Wednesday 24 January 2018

Before He Tried to Stop That Pigeon

It can be a little surprising to discover how far back some entertainers go. To the right you see a picture of Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney. It’s from Showman’s Trade Review of July 8, 1939 in reference to a feature movie the two had appeared in. Winchell would have been 16.

Leafing through columns, photos and stories in old newspapers and trade papers, it’s interesting to see that Winchell was in constant demand. He never appears to have been unemployed. He continually appeared in nightclubs or theatre revues to very favourable reviews. In the early ‘40s, he toured with Phil Harris when the Jack Benny radio show was on summer hiatus and appeared with him at the Wilshire Bowl. In 1943, he landed two regular spots on the Mutual Broadcasting System; one was his own show (Mondays, 9:30-10) and the other with Beatrice Kay (Saturdays, 8:30-9). He hit the road with Sammy Kaye and was a regular on his radio show in the mid-’40s. And in 1948, when there were maybe 12 stations across the U.S., Winchell got his first network TV series. He stayed on the tube regularly into the 1960s.

I suppose it isn’t much of a shock, but almost every story I’ve found about Winchell in the first decade or so contains the words “Edgar Bergen.” I wonder how tough it was on Winchell to constantly be compared to him. Not only were they both ventriloquists, they and their dummies both hosted TV quiz shows. And while Winchell later tried to stop a pigeon as Dick Dastardly for Hanna-Barbera, and provided other voices for cartoons, Bergen tried to get into animation with a Charlie McCarthy cartoon made by Bob Clampett in the early ‘60s; the series didn’t sell.

Here’s a feature story about Winchell from April 5, 1951 from The American Weekly, a newspaper magazine supplement. Among other things, it points out Winchell was well aware of how to market his assets.
How Paul Winchell Got Into Television

TWELVE-YEAR-OLD Paul Winchell, standing before his principal in New York's School of Industrial Arts, trembled slightly. He'd been summoned.
"What is this I hear about you and a dummy?" the principal, George Gombarts, asked.
"Yes, sir, I have one, sir," Paul answered. "I made it in art class."
"But you make it talk, too. You didn't learn that there."
"No sir, I sent away for a booklet on how to become a ventriloquist."
The principal's words then became both kindly and thrilling. We told the boy that he had heard of his talent and that Paul was to have a chance to win $100 on what was then called Major Bowes' Amateur Hour. It was a great sum in Paul's mind, for his father, a tailor in New York's lower East Side, made only about $15 a week and on it supported his wife and three children.
"I'll do my best," Paul said. A little later on the amateur hour his best was so good that he won the $100 and went on tour with Major Bowes at $75 a week. ON A recent Monday night in New York, after the regular weekly telecast of "What's My Name?" a popular television show starring Paul and Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, his former principal, retired now, visited him backstage.
"I guess you were right when you said you were going to the top," he said to the 27-year-old star, who last year was reputed to have earned $250,000 from television and revenues from Jerry Mahoney by-products such as dolls, T-shirts, key chains and sweaters. Paul, however, didn't go quickly to the top. He has come to popularity by a long, hard way.
After eight months with the Bowes troupe, he went to Hollywood and there for five years he lived a hand-to-mouth existence. From one furnished room to another, he limped (a handicap left by infantile paralysis), carrying Jerry in an aging suitcase, but he never lost hope.
JUST LET me do my act," he pleaded once with the proprietor of a Los Angeles nightclub. "Don't pay me anything but if you think I'm good throw this silver dollar—it's my last—to me."
The proprietor at the right time tossed in the silver dollar and after it came the patter of patrons' coins. Every night for two weeks the money rained down. The tide in the affairs of Paul Winchell was rising and for both himself and Jerry he bought a new suit. Thus they appeared at a Hollywood benefit. After the performance, Ted Weems sought them out.
"I'll pay you $175 a week to go on the road with my band," he said to Paul. "Is that enough?"
"I'd have gone for $50," Paul told The American Weekly recently.
"That was the beginning of my luck. After that I was always working, in nightclubs, theatres and on the radio."
In 1945 he married the former, Dorothy Morse, a pretty blond singer. They have a daughter, Stephanie, nearing five years old.
He has bought his father a home in Los Angeles and the elder Winchell's only tailoring now is for Jerry. He has made all of that remarkable fellow's 35 suits. The Winchell debut in television came near being a catastrophe. Three years ago he was asked to audition for a program planned by Joseph Dunninger, the mind reader and magician. A film recording of several scenes with Jerry was made, as a screen test for the sponsor's approval.
When Paul went into the projection room to see it, he was aghast. The photography was fine; his voice came across perfectly, but Jerry's voice was a series of croaks. For some reason, it seemed, Jerry's voice didn't register.
HASTILY Paul arranged to do a guest appearance with Jerry on a friend's television show to prove that he really could make Jerry's voice come through. The telecast began. A signal came from the engineer's booth. It had happened again—Jerry's voice was a croak.
Panic - stricken, Paul felt his whole prospective TV career vanishing. Then he saw the reason for his dilemma.
When he talked the movable microphone was over his head, but when he appeared to throw his voice and Jerry appeared to talk, the dummy and its illusion of speech were so real that unthinkingly the sound man had put the microphone over Jerry's head.
Paul signaled the sound man to keep the instrument over him. The trouble was over. For the first time, televiewers then heard the uninhibited Jerry Mahoney, who once called President Truman "Prez."
PAUL (who is not related to Walter Winchell, the columnist) explained to the sponsors of the Dunninger program and he and Jerry were hired, they became so popular that 100 Jerry Mahoney fan clubs were organized and more than 200,000 Mahoney dolls were sold to junior ventriloquists.
NBC-TV put Paul and Jerry under exclusive contract for 52 weeks a year for five years and last fall starred the pair on their own program, "What's My Name?" sponsored by Speidel Watch Bands. Besides his routines with Jerry, in which the dummy sings, dances and asks questions, Paul does a dramatic act each week Often in the studio audience is his No. 1 fan, George Gombarts, the school principal, who gave him his start.
Winchell visited many hospital wards during his nightclubbing days performing at bedsides for children, especially ones with polio. He also recorded a different kind of children’s record. “Mother Goose Songs of Democracy” is what educator Dr. Louis Untermeyer called “Little Songs on Big Subjects.” They were 12, one-minute jingles on interracial understanding and religious toleration. They won a Peabody Citation and a number of other awards.

