7 Fairs, 7 Weeks & A Van Full of Dummies: What Mister G Did On His Summer Vacation
Joe Gandelman would be living in a cardboard box if his sole gig was being editor in chief of this blog, and his flirtation with homelessness is mitigated only because he has a “straight” job as a ventriloquist.
Until I became acquainted with Joe and had basked for a while in the glow of his enormous heart, I never knew that if a traveling ventriloquist is going to make his nut in a given year, summer with its myriad fairs and festivals is it. (Okay, I’m exaggerating the homeless thing. Joe is one of the best and most successful ventriloquists on the circuit and the author of a couple of books on the art, as well.)
And so in the beginning of July, Joe packed his well broken-in Chevy Venture van (300,000-plus miles) with the tricks of his trade: The wisecracking dummy whom he never quite succeeds in hypnotizing, the elephant with the squirting trunk, the dragon who breathes smoke, three kinds of dogs . . . oh, and a genie’s head in a box . . . and set sail from San Diego for the great American heartland.
Joe was back in Southern California but still hadn’t emptied out the van when I caught up with him for a hard-hitting interview that would have left Sarah Palin cowering behind her stuffed moose head.
SM: So how many more miles did you put on the Ventura?
JG: I didn’t count, but I do know that it was 1,600 miles to my first fair and there sometimes were hundreds of miles between stops.
SM: And the stops were?
JG: Roundup, Montana to Adele, Iowa, to Haver, Montana, to Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Sundance, Wyoming, four days off in Thermopolis, Wyoming, to Afton, Wyoming, to Billings, Montana, and then back home.
All were state and county fairs, some fairly large with big stages under circus tents and one so small that the stage basically was a picnic table with a canopy over it. The shortest fair was two days and the longest eight days.
SM: Describe a typical show.
JG: A typical kids’ show is about 30 minutes with all of my characters. The squirting elephant is a favorite and I often start out with 20 kids who are dying to get squirted and end up with 60.
A typical adults’ show is about the same length with people up on stage lip syncing to “Tutti Frutti” at the end because you just can’t top that.
SM: How was the weather?
JR: We had all kinds. There was a big thunderstorm in Afton. It still was pouring as I was wrapping up my show, so I looked at the sound guy and asked him if he was in a rush. He said that he wasn’t so I decided to do a ventriloquism workshop.
When I asked for volunteers, 40 kids put their hands up and got in line. Each got a chance to say something while holding one of the dummies and the rain stopped just as the last kid performed.
SM: What’s going on out in the heartland?
JG: Well, for one thing the people I met were not too keen about Bush, although I saw very few signs for Obama or McCain.
The good news is that I found the young people to be incredibly noble. I was struck by the solidity of these pre-teens and teens doing their 4H projects and rodeo. Some were working to keep the blacksmithing tradition alive. They’d help move stuff to my car. There’s a different feeling out there compared to urban audiences.
The bad news is that some of the places I visited were suffering compared to the last time I did this circuit. Restaurants and other businesses have closed. Tourism is down. There’s definitely a bad financial impact. Only one place I visited looked like it was growing.
The last thing people want to talk about at a fair is their worries and burdens. But these are hard times and there was a feeling that something is seriously wrong. That the country is in really sorry shape. Oh, and the gas prices!
SM: I got more than one harried phone call from you about not being able to get online.
JG: Yeah. On the coasts we take the Internet for granted.
Out in heartland they’re still in the Flintstone generation. It’s still a work in progress. Fairs paid to put me up in beautiful hotels, but the wireless wouldn’t work.
In one hotel, not even the phone in my room worked so I couldn’t use dial-up. When I turned on my cell phone, it didn’t work. I once ended up taking the long extension cord that I carry with me and running it out a window and blogged from a park bench.
SM: You had a distinguished 20-year career in journalism. You worked in Bangladesh, India, Spain, Cyprus and Mexico, and for stateside papers. When did you decide that you couldn’t work a “regular” job anymore?
JG: I wanted to be an actor in high school. I idolized Jackie Gleason and Lou Costello. I got into a theater group that did big musicals. I was Fagin in Oliver! and Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls. I couldn’t sing, but I could scat sing.
But my parents talked me out of it and I went into journalism. Then one day I realized that I had had enough of the newspaper business and began doing ventriloquism part time as a hobby. The real catalyst was in 1990 when we almost went on strike [at the Union in San Diego], a 58-year-old colleague dropped dead of heart attack and I was in a near fatal auto accident. I said to myself, “I don’t want to be on my deathbed never having tried what I really wanted to do.”
I went into ventriloquism full-time because of the encouragement of Jimmy Nelson, the legendary ventriloquist in the classic Nestle commercials.
I had no shows lined up, no agent, but I realized no matter what happened I need to step away from daily journalism. My idea was to do entertainment and then reactivate my writing. Well, I’ve spent the last 18 years trying to get the entertainment together.
SM: So sum up your trip.
JG: I was very touched by what I saw.
People say that kids are only into negative things, that the American family is fractured, that we’ve become too mobile a society. But where I was I saw people who were really soundly grounded, families that included the grandparents. The bleachers were full of people of all ages. I saw teenagers and young people really doing the best they could. There was a real sense of community.
I got a real sense of the American heart and the American heartland. I came home a lot more optimistic despite the fact that the media is saturating young people with images that aren’t helping to uplift the country.
SM: So are you going to do it again next summer?
JG: The report cards that have come back to my agent are very positive, so you bet that I am.