The recent passing of renowned ventriloquist Seor Wences was the latest reminder of how drastically our entertainment standards and popular culture have changed during the last four decades.
Like many Americans, I thought Wences had passed away years ago. Living to the age of 103 is remarkable. However, I must admit that he didn't make me laugh during his frequent appearances on TV variety shows during the 1960s. My conventional personality didn't appreciate his zany banter, and I had no affection for Pedro (the head in the box) or Johnny (the hand with the blond wig).
But there were plenty of competitors who did win me over. Shari Lewis was perky, and Lambchop had a child-friendly attitude. Also, the notion of "throwing your voice" was still being actively marketed to youthful consumers.
One memorable ventriloquism advertisement that appeared in comic books showed a burly man carrying a steamer trunk on his back. Coming from the trunk were cries of "Help! Help! Let me out!" And off to one side was a mischievous boy who had obviously responded to the ad and become a skilled voice prankster.
For a time in elementary school, I had a plastic Jerry Mahoney doll dressed in a green suit. Sad to say, my efforts to imitate Paul Winchell failed completely. Animating a lifeless object with human speech requires a blend of talents. The successful practitioner must be part actor, stand-up comic, and magician.
As technology devises new opportunities for passive amusement, it's not surprising that an activity that requires inventiveness, patience, and depth of character is being pushed to the fringes of daily life.
Ventriloquism probably seems extremely odd to an audience that has grown up playing Mortal Kombat and surfing the World Wide Web.
The television shows that gave exposure to Seor Wences are mostly gone.
These days, the medium is trying to rebuild its audience by pulling fringe activities into the mainstream. Big-time wrestling and video police chases have prime-time slots.
One of the saddest TV trends is the disappearance of home-town shows for kids. When I was growing up, the local independent station had an afternoon program hosted by Mr. Bob. He was a ventriloquist who favored sock puppets. One of them was a little dragon named Leroy, who had a craving for Saltines. I remember Leroy screaming, "Crackers, Mr. Bob, crackers!" just as vividly as Wences' fans recall, "S'OK? S'awright!"
In between puppet segments, Mr. Bob showed old episodes of the Three Stooges. And some parents objected to the Stooges because their slapping and hair-pulling seemed too violent for children. Moe, Larry, and Curly a threat to kids? When I see how different the world is today, it makes me feel about 103 years old.