were you?

W* I was a little kid. Maybe four. I didn't see another ventriloquist until I saw Jay Johnson from the TV show, Soap. Remember that show? With Robert Guillaume (Benson). That show ignited the distant show Winchell and Mahoney. I think it was called Winchell and Mahoney? I immediately fell in love with it, combined with my love for magic. Which is my first love.

I already had the discipline to be a ventriloquist from magic. Being in front of the mirror so long practicing.

I told my mother, "I wanna be a ventriloquist." She said, "You wanna do everything." I told her, "I want a dummy." She bought me a dummy for Christmas. It's name was Willie Talk. I think it was made by Hasbro. It came with a little book on how to throw your voice. I just did what it told me to do. So I already had a voice for my first character, Woody. I called it Woody 'cause dummies are made of wood. I didn't know any better. Then I went on BET's Comic View and D L Hugley was the host. That was in '92. I was branded after that. Three years later I did Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam. Those two shows put me on the map nationally. It increased my shows nationally and internationally. I went to all of the major cities playing comedy shows like, All Jokes Aside in Chicago, Illinois, The Laugh House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, The Improv in Miami and others.

J* What about in college?

W* I performed as a hobby and also at sorority and fraternity functions and off campus at officer's clubs and nightclubs.

J* Are you trippin' sometimes? Like in the middle of the night sometimes do you stare at the ceiling like wow, I'm still doing this?

W* I'm very blessed. I have a cousin who is a pilot and another who is a physical therapist, another who is heavily into computers, another excelled in the military. I always felt like they made it and I was still trying to get there. Like in show business you can't just say, "Well, I'm a doctor now". In show business there is no test. Although you are tested! And now I see myself still evolving and it's not what I thought it was when I used to watch the Mike Douglas Show.

J* What did you think it was going to be like?

W* I thought that once you did Merv Griffin or Mike Douglas, I'm dating myself now. Some people don't even know what those shows are, but once you did those shows, you made it.

I've worked with some great entertainers. When I worked with Gladys Knight my name was on the marquis at the Tropicana. There was another time I was at the Tropicana and I didn't have such a great show. The show was called Comedy Stop at the Trop. I felt jinxed by the manager. Whenever he was there I was sub par, but when he wasn't there I killed. If only he could have seen it. He moved me from the headliner spot to the middle spot after the first night. But he kept my money the same. It hurt my ego. I had to really study that crowd. It was a mixture of old Italians, Jewish, north eastern crowds. Whenever we did connect, it was great.

What was so great was that I got to go back to the Tropicana to open for Gladys and The Temptations, which was an even bigger venue than the Comedy Stop at the Trop. It was a bigger room.

J* Did you go by and see the manager? Was he still there?

W* Yeah he was there. I didn't go see him. He wasn't good for my energy. I no longer go to places that don't serve me, I need to get something out of it. It could be a comedy club, an AA meeting, a church. It has to mean something to me.

J* Tell me about Clean Comedy Clinic.

W* While I was in L.A., I came across comedians who were doing comedy at churches and I got ushered into cleaning up my act and doing more Christian venues. God gave me a gift to perform for all people. I began working with Clean Comedians, an agency in Los Angeles and also Outreach another agency out of Vista, California. From there I began a crusade to bring comedy to the world. Clean, funny, gut busting comedy to the world. As a healing instrument. I call myself a laugh doctor.

So I did end up getting my doctorate after all. Didn't I?

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