Great Performers: Happy Birthday Classic Ventriloquist Jimmy Nelson (With Videos)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Today is the 88th birthday of someone who was an icon to baby boomers and among those who does. Someone who has been the the best — and nicest — in the business. Even if you didn’t see him perform on TV or in his famous Nestles commericials, here’s a story about a remarkable, talented and sincere person who proved nice guys CAN finish first.
Since I know something about ventriloquism and am perpetually studying comedy of all eras, people often ask me: so who is YOUR favorite ventriloquist? I tell them he is not one of the “classic” ones the bulk of people immediately name but he is a classic ventriloquist of the same era and stature. He is not one of the younger ones you see on TV, cruise ships, comedy clubs, Vegas or on the school circuit. He’s Jimmy Nelson, a performer with a truly friendly stage persona, impeccable ventriloquism technique, a gentle but on-target sense of humor — someone who performed as if he was truly part of a comedy team (the other guy just happened to be wood) but unlike some ventriloquists never appeared as if he wanted the audience to focus on as him the star and adore only him, but love him AND his comedic partner(s).
And they did (and do).
Nelson was an up and coming TV star in the 50s and in the 60s. He became belovedly famous to Baby Boomers and their parents everywhere in the classic Nestles Quick commercials starring him, his dummy Danny O’Day and his dummy dog Farfel with the jingle: “N-E-S-T-L-E-S…Nestles makes the very best…” The dog would then sing: “Chaawklete!” (Nestles brought a slightly revised version of Farfel back for a 1992 commercial.) He appeared live on the Milton Berle Show when a young Elvis Presley made one of his first appearances, worked the Jackie Gleason-produced summer replacement show Stage Show and countless other TV shows, did night clubs and was a smash on an HBO special that featured ventriloquists.
Here’s a bit he did on an HBO special in the 70s:
Here’s Jimmy on Milton Berle’s live TV comedy show appearing with someone who later went on to a career bigger than politics:
And here’s Jimmy doing one of the commercials that turned him into an icon in the 50s, 60s and still are worth watching (and studying). This is from the era of Elvis Presley:
Unlike some ventriloquists, he doesn’t move his lips, doesn’t smile each time the puppet talks, doesn’t have that little laugh when a puppet cracks a joke, and doesn’t have a seemingly pained or strained look on his face as he tries to keep from moving his lips. And his manipulation of his key wooden partner is flawless.
Nelson is a legend but refuses to act like one. As with most communities, the “ventriloquism community” also has an elite comprised of both the famous and the institutionally powerful. Nelson is known for encouraging people (even if they are not in the community’s sometimes self-absorbed “in crowd”) who want to keep the old art alive. He isn’t into exclusion, ego games, glad handing or cliques. And then there’s this: people who want to try ventriloquism sometimes say that when they approach a professional “vent” they sometimes feel discouraged, condescended to, or kept at distance because they don’t do it full-time (a perception that is not always accurate).
Not so with Nelson.
The three words most commonly used about Nelson are “showmanship” and “gentleman” (a word not applied to everyone these days) and “sincere.”
Over the last decade Nelson, today 88 and retired in Fort Myers, Florida, has performed whenever he wished (he especially has enjoyed visiting schools and doing shows for seniors where he can show and discuss some of his vintage videos) and can be counted on to be at virtually every ventriloquists’ convention — always willing to talk and encourage and never interested in marginalizing, distancing himself, ignoring or discouraging. He’s an equal opportunity encourager. As usual, he attended the last Ventriloquists convention.
But he has another role as well — an unsung one.
As the last survivor of the mid-to-late 20th century “classic ventriloquists” group (Edgar Bergen, Paul Winchell, Shari Lewis and Senor Wences were the others) he is famous for his role in encouraging people who want to do ventriloquism to keep tinkering with it and has encouraged some to go full-time.
How do I know that? I’ve heard of others.
And I am one of them.
I was a full-time reporter on the San Diego Union newspaper when I quit to go full-time with the encouragement of Jimmy Nelson. I had written from New Delhi, Dacca, Cypress, Madrid and then worked on the Knight-Ridder paper in Wichita before being brought out to San Diego by the San Diego Union. I had not known what happened to Nelson until I started tinkering with ventriloquism in the late 80s to relieve journalism job stress (one week I put in 40 hours of newspaper overtime — I was truly driven). I learned that he had gotten off the road after being hired by a Florida bank to do its commercials and public relations (he was on TV often for the bank). I wrote to him and sent him the first taped video of me trying a routine and he invited me to visit him in his office while I was in Florida visiting my parents.
When I met him it turned out he was exactly as endearing as his TV persona had been — no change. I looked at the small versions of his dummy Danny O’Day and Farfel as we talked in his office. We had lunch and he offered to look at any future video tapes and give me his feedback.
So I sent a few. And, invariably, a few days after sending one, I’d get a letter in the mail where he would critique my performance — each one, packed with details and encouragement as he noted specific things I was doing correctly in terms of ventriloquism and showmanship. At one point told me: “You look like you are so relaxed and you smile, Joe: you’re one of the people who could do it full-time.”
And so Jimmy Nelson planted the seed of encouragement in someone who was a PoliSci major at Colgate and got his masters in Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and who had worked as a journalist on three continents. That seed blossomed into a decision to put aside one career and leap into the uncharted — sometimes chilly — waters of another.
How often do you find someone who so totally changed someone’s life and who made (and makes) so many other people happy when they see him onstage — or off stage?
FOOTNOTE: I must also add that I also see every show by this guy and thank God that he’s alive today.
An interview with Jimmy Nelson:’
Revised and expanded from a post first posted in January 2010.