My First Ventriloquist Instructor
Jimmy Nelson is the first ventriloquist who put out an actual recorded training series that you could purchase. Years ago, Dick Clark and Ed McMahon had a tv show that was centered around commercials and in one episode, they showed an old black and white commercial for Nestle that featured Jimmy Nelson and two of his most famous characters, Danny O’Day and Farfel the dog. I believe that was the first time I realized that puppets weren’t just for Sesame Street.
Jimmy Nelson was born in 1928 in Chicago. He tells the story that when he was around ten years old, his aunt won a toy ventriloquist's dummy named "Dummy Dan" once when playing bingo and gave it to him as a Christmas gift. This started him on his journey of ventriloquism, and a year later, the single string and loop mechanism started wearing out so his father upgraded the dummy's mouth control to a lever-system like those used in most professional dummies today.
Nelson would take "Dan" to his fourth grade class where his teacher would allow him time to use the dummy when he had to deliver oral reports in front of the class. By doing this, Jimmy taught himself how to overcome his fear of public speaking. It wasn't long before he realized that he could use comedy to make the kids (and the teacher) laugh, so that led to his improv.
He then started performing for church groups, his entire school, other schools and American Legion posts. By the time he was a teenager, he actually started earning money by competing in amateur talent shows held at local movie theatres, where the prize was five dollars for the most popular act.
Obviously, “Dan” later became the famous Danny O’Day. Well, in character development only. The original Dan was retired after Jimmy had the famous vent figure maker, Frank Marshal, to make him a more professional quality vent doll based on the original. As a type of respect for his original dummy, he modified the name.
Not familiar with the name? Most aren’t. I may do a blog about him later, let me know your thoughts. In short, Marshal is the creator of many professional vent dolls that are world famous.
Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy and Paul Winchell’s Jerry Mahoney dolls, just to name a few.
A little side note about the name Danny O’Day; one of the reasons for the name is that it didn’t contain any of the difficult consonants that are hard to say without moving our lips like M, P, B, etc.
Farfel the Dog
Farfel came about strictly by happenstance. One night, Nelson was performing at a club in Kansas when he came across a stuffed dog that someone had left on the back of a piano, so he picked it up and improvised a voice and an impromptu skit that worked out so well, Jimmy went back to Marshal with his character idea and Farfel was born.
Nelson was a regular in the 50’s on shows like the Texaco Star Theatre, The Milton Berle Show, game shows like Bank on the Stars and later became the face of Nestle Quik. He won his audition by simply singing their new catch jingle in Danny O’Day’s voice. Later, he put in an impromptu voice of Farfel singing “Choc-O-late.
Where is he now?
He is retired and living in Florida with his wife Betty. But he makes it out to events, one of which, this year, is the Vent Haven ConVENTion at the Cincinnati Airport Holiday Inn. I hope to get to speak with him this year, but he is usually swamped by fans, which is understandable. He is an awesome man to know. You can actually find bootlegged versions of his old training album online. I may do a video series re-introducing them to new fans.