Senor Wences, 103; Ventriloquist Made ‘S’awright’ a Household Word
There is perhaps no better tribute to ventriloquist Senor Wences than the one paid in Barry Levinson’s 1987 film, “Tin Men.”
“The man was a genius,” one of the characters says of Wences, who died Tuesday at his home in New York at 103. “He had no overhead.”
No overhead, that is, except a voice and that hand, through which Wences channeled one of his famous characters, Johnny, the lipstick hand puppet, who wore a wig, talked in a high-pitched voice and could even blow smoke rings. With the hand perched atop a dummy’s body, Wences made his own quirky show business history, in the process influencing many of the acts who followed in his footsteps. Thanks also to Pedro, the head in the box (“S’OK?” “S’aw- right,” became Wences’ most famous refrain), the entertainer born Wenceslao Moreno in Salamanca, Spain, went on to become one of the most endearing figures of the TV variety show era. It was a period that for Wences included about 50 appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” where audiences watched as the masterful artist--with his regal bearing, dressed daintily in white tie and tails--created his own brand of ventriloquism and spun plates--sometimes both at once.
One routine had him spinning a heavy silver plate on a pole perched atop the bridge of his nose, while characters inside nearby boxes growled, “Close de door.”
“Every time Wences was on the show it was not only a delight for the audience, but a delight for us behind the scenes,” said Fred DeCordova, the longtime producer of “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,” on which Wences appeared numerous times.
“Ventriloquists were always good in varying degrees,” DeCordova added. “He was first-class. . . . [He] was a man who made up an act and then carried it out much further than any of us could imagine.”
Began Career as Bullfighter
Wences discovered his act as a precocious schoolchild in Spain, where he imitated voices and answered “present” for absent classmates. As punishment for his antics, Wences’ teachers made him clean out inkwells; in turn, the budding ventriloquist smeared ink on his hand, then clenched his fist to make a face appear. Later, Wences would use lipstick to create the same effect.
But before ventriloquism, Wences became a bullfighter at the age of 15. “My style in the bullfight was very quiet, very elegant,” Wences told the Washington Post in 1978. After several hundred bullfights, however, Wences was gored so badly he had to quit the sport. Doctors told him his injured arm needed exercise, so he turned to juggling, joining two friends in a local circus.
Eventually, he would come to polish his routines in South American circuses and in the Depression-era vaudeville houses of America. According to the legend, Wences invented his Pedro character literally by accident. He was on a train bound for a Chicago booking when a crash demolished the baggage car. Originally a full-bodied puppet, Pedro was left with just a head. And so, Wences went onstage with the green box containing Pedro’s head, opened the top and inquired, “Are you all right?”
“S’awright,” the voice in the box said.
Buoyed by the golden age of television, Wences became a fixture on every show from Jack Paar’s to Jack Benny’s. His first spot came on Milton Berle’s “Texaco Star Theater” in 1948, which led to a spot on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” followed by regular appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Wences added another character, the neurotic Cecilia Chicken, to his repertoire and often threw his voice into several characters at once, speaking in various languages.
He had a precise, economical act: 19 minutes with a one-minute encore.
People who remember Wences’ appearances speak of his act in reverential terms.
“He was the one who took a ventriloquist act and stopped using a dummy, which is the [gutsiest] thing you can do in a [ventriloquist] act,” said Penn Jillette of the magician team Penn & Teller. “That’s like Metallica coming out and doing something a cappella.”
“It was the perfect act,” added Jeff Dunham, one of the best-known ventriloquists today.
Unlike another legendary ventriloquist, Edgar Bergen, Wences relied less on characters and jokes than on delivering his unique act in tight fashion, honing each beat, ever the vaudevillian.
“Nowadays, if a comic does the same act over and over for 40 years, he’s a poor lazy soul,” Dunham said. “Back then, it was what you did.”
Royalty loved him. Wences played for King Farouk of Egypt and President Richard Nixon, among others. But in the 1970s, the variety shows that had sustained him started to dry up as television moved in a new direction. Wences went to Paris, where he played the Crazy Horse Saloon for seven years. By the time he returned full time to the United States, the market for a legendary ventriloquist--at least on television--had not improved. He still performed live (including a 1983 spot at Los Angeles’ Variety Arts Center’s 30th-anniversary special), but those appearances suddenly had a new context. He was a kitsch figure; in 1986, when comedian Garry Shandling put together a spoof of a Carson-style anniversary special for his Showtime series “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” Wences was booked along with Donny Osmond and Rose Marie.
Behind the scenes, his health was failing, the old panache showing signs of wear. He dropped a plate during a performance in Miami in 1985. He also spent time with lawyers, fighting to protect his characters from those who would copy his act for profit. In 1985, a New York state court dismissed Wences’ defamation suit against the producers of a short-lived cable show called “Disco Beaver From Outer Space,” in which a Wences puppet was shown having sex.
Went on Road Tour at the Age of 90
Still, true to the nature of an indefatigable performer, he kept going--appearing at the age of 90 with Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney in a road tour of the musical revue “Sugar Babies.” Meanwhile, he and his wife, Natalie, lived in New York, in an apartment on West 55th Street, two blocks from the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway. Each summer, Wences went fishing in his native Spain.
“People like David Letterman love Wences,” Tony Belmont, director of the Comedy Hall of Fame, told Associated Press in 1996. “But most of them think he’s dead.”
But he wasn’t; in fact, for his 100th birthday celebration, Wences was honored with shows in New York, Atlantic City and at the Improv in Los Angeles. Among those who performed was Michele LaFong, a budding ventriloquist. Wences was so taken with her tribute to him that he decided to pass down his puppets to her, teaching her his old show business tricks along the way.
“He hated being ripped off, and he constantly felt people were trying,” said LaFong, who performs regularly at the Movie and Magic Museum in Las Vegas, where she does an ode to Wences’ act, including character-in-a-box vocal techniques.
In 1996, when a 100-year-old Wences was made a lifetime member of the Friars Club in New York, the performer responded to the milestone in his own inimitable way. By then, Wences was walking with a cane and had trouble hearing. But he ended the evening by climbing to the stage. He leaned on his cane and stared into the lights. Finally, a voice issued forth: “S’OK?” He was talking into the hand microphone. “S’awright,” a voice answered back.
He is survived by his wife. Funeral services are scheduled for Sunday in Salamanca.