EDITOR’S NOTE: Tonight marks the passing of someone who was an icon to baby boomers and to those who do what he did or aspire to do what he did. Someone who was long considered 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. This was first published in 2010 and then revised and published in 2017.
The ventriloquism world and show biz just lost one of their nicest icons — someone who literally inspired many people who now do ventriloquism full-time or as a hobby. But no matter what, if you met him you were charmed, blessed and inspired.
I am perpetually studying comedy of all eras and people would often ask me: so who is YOUR favorite ventriloquist? I would 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. Jimmy Nelson was born on December 15, 1928 and he left us today at the age of 90. It is a cliche to say this but it is true here:
It is the end of an era.
Nelson was an up and coming TV star in the 50s and in the 60s. He became beloved and 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 on The Ed Sullivan Show:
Unlike some ventriloquists, he didn’t move his lips, didn’t smile each time the puppet talks, didn’t have that little laugh when a puppet cracked a joke, and didn’t have a seemingly pained or strained look on his face as he talked (or sung) without moving his lips. And his manipulation of his key wooden partner (a highly coveted wooden “figure” by iconic “figuremaker” Frank Marshall) was absolutely flawless.
Nelson was a legend but refused 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 was known for encouraging people (even if they were not in the community’s elite) who want to keep the old art alive. He was never 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 were “showmanship” and “gentleman” (a word not applied to everyone these days) and “sincere.”
For many years Nelson, retired in Fort Myers, Florida, 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 always 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 was an equal opportunity encourager.
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 was famous for his role in encouraging people who want to do ventriloquism to keep tinkering with it and he 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 (which he would say more than once) in someone who had been a PoliSci major at Colgate and got his masters in Journalism at Northwestern University’s prestigious 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 so many other people happy when they saw him onstage — or off stage?
An interview with Jimmy Nelson:’
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.