Only once in the years that ventriloquist Willie Tyler has been performing with his dummy, Lester, did he think he might be hearing things from his partner without having spoken himself.

"It happened only for a brief instant," Tyler said. "I had been doing a lot of traveling and shows and was staying at the Hyatt-Regency in Chicago and Lester was in his case alongside the bed.

"Before turning in I tuned into one of those pay TV movies and promptly went to sleep.

"I have no idea how long it was when I woke to the sounds of a voice in the room, had forgotten about the TV, sat up to lean over and look at Lester, and realized it was vacation time for me."

Tyler was in Washington for one guest performance with the U.S. Air Force Band at the DAR Constitution Hall yesterday.

"I don't plan on doing anything political, nor topical," said the ventriloquist, who describes himself as "thirtyish," before the act. "I'll just stay with my tried and true performance, an opening, a middle and an ending."

Lester, a wooden dummy with an Afro, has several changes of clothes and headgear ranging from a cowboy hat to a Donegal cap.

"I have trouble when I send his clothes to the cleaners," Tyler said. "The cleaners think they are doing me a favor and sew the slit up the back that I have to slip my hand into to make him work."

On stage, the act is a potpourri of quick jokes, based on the audience of the evening. The lines he uses if he performs with a rock group are different from those for say, a country and western show. Although he writes about 75 percent of his own material, he also uses the well-tested old comedy routines like Abbott and Costello's "who's on first, what's on second, he's on third" bit and sometimes goes to the borderline risque.

Unlike most ventriloquists, Tyler doesn't refer to himself and his partner as "we."

Lester, the dummy, or "figure" as Tyler prefers to call him, remained somewhere in his trunk backstage while Tyler put things in their proper perspective. The great Edgar Bergen, on the other hand, treated his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, almost as a human being, even giving him his own room.

Quietly becoming America's foremost ventriloquist, Tyler and the 42-inch-tall Lester have appeared on numerous talk shows and TV specials and were regulars on NBC's "Laugh-In" and guests on "The Jeffersons."

Tyler expands his act by singing his own compositions and recently discovered another hidden talent when he played a hospitalized paraplegic veteran in the movie "Coming Home."

"I had to spend all my time in a wheelchair," recalled Tyler. "I performed ventriloquism in the film only it wasn't Lester, but instead a Vietnamese figure."

A native of Detroit, Tyler began practicing throwing his voice when he was 10, using one of his sisters' dolls as his dummy.

"I read in an ad in a Popular Mechanics magazine," Tyler said. "'Learn to be a ventriloquist in five easy lessons,' so I sent for it and began practicing in front of a mirror.

"When my parents realized I was serious, they ordered a figure from a New Jersey supply house -- it was a Jerry Mahoney figure [Paul Winchell's dummy], so I painted the face black for my act." The name Lester came from his brother, who said the figure looked like a boy in his class named Lester.

The two began playing the amateur circuit around Michigan, and both went into the Air Force together where they worked entertaining servicemen.

Once out of the service, Tyler played the small clubs until an executive from Motown Records discovered him and signed him to a contract.

"When I think of it now," he said, "that first figure maybe cost my parents $19.95. Today it would cost maybe $99.95."

Tyler lives in Hollywood with his wife, Elaine, and two sons, spent nine months on the road last year and said, "My sons have Lester in a proper perspective. He has no special privileges at home, no room of his own or anything like that."

He doesn't plan on adding another figure to his act and plans on keeping His one character very versatile.

"People are always suggesting I get Lester a little wooden girlfriend," Tyler said. "But he doesn't like the wooden ones, he likes the real ones."