I think we can all unite together as a nation,
regardless of our race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or hair color, and agree that ventriloquism ( I mean the classic variety with the wooden “dummy”, not the adorably cute Darci Lynne “Muppet-y” version) is one of the creepiest forms of entertainment. Ventriloquists don’t make me laugh. At the very least, I find them a little disturbing.
There are a few exceptions. Check out the “A Jackie Story” You Tube clip from “The Bob Newhart Show.” In it, one of Bob’s patients is Danny James, a ventriloquist whose dummy wants to break up the act. If this doesn’t make you laugh out loud, then well, I don’t know what to do with you.
I found another exception. I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with Bob Rumba, a local Pittsburgh entertainer who is very, very funny, very, very talented, and a nice guy to boot.
So read on and enjoy.
He’s No Dummy
I was now dreading it. I had asked him weeks earlier for an interview because I was intrigued; I had never met a ventriloquist/comedian/impersonator/high-end balloon artist and was curious to learn every minutiae of the life story of Bob Rumba.
But our Friday date snuck up on me at the end of a particularly grueling week, and I changed my protocol—be polite but succinct, stay on topic, ask the necessary questions, get the facts down, then get the heck out of there. One hour tops. I brought my interviewer’s tools—tape recorder, bic pens and trusty legal pad and met him at a packed Jason’s Deli in Cranberry. With his brightly-colored striped jacket, shoe-polish-jet-black hair and Harry Potter glasses he was hard to miss. Two large black cases were stacked beside him in the cramped corner booth.
“You cut your hair!” Bob was a little crushed and profoundly disappointed. “It was longer in your picture. Tell me all about your writing!” This interview was off to a strange start. How was I going to get out of there in an hour if I forced to speak (at length) about my favorite topic?
At dinner Bob complained of some tooth pain from a recent extracted molar. A veteran of considerable dental work (turns out that flossing is NOT for losers as I had always assumed) , I gently suggested that he wouldn’t necessarily need to have the tooth replaced, especially if it’s in the far back—chewing wouldn’t be a problem. Bob solemnly shook his head.
“Ohh, but then I can’t do Donald Duck. Doesn’t sound right.”
Wow. This guy has his priorities in order.
I made a valiant effort to document a few relevant facts, but the conversation somehow got away from me. I briefly thought of using my tape recorder, but that changed when I looked up from my dinner and was greeted by Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly.
And yes, I am one of three people in the world who is astounded and impressed by this, and Bob is one of three people in the world who actually DOES Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly impersonations.
I made the wise choice to sit back and just enjoy the show.
If I remember correctly, Bob grew up in the South Hills, graduated from Montour High School, was successful enough at community theater work to skip college and moved to Chicago in the mid-70s to do a Laurel and Hardy act with his friend Gorman Lowe. When Gorman moved back to Pittsburgh, Bob picked up ventriloquism in a few short weeks (a difficult skill that takes most years to master) and was soon working steadily with a “mini-me” act. Oh, and one cannot forget the impersonations: Charlie Chaplin, Peter Sellers, Ed Sullivan and Groucho Marx, among many others. Some were so good that he landed TV commercials and a full-time gig at a theater in Branson, Missouri. He moved back to Pittsburgh about 10 years ago. And he has been working here since. At least that’s what I remember he said.
Our conversation ricocheted in a million different directions– we talked of Peter Sellers (no idea how he entered the conversation) and the “Pink Panther” movies at length. I impressed him with the little factoid that we named our cat “Kato” after Clousseau’s sidekick/sparring partner. Somehow, Don Rickles got into the mix, followed up with a spot-on Barney Fife impersonation (one of the most difficult to master, according to Bob). That was the catalyst for a lengthy dialogue about “The Andy Griffith Show”. He chimed in as Floyd the Barber and Otis Campbell.
Over the years Bob has amassed over 30 different dummies, the most interesting are two “mini- me” ones– Darby is “normal-sized”, but Dabney is about half of Darby’s size. Bob has created a clever act showcasing both, with all three sporting identical white jackets, big floofy red-and-white-polka-dotted bow-ties and Harry Potter glasses. The photo of all three of them could be captioned “The Amazing Shrinking Ventriloquist”. If he adds a third dummy to the mix it would have to be a finger puppet.
I joked that I was going to prepare for our meeting by re-watching the incredibly creepy 1978 movie Magic starring a young Anthony Hopkins (and a middle-aged but still sassy Ann-Margret) as a disturbed ventriloquist who may or may not be controlled by his dummy, Fats. The trailer gave me nightmares as a 10-year old, as I awoke in the middle of the night to a silhouette in my bedroom doorway of a small-framed but freakishly-large-headed puppet holding a meat cleaver in his tiny wooden hands.
Bob launched into a book vs. movie comparison, and then he veered off and discussed other venues that featured ventriloquism—Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, and a surprising number of movies, dating as far back as 1925’s The Unholy Three starring Lon Chaney. Bob definitely knows his stuff. Oh, and they’re not officially called dummies, they are called ventriloquial figures. Yet another tidbit from Bob.
As he showed me photos from the last 30 years or so of his colorful career, I couldn’t help but notice the Droopy Dog screensaver. Bob noticed and I was treated to Droopy’s catch phrase “You know what?” followed by Snagglepuss’s “Exit, stage left!” Too funny.
Bob is a presenter, performer, lecturer, and emcee at the yearly Vent Haven International Ventriloquist ConVENTion in Erlanger, Kentucky. The VHC attracts around 550 other vents (as they are called), including big names such as Jeff Dunham, Terry Fator, and Jay Johnson. Presenters hail from Germany, Japan, Canada, and the UK.
A quick search of this year’s schedule includes some interesting lectures: “Secrets of Cruise Ship Performing”, “You Have an Act…Now What?” and my favorite round table topic, “The Soft Puppet Revolution.” I immediately pictured all the Muppets sporting Che Guevara berets, fighting against the Establishment. (Yes, I know Muppets aren’t dummies, but what do you immediately think of when you hear the phrase “soft puppet?”)
The convention’s hotel bar would be a surreal experience. I imagine vents and dummies getting drunk, both of them slurring their words. If a dummy makes a rude remark who gets slapped? Can dummies hit on other dummies? Is that even permitted in the ventriloquist by-laws? What if two ventriloquists fall in love but their dummies fight non-stop? How do you navigate that minefield? I would love to go and just walk around the lobby and soak it all in.
Bob and I got the hint to end our one-hour interview at closing time 2 ½ hours later by the few remaining irritated employees. I wasn’t ready to go, but Jason and his Deli clearly were ready to close up shop.
I did a terrible job of documenting the “Story of Bob”, although I think in our evening together I captured him– a rare breed of entertainer who has fully committed to his craft and clearly loves what he does. Bob hasn’t stopped working and hustling, always going after the next gig.
As I helped Bob carry his two unwieldy black cases to his car, I realized I never did find out their contents, but I am guessing one carried one of his 30 ventriloquial figures.
I might be better off not knowing what was in the other one.
I saw Magic. Paul Lynde impersonation or not, I know what those ventriloquists are capable of.