How long have you been doing ventriloquism?
When I was a little kid, my mother got me a Charlie McCarthy and a Howdy Doody [doll]. I got the Edgar Bergen albums and I studied those. Then the dog ate Howdy Doody and Charlie McCarthy went to a friend's house and never came back -- so I gave it up. I did a little standup in the '80s, and then I became a dental technician. Years went by, and as a joke Christmas gift, my wife bought me a little Howdy Doody. Then a month later, I bought an $800 wooden ventriloquist puppet and I got into again. Now I'm going to the national ventriloquist conventions.
Is that a roomful of people carrying dolls and talking in double voices?
There are classes, like gospel puppetry, the proper ways of talking to children, how to make puppets, improving techniques, how to write comedy. You have to keep going, because things change.
How hard is it to learn the technique?
A lot of people are technical sticklers, but I like to operate in the middle. The voice part is easy once you learn it -- setting your teeth, knowing what words and sounds to substitute. Plus if you're doing good, they're looking at the puppet, not you.
How many puppets do you have?
About 28 puppets, half of them I made myself. I like making my own, because I come up with these characters. I call my outfit "Burghers" because a lot of the puppets are people from the 'Burgh -- like Stash.
Tell me about Stash.
Stash is Slovak for Stan, and he's a mill hunky. I grew up in West Mifflin by Kennywood Park, and there were mills everywhere. Stash was derived from a local bar, based on some guy who used to sit next to me. He was a Steelers fan -- he knew all about the game, the players and the old players from the '70s. Now Stash drives a beer truck for Iron City. He has hair in his nose and in his ears. A beater undershirt. A driver's tan on one arm. And plaque between his teeth from chewing tobacco. And he speaks Pittsburghese.
People must get a kick out of him.
When I bring out Stash, I don't even have to say anything to get people's attention -- the Steelers thing is so embedded in Pittsburgh. I've got fancy puppets with all kinds of fancy controls, but Stash, who's just made of foam rubber, terry cloth and kid's clothing, gets a bigger reaction because he's a 'Burgh guy. Stash is more for when I do an improv night or a restaurant. I have routines for him, but they're definitely not for children. Not over-the-edge horrible, just what I heard growing up.
What other puppets do you have?
Everybody loves the Grandpa one. He's my father, everything my father did that was funny. And the adults in nursing homes like him too, because I can talk about the good old days just from stories I have from my family. Another puppet is like Mister Potato Head with features that Velcro off and on -- kids love that. There's Mr. Petri -- he's the old CMU professor kind of guy. I have Tang, who's a retired space monkey who smokes -- he's just totally against what you'd think an astronaut would be. I also have an angry orange traffic cone that complains about traffic.
Is it hard to speak for two people?
You're thinking two conversations all the time. Some of these puppets -- they'll say something I would never say. Honest to God, I don't know if it's the left-brain, right-brain thing happening ... the puppet will just blurt something out. I know it sounds weird, but that's true. It usually happens when I get on a roll, and the routine just actually takes control of itself. It's like my head is a Rolodex, and sometimes the wrong card flies out. But audiences laugh if the puppet says it.