The subject was right up the alley of liberal newspaper PM which wrote about Winchell’s recording session in its Sunday magazine section “Picture News” on January 4, 1948. It features another version of the “microphone” story.
Thackstage with a dummy that can't spell
IN CASE we ever become a ventriloquist the visit we had with voice-thrower Paul Winchell, the other day, should be highly profitable; if not, we shall simply count the time spent as entertainment. For that matter, Winchell told us, he had never expected to become a ventriloquist. A commercial artist, yes. A sculptor, yes. But a ventriloquist!
In 11 seconds we had the fruits of Winchell's 11 years of double-talking: how to avoid labial sounds by using substitutes. Thack-stage sounded like back-stage. Without involving the lips, and instead of very good, we learned to say 'ery good which sounded good enough.
Actually, we had not bargained for a ventriloquism lesson; our reason for visiting the Dynamic Recording Studios on West 57th Street was to watch Winchell and his dummy Jerry Mahoney record a group of little songs we had heard over WNEW last year — The Mother Goose Songs of Democracy, by Hy Zaret and Lou Singer.
Winchell, good-looking, curly-haired and young, dangled his cow-eyed dummy on his knee, as he ran through the songs. As he sang he nodded his head toward Jerry in emphasis:
No type of blood is better,
No type of blood is best,
Each type of blod
[sic] is just as good
Not better than the rest.*

