And now (after a slight lapse of seven years) the adventures of Senor Wences:
Pedro still anchors the act. Remember Pedro? He's the head in the box. Come on, you remember. Everyone loves Pedro, except Jerry Lewis, who was terrified of him. "Get that thing away from me," he'd say.
The funny thing is that Pedro started out with a body. He lost it in a train crash. Really. Pedro was in the baggage car, which was demolished. Senor Wences looked at the wreckage and wondered what to do. Here he was about to open in Chicago. Wences went on stage with a green box and opened the top and said, "Are you all right?" There was Pedro. "S'all right," he said gruffly. The audience laughed. And Senor Wences said, "Very good." The rest is ventriloquistic history.
Moral: If you meet adversity, try using your head.
Yes, Senor Wences is back. Did you notice he was gone? No matter. He's back and he's all right. S'all right? Okay. In his last American jaunt, Senor Wences did the Ed Sullivan show 48 times. He was on plenty of other shows too: Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Perry Como, Jack Benny, all the big ones. But people would always say to him: "I saw you on Sullivan." To Americans, that's his identity, that guy who was on Sullivan. To the French, he's the guy from the Crazy Horse Saloon, which is where he's worked for the last seven years. Things got slow here so he went back to Europe.
Wences has been all over the world in his time. In Hollywood, a few weeks ago, Robert Morley marched up to him backstage at a TV show and said: "I remember you. I remember you quite well from the PALLADIUM (in London). Man in the box. You're a genius and so am I." Then he walked away.
Actually, that's more of a Robert Morley story than a Senor Wences story, but that, too, is all right.
"Never a joke," Senor Wences insists. "No jokes in my act." Not the usual sort anyway. The act consists mainly of polite snippets of conversation among Wences, who speaks in a heavily accented whisper that is often unintelligible, and his characters, some of whom are just disembodied voices coming out of a telephone or no place in particular. What makes any of it funny is difficult to explain, but it is. It has something to do with rhythm and timing. It's a kind of verbal comic opera, with voices of varying pitch bouncing back and forth in sublimely silly harmony.
His catch phrase - "S'all right? S'all right" - is capable of penetrating the subconscious in some mysterious way. "Easy for you, defficult for me," is another Wencesism a lot of people remember, although they may not have heard him say it in a decade. Everything in his act came out in front of the audience, he says. It all developed on stage.
In his apartment, he has with him Cecelia, a chicken. He says that Cecelia has been getting funnier all the time. He shows her an egg. "This is your son or your daughter?" he asks.
"How do you know?"
"I know my business."
Senor Wences laughs."It is very, very funny," he says. (This is a translation from the Wencean tongue. What he really said was, "EES very, very sonny.") Wences knows his business too, and he's right. Is very, very funny, okay?
Wences has done the act in French, Spanish, Portuguese and more. Sometimes in mixtures. "Oui and yes mean the same thing, you understand?" he says to a dummy, who replies,"Si, Senor." His wife, Talie, short for Natalie, speaks English better than he does. Her father was English, her mother Russian and she grew up in Germany and France. She met Wences in San Francisco in 1940. She was half of a dance team and they were in the same show. They disliked each other and never talked.
But when they met accidentally in New York a year later, things went better. Talie eventually gave up dancing. "She's my secretary and agent," says Wences. "And cook," says Talie. She had trouble learning Spanish (the language they now converse in) from Wences' brother who taught her all the dirty words first.
King Farouk loved Wences. So did Richard Nixon. Wences played for three presidents. But he bombed in Finland. Eight languages and six voices weren't enough. He knew he was in trouble when he went to the restaurant before his show. He wanted a glass of milk but they didn't understand. So he took out a pen and drew a cow. The waiter nodded and went away. He brought Wences a steak.
After that it was all downhill.
Finnish laughing? He thought they'd never start.
Yes, Senor Wences is really back. He and Talie got themselves an apartment on West 55th Street, about two blocks from the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway. He's hitting the talk shows (Carson had to open the box and say, "All right?"). He's got some commercials lined up and a gig in Atlantic City. He's doing all right.
The act looks much the same. Senor Wences looks much the same.
There are a couple of new characters and of course, Cecelia, who is getting funnier, but the mainstays are Pedro and Johnny. Johnny is the little boy with the blond hair. His face is drawn on Wences' hand.His jaw is Wences' thumb. Buttons for the eyes. The juggling is back too. Plates are likely to spin atop sticks. Rubber balls may circle Wences'n head at any time.
Senor Wences was not always a juggling ventriloquist, although he has been one for a very long time. Hard as it may be to believe, he started as a bullfighter. "My style in the bullfight was very quiet, very elegant," he says. He fought 300 bulls and lost four. He can show you the scars. "I have here, here, here and bigger one is here," he points out. The worst goring put his hand out of commission. The doctor told him to exercise it.
Wences had two friends who juggled in the circus so he began juggling with them for his exercise. After a while, not only was his hand better but his juggling was better than that of his friends. He went back to the bulls but then in 1922 he was called into the army for three years. When discharged, he was out of condition for the Corrida. The matadors he'd started training with had advanced to bigger bulls and Wences was cowed. So he gave up bullfighting and joined the circus. Soon he was on his own, touring Argentina as a vaudevillian.
Senor Wences was playing Vegas about 10 years ago when a woman stopped him as he walked, through the Tropicana Casino. She recognized him from the show and thought maybe he could change her luck on the slots, okay? Wences said s'all right. He went to her machine and rapped his knuckles on it and said, "Are you ready?" The machine answered, "Ready." Wences dropped a coin and yanked.
Later, the manager wanted to see Wences. He was to refrain from conversing with the slot machines.
Wences grew up in the university town of Salamanca in the early years of the century. (How old are you, Senor? "Heh, heh, heh, don't tell me that.") His name was Wenceslao Moreno. People called him Wences. His father was a musician in the theater. "When I was a boy, I was very mischievous boy." He was doing voices from the start. In school, he would answer the roll call in the voices of absent classmates. When he and his brother played hooky, Wences called up the teacher and imitated his father, saying that his sons were home sick. Once he was caught cutting up and the teacher punished him by making him fill all the pens. Wences got ink all over his hands and turned his hand into a face. Thus was born Johnny, or Juanito as he was first known.
Johnny is mischievous too. He always talks back, Talie says. "He is what Wences used to be when he was a little boy."
Despite Johnny's mischief and Pedro's macabre aspect, the act exudes gentleness. So many ventriloquists vent hostility through their snapping dummies. Wences and his charges are full of politeness, full of "thank you, very nice, okay. Geev me nice kiss, eh?"
But one incident got Senor Wences mad. It involved Muhammad Ali, who once grabbed Johnny's inert form backstage and asked, "What's that?"
Ventriloquists and magicians, you never touch their props uninvited.
"Don't touch that!" Wences yelled at the champ. "If you do that again, I'll kill you."
Ali backed off: "Who, me?"
On March 15, one thing is sure. Senor Wences will be in [WORD ILLEGIBLE] near a stream. That's when the trout season opens in Spain. He's a dedicated fisherman. The trout are tricky but at least they can't gore him. And if any kids happen to come around to watch the bony old man, do not be surprised if the fish suddenly begin talking to them in high, whispery voices. This is the kind of thing that happens with Wences around.
Understand? Si, senor.