Bill Parker has no illusions about where his show business career is going.
Let's face it, the market for 80-year-old ventriloquist-magicians with faltering stamina is pretty much dried up. Besides, he says, he doesn't have an agent.
But you've got to love this guy. The darling of Leisure World in Seal Beach, Parker started his show business career at 66, as he neared the end of a barbering career that began in 1927.
And, truth be told, the act isn't half bad.
"I almost had to sell my soul to learn this one," he says, working on a rope trick. He cuts the rope into three pieces and knots the loose ends.
"Back in the days of capital punishment, I had a job tying knots," he says. "My customers got all choked up over it."
He's finished tying the knots and reaches for the magic scissors. He taps the rope. And . . . voila! . . the rope is once again whole.
Sensing that he's on a roll, he tries another. "This is one of my best tricks, but I've goofed it up a few times. But I'll try it anyhow."
It's a trick in which he stuffs three colored scarfs into a cylindrical tube. When he pulls them out, they have become a three-petaled flower.
Convinced that the magic act is looking good, Parker picks up Joey Jackson, who has been his silent man for the duration of Parker's show business career, which began on a cold January day in Chicago in 1973.
"I happened to be going past this magic store, and I saw a bunch of dummies in the window," Parker says. "I saw Joey, and I was impressed with him. He was just about what I wanted. He had red hair. He didn't have the cowboy suit. I bought that for him later."
What Parker was looking for was a show business partner--one who could get some laughs but wouldn't give him a lot of guff about his percentage.
People told him that, at 66, he was too old to be starting a new career. But neither Parker nor Joey paid attention. Instead, the two began a beautiful relationship that helped Parker act out a lifelong dream to someday hear the sweet music of applause.
No matter how good a barber he might have been, he never gave a haircut that brought down the house.
"I always wanted to be something more than what I was," Parker says. "Show business was something I wanted to do for my enjoyment, to see if I could do it. All my life I was kind of tired of being a nobody."
So, he exchanged scissors and razors for magic rings and flags that turned into canes. And for Joey, who turned out to be a bit of a wise guy.
"I've got a lot of pretty girls on the string," Parker says to Joey.
"String? They should be on a leash," Joey says.
"But what about that young girl I picked up hitchhiking?" Parker says.
"Are you sure she wasn't chasing cars?" Joey says.
Parker tells Joey that he was carved from wood. From a birch tree, in fact. Joey doesn't see the punch line coming. "You know what that makes you?" Parker says. "A son of a birch."
On the other hand, Joey has gotten a fair measure of revenge.
"Everybody, especially the school kids, knows Joey, but they forget my name. No kidding."
Undaunted, Parker keeps working on the act. The pencil mustache still looks good and the old brain still cooks up the jokes in the middle of conversations. The ventriloquism is a little tough.
"I try to have Joey's voice in the back of my throat," he says. "I try to hold my lips still, but did you notice I moved them a little?"
The visitor didn't really notice.
Parker was talking about his first job--at a halfway house for mentally retarded people ("There was one gal there, every time I did a trick, she kept telling me how I did it.")
And although "the nightclub business went to hell about the time I got started," one night in Chicago a friend who had a small nightclub told Parker he needed a replacement. And quick. Parker stood in with his new act and made $50.
"I just decided I wasn't going to be nervous," he says. "You're standing up in front of audiences cutting hair. You got a man in the chair and four or five guys waiting, some of them are watching. I was a little afraid at the start, but I decided to bury it. Somebody told me that all it took was the guts to get up there and do it."
Parker's barbering career ended in 1974, a year after his show business career began. In 1976, he moved to Leisure World, where he still cuts an occasional head of hair. Parker has had three wives, all now dead. His love is show business.
These days, he averages about four engagements a month, playing for the multitude of clubs at Leisure World and for other organizations. But the strain of coming up with ever-changing material is taking its toll.
"I like what I'm doing, but it's hard to get all this stuff together," he says. "It takes me two or three days to write up a new script. Plus, I don't have the stamina anymore. Eighty years old is eighty years old."
He pauses for a second.