* Copyright, 1947, Argosy Music Corp., N. Y.
Lou Singer, the composer of the tune, played it on the piano while Hy Zaret nodded approval from the control booth.
Winchell interrupted himself to dear his throat.
"I mean, it's so early in the morning. He can't sing at this hour," said Jerry.
Why did he use the dummy here without an audience when only his two voices were needed, we asked.
“It helps to give the feeling," he said. "He creates a feeling and a mood, and I get better dialog that way. He's the most important — why he's the apple of my eye—" He turned the dummy's head toward him.
“Yes, and the lettuce in your wallet, too," cracked the dummy.
Recently, at a broadcast, Winchell was being interviewed with Jerry Mahoney. The lady interviewer kept sticking the mike in front of the dummy's face whenever Winchell threw his voice. Even in the studio, we noticed, our eyes turned to Jerry whenever his master spoke. That, Winchell pointed out, was one of the things that ventriloquists relied upon: the audience watched the dummy instead of the speaker.
Encouraged by principal
There was nothing about ventriloquism that practice and experience couldn't master, he said encouragingly. He learned the essentials from a mail-order course, by sending a dime for it when he was a kid attending the Manhattan School of Industrial Arts; he made a dummy head in his sculpture class and he got his patter out of old joke books. Most of his talents were used to plug candidates in the school elections. He gave us a sample:
"Kids, if you want to be intelligent, vote for Herbert Goldstein for president of the GO. He won't give you a raw deal."
The principal of the school heard about Winchell and suggested that he try out for Major Bowes program—and it would be nice it be mentioned the name of the school on the air. The principal himself made a wig for the dummy, and at the age of 14 Winchell crashed into radio.
Lou Singer ripped off a few bars of Brown-Skinned Cow, and Winchell and Jerry sang the little plea for racial understanding, plus a dialog of their own to the effect that, brown cow or white, the color of the milk they gave was the same. These records, Winchell said when he had run through the chorus, would be released by Public Service Records and he would sing the songs whenever he made an "in person" visit to schools, hospitals and department stores while he was on tour. He did quite a bit of hospital work, generally in the wards, because he could carry his act with him from bed to bed.
For young audiences he still used some of the stuff that entertained his friends in high school — he pointed to a card on Jerry's back, listing the jokes. We picked one out: Shape of Earth. What was that we asked.
"Jerry, what is the shape of the earth?" he demanded. Jerry rolled his enormous eyes and his wooden head.
"I dunno."
"Think, Jerry." Jerry looked blank. "I’ll give you a hint. What's the shape of my wife's earrings?"
"That's easy. They're square."
"No, no. Those are her every-day earrings.”
“What shape are her Sunday earrings?”
“That's it. Now, what's the shape of the earth?"
"Square on week days. Round on Sundays.”
We looked at the card again, and pointed to the word A-L-P-H-E-B-E-T. That should have been an A we corrected. Winchell nodded. A-L-P-H-A-B-E-T, of course.
Then he slapped Jerry on the head.
"He wrote it," he said.
As Daffy Duck once complained, “Comedy! Always comedy!” Winchell decided he wanted to show he was more than a puppet’s straight-man. He incorporated dramatic sketches into his 1953-54 NBC Sunday night series sponsored by Procter and Gamble—Neil and Danny Simon (and animator Leo Salkin) wrote for him. It didn’t end happily. He bailed on the show five weeks early to do nightclub gigs. The following season, he was plunked into a Saturday morning kids show and a children’s entertainer he remained for most of the rest of his TV career. Winchell was much more than an entertainer, children’s or otherwise. You can read about that in another of Mark Evanier’s fine, first-hand remembrances on his website. Winchell died on June 24, 2005.


  1. Edgar Bergen did have one foray into animation - he narrated "Mickey and the Beanstalk" (and starred in a live-action segment) for Disney's Fun and Fancy Free (1947).

    1. Bergen also served as host for "One Hour in Wonderland" along with Charley McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.

  2. Fascinatin' stuff, Yowp! That photo of Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney from 1939, shows an early design of the dummy that looks more like Jimmy Nelson's creation, "Danny O'Day". The puppet maker Frank Marshall in Chicago, made both dummies and also sculpted Charlie McCarthy for Edgar Bergen. I'll bet he also did the dummies of Mortimer Snerd, Effie Clinker and Nucklehead Smiff. He sculpted the beloved "Farfel", Jimmy Nelson's Nestle dog. Jimmy Nelson is still around, living in Florida, born in 1928.

    1. Charlie McCarthy was made from a duplicarver master in the Mack shop. Although Marshall claimed to have carved him (he worked for Mack for a time), the times of his employment and Charlie's creation do not seem to match. He did not create Mortimer, Effie, or Knucklehead. Virginia Curtis sculpted, molded and cast Mortimer and Winch made Knuck.

  3. He also invented those razors--you know, that you shave with then dispose of--I use 'em every morning.

    And for emercencies..rare artificial heart.:) I wish he'd been in animation going back to the theatrical days.:)SC

    1. Yes, He was *much* more than a children's entertainer. Many pokers in the fire. My dad told me about Winchell and the artificial heart. He would point that out whenever Paul was on television. I also remember Winchell(Tigger) and character actor John Fiedler ( Piglet ) passed one day a part.

  4. A brilliant but reportedly very strange and tormented man. His daughter has plenty to say on the subject.