Oscar-nominated feature animation director Kelly Asbury (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron), who is co-directing DreamWorks’ Shrek 2 with Andrew Adamson, has spent the last five years revisiting another childhood love. Angel City Press has just published his book, Dummy Days: America’s Favorite Ventriloquists from Radio and Early TV, which explores the history and personalities behind one of the earliest forms of animation.
Dummy Days, with a foreword by Leonard Maltin, profiles the five consummate ventriloquists who turned a vaudevillian gimmick into an American art form: Edgar Bergen, Senor Wences, Paul Winchell, Jimmy Nelson and Shari Lewis. Included in the book’s pages are rare photographs and transcripts of actual performance comedy routines.
Asbury recalls, “When I was a kid, I was a big fan of puppetry and ventriloquists. I had this Danny O’Day ventriloquist dummy based on a character created by Jimmy Nelson. He was very popular in the ’50s. He was on a lot of television shows and the thing he’s actually most remembered for today is a series of commercials for Nestlies chocolates that went on for like ten years.” He continues, “I went on and got into animation and probably didn’t see that doll (it was put away in a box) for fifteen or twenty years. My mom passed away in 1995 and when I was going through her stuff, I found this doll and started wondering what ever happened to Jimmy Nelson.”
Asbury looked Nelson up on the Internet and found that he is semi-retired and living in Florida, where he has been happily married for almost fifty years. “We started e-mailing each other, I called him at one point and we just struck up a friendship,” Asbury says. “I realized that the backdrop for this guy’s life and his whole career was the advent of television. He was one of the first recurring TV pitchmen and at one point, was a household name in America. His character, Farfel, to a lot of babyboomers, is this pop culture, advertising icon. And I just thought, there’s a book in here somewhere.”
Asbury then started looking for books that had any information about the great ventriloquists of the era and found virtually nothing. He was miffed because, as he says, “Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy was as big, if not bigger than Mickey Mouse.” He goes on to suggest, “There was a time when these people were as popular on television as The Simpsons and nobody remembers now. It fascinated me that this art form has fallen into virtual obscurity.”
Speculating on reasons for the decline in the popularity of ventriloquist acts, Asbury offers, “Back in the early days of television, when special effects were in their infancy, a ventriloquist was an on-camera special effect. Then when other kinds of special effects became more accessible and animation became more popular, they began to realize that the audience’s tastes were changing and they wanted something more sophisticated. It’s kind of like what’s happening now in the animation industry with 2D animation. Despite the realities that we in the industry know about story and character, right now we’re going through a transition.”
While Asbury is doing his part to make sure these entertainers and their characters are not forgotten, the puppets themselves also have a hand in it, so to speak. Asbury says he had pitched the book to ten different publishers and didn’t get so much as a nibble. Then he spoke to Paddy Calistro at Angel City Press and found that she was familiar with Farfel the dog. Before meeting with the publisher, Asbury had Nelson FedEx the puppet so he could take it into the meeting. “I think that’s what landed the deal. I think Farfel got the deal for me.”
Before helming Spirit, Asbury worked as a storyboard artist, art director and designer on such films as Shrek, Chicken Run, The Prince of Egypt, Toy Story, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.
Asbury will be appearing at Bookstar in Studio City, Calif. (2:00 p.m.) on Saturday, August 9 to sign copies of Dummy Days. For store information, call 818-505-9528.