David Strassman / Chuck Wood
Interviewing Chuck is almost as perilous as watching him from the front row. In the dressing room after his London show, Strassman talked amiably enough while the dummy sat glowering and motionless on the shelf. Strassman was explaining what is so revolutionary about this distasteful creature. Until now ventriloquism has been whathe calls "presentational". The two parties have just sat there exchanging wisecracks. But Chuck's relationship with Strassman is complex and theatrical.
"Chuck's character is carefully thought out. He is a 13 year-old boy testing the water of adulthood. That is why he has this animosity," he explained and looked up at the doll. "Let's get Chucky out," he said, and lifted the sour-faced doll on to his lap.
The dummy's eyes immediately fixed on me."I don't like him," Chuck announced. It seemed best to ignore this and press on, pausing only to reflect that days are long gone when ventriloquists were avuncular party entertainers who would not say boo to a goose, let alone folk from "the Daily Telegraph". "Same old questions," Chuck yawned. Strassman reprimanded his, but the doll stared sourly.
"Chuck can move," said Strassman, "like a real person." The dummy stared at me with obvious distaste before swooning backwards and forwards in a range of exaggerated and contemptuous postures."Get it?" said Chuck with open hostility, before he was back on the shelf. It was a rather uncomfortable moment and cast severe doubt on Strassman'sown fawning assertion later that it was rare to take part in such a worthwhile and thoughtful interview. Strassman's father, who is an eminent Los Angeles psychiatrist, claims that Chuck is his son's alter ego and a vehicle for taboo antisocial behaviour.
What has made Strassman's name as the great moderniser of ventriloquism, however, is that one drunken evening he said to a chum, "Let's put robotics in Chucky." Soon afterwards they sneaked into NASA at 2am where a mutual friend developed the clutch machinery that enabled Chuck to switch from manual to remote control. Now Frankenstein's monster could come alive.
Nowadays there is advance publicity for this electrifying moment, but the very first audience in New York was aghast. After a prolonged row on stage, Chuck shouted, "You're fired, a**hole". Strassman stormed off in a huff, leaving Chuck alone on a stool. The dummy was motionless and the audience awaited Strassman's return, doubtless with a comic punchline. Instead, there was a long pause after which Chuck's eye's suddenly moved. "Has he gone?" the dummy asked menacingly, before entering into a foul-mouthed exchange with a sweet natured bear who also spoke unassisted.
"When Chuck came alive for the first time the audience gasped, and they were literally looking for the exit," Strassman recalls. "I knew I had taken this art form into the 21st century." It was the latest turn in a long and bizarre history.
Ventriloquism started life in ancient societies not as entertainment, but as a mystic practice to get in touch with thedead. In Greece, Africa and even the polar regions, people believe that departed spirits took up residence in the stomachs of prophets from where they foretold the future (the word ventriloquist comes from the Latin term meaning "belly speaker")
From day one the church saw it as the work of the devil, except in France where they were much more relaxed. Cardinal Richelieu even hired a ventriloquist to play a practical joke on a bishop he did not much like. It was not, however, until the 19th century that anyone really began to regard ventriloquism as entertainment. During that period whole stage tableaux were performed with dozens of puppet characters.It was only in 1856, when Fred Russell appeared at the Palace Theatre, London, that anyone thought of conversing a single dummy. Known inevitably as "the father of modern ventriloquism," he invented a style that persists to this day.
Its heyday occurred in the Fifties, when the likes of Edgar Bergen in America and Peter Brough in Britain had, of all things, their own radio series. In Strassman's view there are two reasons for the decline of ventriloquism. Firstly, television showed up their technical limitations: "People could see their lips moving." Secondly, it lacked substance: "Ventriloquism was entertaining, but if left you with nothing. When I see a great play I am moved. I think and ponder life. There is a juggler in the States who juggles with scarves to Bidet's Carmen. It's ballet. That is art. Ventriloquists do not leave you with anything to think about." This is where Strassman comes into the story with plans to be the world's first avant-garde ventriloquist.
Now 40, Strassman divides his time between touring with his act and disappearing to live in the wilderness. "I live in the fast lane: shows, drinks, interviews. What puts me back on my feet is being in the wilderness with no hint of humanity."
