Paul Winchell was one of the first entertainers that I connected with at young age. Born Paul Wilchinsky on December 21, 1922, was an American ventriloquist, comedian, actor, voice artist, humanitarian, and inventor whose career flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. From 1950 to 1954, he was the host of The Paul Winchell Show, which also used two other titles during its prime time run on NBC, The Speidel Show, and What's My Name?. From 1965–1968, Winchell hosted the children's television series, Winchell-Mahoney Time, with Mahoney being one of his most well known characters in his vent career.
WInchell, or Winch as he was nicknamed started his love of entertaining at the ripe old age of 13 when he contracted polio. While recovering, he happened upon a magazine advertisement offering a ventriloquism kit for ten cents. Back at school, he asked his art teacher if he could receive class credit for creating a ventriloquist's dummy and that was the birth of one of the most memorable Winchell creations, Jerry Mahoney. Winchell went back to reading magazines, gathering jokes from them and putting together a comedy routine, which he then took to the Major Bowes Amateur Hour in 1938, winning first prize. A touring offer, playing various theaters with the Major Bowes Review, was part of the prize. The rest is history.
Winchell's most successful TV show, however, was Winchell-Mahoney Time from 1965 to 1968, a children's show written by his wife, actress Nina Russel. Winchell played several onscreen characters, including Knucklehead Smiff's father, Bonehead Smiff. He also played himself as friend and adult advisor to Mahoney and Smiff. He can also be credited for creating a common puppet entertainment that is still used today, a similar character is used on the animated series of Gumball. His character was named "Mr. Goody-good," created by painting eyes and a nose on his chin, covering his face with a small costume, then having the camera image inverted. The resulting Humpty Dumpty looking character seemed to have an immensely wide mouth and a highly mobile head. Winchell created this illusion by moving his chin back and forth.
Winchell was upset with being tossed around and pigeon holed as filler media that he started trying to negotiate with Metromedia in 1970 to syndicate the 305 color segments of the show" but when nothing came of it he offered to purchase the tapes outright for $100,000. Metromedia responded with an outrageous ultimatum to keep the lion share of the syndications by making WInchell agree on a syndication plan based on their terms or the tapes would be destroyed.
When Winchell did not agree, Metromedia carried out with its threat and the tapes were erased and destroyed, all 305 full colored (still a somewhat pricey process at the time) episodes. This is why I always tell my students to hold on to creative copyright for anything you create. Winchell sued Metromedia and in 1986 was awarded $3.8 million for the value of the tapes and $14 million in punitive damages against Metromedia. Metromedia appealed the award all the way to the Supreme Court but thankfully was unsuccessful, thus losing them a few more million which served them right.
Winchell's last regular on-camera TV appearances working with his puppets was a show called Storybook Squares, a children's version of the celebrity game show Hollywood Squares which was seen Saturday mornings on NBC during the 1969 TV season, and Runaround, another children's TV game show seen Saturday mornings on NBC from September 1972 to September 1973.
After that, Winchell made guest appearances on Emmy Award-winning television shows from the late 1950s to as late as the mid 1970s; shows like Perry Mason, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Donna Reed Show, and two appearances as Homer Winch on The Beverly Hillbillies in 1962.
That Amazing Voice
In animation, he was a well known voice actor, he was the original voice of Tigger in all of the original Winnie the Pooh Disney cartoons, Dick Dastardly from the Dastardly and Muttley Hanna Barbera Hour, Gargamel from the Smurfs, and so many other characters.
He also provided his voice talents to some lesser known characters like that of Bubi Bear in Help!... It's the Hair Bear Bunch! in 1971, the voice of Revs on Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch, as Moe on The Robonic Stooges a role he previously played on The New Scooby Doo Movies, and Shake on The CB Bears. In 1973, he did the voice of Goober the Dog on the H-B show Goober and the Ghost Chasers.
But wait, there’s more...Winchell provided the voices of Sam-I-Am and the unnamed character Sam pesters in Green Eggs and Ham from the animated television special Dr. Seuss on the Loose in 1973. Honestly, I could write an entire post just on the voicework that he did.
Engineer and inventor
Winchell, was a pre-med student at Columbia University. He also graduated from The Acupuncture Research College of Los Angeles in 1974, and became an acupuncturist. Along with that, he worked as a medical hypnotist at the Gibbs Institute in Hollywood. On top of this, he was also an acclaimed inventor, becoming the first person to build and patent a mechanical artificial heart, actually implantable in the chest cavity, don’t believe me? Look it up; US Patent #3097366.
Winchell established more medical patents while working on projects for the Leukemia Society and the American Red Cross. Other devices which he invented and patented include a disposable razor, a blood plasma defroster, a retractable fountain pen (precursor to our modern day retractable ballpoint pens), and battery-heated gloves. In fact Paul Winchell has more than 30 patents to his name for different devices, some still in use today.
In the 1980s Winchell, concerned about starving children in Africa, developed a method to cultivate tilapia in tribal villages. The fish thrives naturally in brackish waters, which made it particularly well suited for sub-Saharan Africa. Winchell appeared before a Congressional Committee with several other celebrities, including actors Richard Dreyfuss and Ed Asner, and Dr. Henry Heimlich (yes, that Heimlich). The Committee declined to finance a pilot program for the tilapia aquaculture project, however, because it required digging a well into non-potable water, which the Committee deemed to be inadvisable.
Winchell retired from his career in 1999, before dying of natural causes six years later on June 24, 2005 at age 82. He has been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in television. He retired from acting in 1999, before dying six years later.
This is a brief look at another amazing puppeteer who has helped guide me in this hobby that I love so much.
Let me know if there are any particular ventriloquists puppeteers or creators that you wish to learn more about.