Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Johnny," the Terrifying Ventriloquist Dummy

Jennifer and Diana recently introduced me to Country Magazine. It's intended "for those who live in or long for the country." They bought a whole bunch of old issues (going back to the 80s) at a garage sale, but I just checked online and it looks like the magazine is still going strong. They even have a free newsletter you can sign up for. Here's a little bit about them (from their own website):

"Country and Country EXTRA are known for vivid color photos of the countryside. They’re so lifelike you feel like you’re right there alongside our photographers on a photo tour along the backroads of rural North America.

"Country EXTRA also contains many of the popular features from Country, including “Quotes from the Country,” “ Country Churches” and “Little Humor.” Some unique features in Country EXTRA are the “Country Primer” and “Cabin Fever.”

"The “Country Primer” sheds a little light on some aspect of life in the how cowboys make coffee in metal pots over the campfire. In other issues, you learned why covered bridges are covered, why country roads meander and how to cook up a mess of dandelions and other spring greens for a nutritious salad. “Cabin Fever” invites you to look at a reader’s weekend getaway or country log home."

Sounds pretty awesome, right? Beautiful rustic scenery, homespun wisdom, the peace and tranquility of the natural world, and--AHHHH! What the fuck is that?

Why, that's "Johnny," the ventriloquist dummy of a farmer in Kansas. The caption claims that rural audiences love his brand of humor...but I think they're just scared shitless. "Just laugh at the puppet, kids, and maybe he'll go away." That puppet is inordinately scary.

Seriously, though, what a cool farmer. Although I do think maybe he shouldn't drive the tractor while practicing his act (as he claims in this article). It's not safe to operate heavy machinery while puppeteering, Greg!

Talented Farmer Is Certainly No Dummy
He works hard to stay on speaking terms with his collection of characters.

Taking the words right out of his mouth is something that happens regularly to Greg Claassen of Whitewater, Kansas. But Greg doesn't mind one bit. You see, he's a ventriloquist.

"Because I grew up with a farming background, I tend to do a lot of shows for agriculture companies and rural audiences," relates Greg, who has performed in 42 states. "I average about 120 shows annually and am gone about 150 days out of the year."

Between performances, Greg helps his brothers on the family farm as much as he can. "I especially try to be around during harvest," he notes.

Greg became interested in ventriloquism at age 12, when he saw a performer at a National Pork Producers Convention that he was attending with his dad and brothers.

"When I saw him, I told myself, 'I've got to learn how to do that,' " Greg says. "About a year later, my mom found a correspondence course for ventriloquism.

"Like any thing you do, you have to practice a lot to get good at it. I practiced my act while driving the tractor in Dad's fields. Doing fieldwork can sometimes be tedious, so practicing my ventriloquism helped pass the time.

"Anybody can learn to become a ventriloquist. It's just like learning to play an instrument. You need some talent, but it really comes down to desire and lots of practice.

Greg likes to compare himself to a magician. "A ventriloquist is fooling your ears, much like a magician fools your eyes," he explains. "I have to give the illusion that the dummy is real. The audience has to believe that I'm carrying on a conversation with a real person."

The dummies Greg uses in his act are called soft puppets and are made out of rubber and foam. It's a lengthy and costly process to make each one.

"I'll come up with an idea for a new character and then talk to a figure maker," Greg says. "We'll discuss the dummy's personality so the builder can visualize what it will look like."

Then the builder will make sketches and rough models until Greg approves the final version. From the start of the idea to the finished product, it can take over a year to complete a new character.

"The soft puppets range anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000," Greg continues. "The wooden dummies are even more expensive. They can easily run $10,000."

Greg emphasizes the fact he provides a clean act for his audiences. It's just something that comes naturally from his upbringing.

"I want to give my audience a good fun time and plenty of laughs," he states. "I understand rural America's sense of humor.

"Growing up with an agriculture background, I think I know what country folks will like. Whether there's a 4-year-old or an 84-year-old in the audience, my humor will appeal to them.

"Being funny is the key to being a good ventriloquist. Sure, the technique of not moving your lips has to be good, but it's not the most important element.

"Take the famous ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, for example. His lips moved when he performed. But his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, seemed real to the audience, and that's what was entertaining.

"If you'd like to contact Greg to perform at a function, he can be reached at 1- 800/293-8669. He promises he won't give you any double-talk."


  1. That's pretty amazing that Country magazine continues to exist while Gourmet is no more. I've never heard of it, although my parents did used to get some little periodical with Vermont in the title, I think. I never quite understood why.

  2. It sounds appealing to me! I'm actually thinking about subscribing.