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Relating to a bunch of dummies

Local ventriloquist gives characters distinct personalities

Feb. 20, 2013

Dale Brown of Waukesha wasn't always an internationally known ventriloquist. He was once in a rock band, a journalism teacher at a high school, a public relations professional and corporate consultant. But he always found himself right back where he started: with Chip Martin hanging out next to him offering witty and often hilarious insight into life.

Ventriloquism is often thought of something for children or an art mixed in to a night at a comedy club. Most people can name Jeff Dunham or "America's Got Talent" winner Terry Fator, but Brown calls them personal friends.

In his hallway, Brown hangs photos and signatures from those greats along with Muppets creator Jim Henson and Lamb Chop famed Shari Lewis.

"They really paved the way for modern soft puppets," Brown said. "And Jeff and Terry Fator helped to make ventriloquism more main stream again in recent years."

Not very cool

Brown started ventriloquism in sixth grade, saving money from his paper route to buy a Jerry Mahoney dummy from the Sears catalog. He remained interested until he got to college.

"Ventriloquism was just a hobby at that point, and it wasn't very cool being a ventriloquist," Brown said. "I actually played in a rock band in college. That was way cooler."

It wasn't until the end of his career in teaching that he brought back his old hobby. As Brown pursued his second career in public relations, he attended a Maher School of Ventriloquism in Colorado. He decided then that he could uniquely marry his two passions.

"We'd have mascot puppets, puppets at sales meetings," Brown said. "It became a big thing and many companies hired us to do it. To my knowledge we were the only ones who did anything like that. I did it all over the country for years."

Brown said that having the puppets not only allowed the company to have a mascot, it opened the door for better corporate communication. From presentations to newsletters, puppets became a light-hearted way to address serious issues in the company culture. His client list has more than 50 companies that have utilized puppet services in some way including national companies such as J.C. Penny and John Deere and local companies such as Waukesha Engines and Kohler.

"We helped companies communicate really well with a lot of people and I found that to be really rewarding," Brown said. "Instead of having somebody up there just talk at employees or salesmen they actually did a program that was entertaining and educational and informative and their communication was better."

Cast of characters

However, Brown said corporate work began to trail off and he started focusing more on banquets and special occasions, each show customized for the audience but boasting the same funny characters.

Brown has an extensive list of characters on his resume. Bertha the Bag lady is an eccentric character that has appeared on "Entertainment Tonight" and "Good Morning, America" with Brown. Shaggy the dog and Louie the world's oldest jockey round out the cast along with Brown's classic Chip Martin.

"People say Chip is my alter ego," Brown said.

"If one's on my knee and you ask a question it will have a totally different answer than another character. It's weird but true," Brown said. "You just develop those personalities."

Ironically, Brown said his personality is completely different with no puppet in sight.

"I was a really shy kid, really shy" Brown said. "Most ventriloquists when they don't have a puppet are totally different. At a party without a puppet, I'm the one in the corner."

Chip off the old block

In Brown's more than 30 years in ventriloquism, he said he has run into mostly positive responses from audiences. However, like any performer, he occasionally faces a tough crowd.

"A tough crowd doesn't happen very often at all but it does happen and you remember those forever," Brown said. "I can tell halfway through the first act whether it's going to be a good night or bad night. When it's not going to be good you just put your head down and go."

Brown said that being a ventriloquist provides unique challenges, but anyone who is willing to put the time and effort into learning how can do it.

"You have to be funny. That's the hardest thing, because either you've got it or you don't. It's the one part of ventriloquism you can't really teach," Brown said. "Learning how to make a puppet look alive is like learning to play piano. It's very hard. Throwing your voice and talking without moving your lips, anybody can do it. It's easy. Anybody. You just have to practice and be very dedicated and practice a lot."

Brown is gearing up for the International Ventriloquist ConVENTion in Cincinnati, Ohio this summer. He will teach a seminar on banquet performing for nearly 600 professional and beginner ventriloquists including those who do what Brown calls "educational ventriloquism" for youth, "gospel ventriloquism" using puppets to preach and comedic ventriloquists.

Brown, now retired from his day job in public relations, is looking forward to more local banquet and special event work in the future. He said the market is tough, as more people are inclined to hire DJs for live entertainment at special events than they are to hire a ventriloquist. However, it's easy to see by the smile on his face as he looks at Chip Martin that he's not ready to give up ventriloquism any time soon.

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