He has explored Alaska on his own and lived on an uninhabited island in the Great Barrier Reef with the nearest help 500 miles away (he went with his ex-wife, who he divorced in order to become good friends again). He is happiest sleeping under the stars. "When I am in a desertscape with no humanity that is the true reality - the wind and the plants sitting there for hundreds of years with mountains quietly eroding. All else is a cosmic joke."
In the making of this adventurous ventriloquist, there were two key moments. First, he was taken to Disneyland as a child."I was blown away by the Caribbean rum-running port with electronically moving models. It was my inspiration."
The second was going to a junior school, which rather surprisingly offered ventriloquism as an optional subject. "The special-need teacher had his own dummy." Encouraged by this teacher, Strassman sent away for the cheapest dummy in the mail order catalogue. What arrived through the post was Chuck. "In those days he was called Little Stevie and wore these stupid kiddies' clothes."
His father was not impressed by his theatrical ambitions. "Dad said he would pay for me to go to medical school, but he would not pay for me to be an actor." But faced with his son's persistence, his father enlisted a professor of drama from Chicago to write a review of his talent. Happily, the professor wrote, "He's got what it takes. "And so Strassman went to the American Academy of Dramatic Art.
"I wanted to achieve the highest artist level. I studied Russian theatre and did ballet. Then my dad suggested I pull Chuck out in Central Park. He stood and watched. To the amazement of both father and son he earned $40 from passers-by. "I started working Central Park in the mornings, Wall Street in the lunch hour, Broadway theatre queues in the evening and Greenwich Village at the weekends. I did 50 to 60 shows a week and got paid for it."
It was under these difficult circumstances that Chuck's real character emerged. "Here I learned that Chuck's animosity made people laugh," said Strassman. "It held them spellbound despite all the traffic noise and the drinks and bums."
His plan was to become a serious actor, but then his career took a bizarre turn. My uncle was Eric Fromer, who wrote Europe on $5 a day. He organised a free ticket for me to London." Here Strassman booked in to a backpackers' hotel in Earls Court and was soon earning 40 pounds a night as a street ventriloquist in the West End. The police used to move him on outside the very Apollo Theatre where he started last year. "I would duck into the crowd and, by the time the police had fought their way into the middle, I had disappeared."
At this point his career became seriously romantic. Teaming up with an escapologist, he went to work on the streets of Paris. In no time he was arrested while performing on the Champs Elysees and imprisoned, but escaped: "I just walked out." He worked at a nightclub and moved in with an Australian au pair who barely spoke a word of English." Her room had a view of the rooftops of Paris. It was a golden period".
Eventually the escapologist decided to travel round the world and Strassman went back to America where he slowly but steadily tired of ventriloquism. "I got bored with my art form. I have got to being the middle act of the evening, but no further. I had no hook."So he took a year off to run a comedy club.
He would have abandoned Chuck altogether,but for his drunken evening and the NASA visit. The resulting Puppetronics�, a system for controlling robotics wireless, which Strassman invented, have transformed his act. When I saw his West End show last year, it ended with all his dummies on stage at once: a showbusiness old-timer beaver; three triceratops' the completely dim Ted E. BareTM, Little Ricky, a baby who does not like being patronised and Kevin, a blue an purple, dome-headed alien who eats pizza and is collecting life forms for his specimen tank(he has an aardvark and Hugh Grant so far). Together they sang a show-stopping musical final without Strassman's assistance.
All of this provided Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph's theatre critic, to give Strassman a rare scathing review."What's the point of being a ventriloquist if the puppets move and sing without human assistance?" he asked, reasonably enough, before going onto complain that Strassman "lacks the demon that might make his act genuinely shocking."
At the time Strassman was unruffled by this."I love bad reviews because all I get is the flowing stuff. If I know what people don't like I can learn from it and change my show." And he appears to have just that. He has enlisted Ritch Shydner, a Hollywood comedy writer who worked on Roseanne and numerous other sitcoms, to write a new script for his characters. The show now has a story line in which Chuck sells his soul to the devil and becomes a real person. Strassman hopes soon to have ready a new Puppetronics� Chuck dummy that will change into the appearance of a boy complete with skin pigmentation and spots.
Australia reviews suggest that the new show is blacker and more sophisticated, but it should be darker still. One day Strassman would like Chuck to use an Ouija board on stage and get in touch with the dead. That should be dark enough for anyone, and, when he does this, ventriloquism will have come full circle.