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FIXATIONS : A Few Wood Men

February 10, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — I am a calm professional. I am a calm professional. This is a good phrase to repeat if you're ever stuck in a mobile home next to a bed loaded with 25 ventriloquist's dummies, some with moving eyes, no less, accompanied by their 6-foot-7 owner, Glenn James, who sounds disconcertingly like Woody Woodpecker when he laughs.

I've seen the "Twilight Zone" where the dummy drives Cliff Robertson insane, thank you, as well as similar scenarios with Michael Redgrave in "Dead of Night" and Anthony Hopkins in "Magic." These dummies can be evil . The most disturbing thing about Trailer No. 9, where James lives, is that he has 50 dummies, which left 25 of them out of sight that could conceivably be sneaking up from behind.

Meanwhile, on James' TV, it's all puppets, all the time. His VCR was airing eerie black and white footage of a ventriloquist museum in Kentucky, which has 500 vintage dummies, seated in row after row of old movie theater seats. Then his TV showed a commercial for "Magic," with a dummy so malevolent the ad was pulled off the air. Then there were shots from James' own in-production gore-fest "Devil Dolls," showing an archetypal "foxy woman in the tub while the little wooden hand reaches for the latch" scene.

"They can be scary," James said of the wood, plaster and plastic characters he's collected for the past 13 years. "Most kids I've showed these dummies to won't even get near them. I brought this big wooden one over to a friend's house, and this kid there came unglued, just crying 'Noooooooo . . . ' And my girlfriend tells me to put them away. She doesn't really like them too much."

James, 29, has been fascinated with dummies since he saw a few episodes of the "Winchell-Mahoney Time" television show in its final season in 1968, and was captivated by the humor and skill of master ventriloquist Paul Winchell and his wooden characters Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smith.

"I was 5 years old and it just stuck in my head, those two dummies fighting and throwing spaghetti at each other. Then I found out later that they'd had Jerry Mahoney dummies in stores once but they'd been discontinued in 1965. I started hunting, and it just took me forever--until 1980--to find one. I paid $10 for it at the La Mirada Swap Meet and it just got me hooked. I started going to every swap meet I could every weekend. When I buy one--I don't know--there's just something about the way Jerry Mahoney looks that makes me want to buy another one."

Many of his dummies are valued from $200 to $1,900 in toy collector mags, though most of them were swap meet bargains for him, picked up for $5 or $10. The most he ever paid was $100 for a rare make of Mahoney dummy. He had been discussing dummies one day with a co-worker on a construction job (and you thought all construction guys talked about was women and beer) and the fellow said, "Oh, I got one of those things" and had his mom ship it down from Portland, still in the original box.

His rarest dummy is a 1940 wooden handmade professional model made by Fred Peterson, one of the minor lights of the craft. Where Peterson's carvings were custom-made for aspiring young 'quists at about $200 a pop, the dean of the dummy makers was Frank Marshall. He made the biggest dummies in the business, Edgar Bergen's Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd and Winchell's Mahoney and Knucklehead. An original Marshall, not counting his priceless stars, can go for $30,000.

With the exception of the handmade Peterson, James' dummies are all mass-produced copies. Once the "voice-throwing" craft was popular enough for the dummies to occupy their own page in the Sears-Roebuck catalogue. Moving eyes were an option for $5 extra. James' newer dolls have plastic heads, while older ones are made of fired clay and straw composition. "Here, feel the difference," he said, and suddenly I was patting dummy heads.

James has McCarthy and Snerd dummies, but he doesn't have the highest regard for their boss. Edgar Bergen, he asserts, "moved his lips," which are fighting words in ventriloquist circles, one supposes.

James instead favors Winchell. One of his most valued things is a videotape of the few surviving snippets of the "Winchell-Mahoney Time" shows. They appear to be only legacy of the program, since the master tapes of all 62 episodes were negligently erased by a storage vault in 1981. To hear James describe it, one would think this was an artistic crime ranking alongside the destruction of the original 1924 cut of Erich von Stroheim's "Greed."

"To me Winchell was the ventriloquist, and he was forgotten about. You can go to the toy store and buy Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, but you can't buy Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead, and I think by far they were funnier," James said, his voice raising in indignation. "Remember when they used to fight, Jerry and Knucklehead? All the time they were throwing food at each other. They were great."

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