Obituary: Senor Wences

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The Independent Culture
IN THE film Bells Are Ringing (1960), Judy Holiday and Dean Martin are singing "Just in Time". In between the first and second chorus, they indulge in a playful exchange of Spanish accented dialogue: "S'okay?" "S'awright!" "S'awright?" "S'okay!" American audiences of the Sixties responded immediately to this quote from the variety act of the master ventriloquist Senor Wences, who was then being seen regularly on Ed Sullivan's hugely popular television show.

The film Tin Men was set in 1963, and rightly included a scene in which two salesmen (played by Bruno Kirby and Danny DeVito) chat over breakfast in a Baltimore diner. "You watch Ed Sullivan, right?"

"Right."

"Which act do you like better - the guy that spins the plates, or do you like the guy with the hand puppets?"

"Senor Wences - the hand puppets. I love the guy!"

"He's better than the guy who spins the plates?"

"Course he's better! Plus, he's got no overhead: the man's got a hand - and a box!"

The "box" contained Pedro, a disembodied talking head. The "hand" was Wences's own, which he transformed into his principal character Johnny - or "Yonny" as he called him, in a Spanish accent that retained its thickness for more than nine decades.

In comparing Wences to a plate spinner, Tin Men's writer-director Barry Levinson was probably being mischievous, in as much as plate-spinning was another of the dapper Spaniard's specialities; he could actually throw his voice all over the stage, while spinning a heavy silver plate on a pole which rested on the bridge of his aristocratic nose.

Born in Salamanca in Spain in 1896, Wenceslao Moreno learned ventriloquism at an early age, throwing his voice around the classroom to answer "Present!" for friends who were, in fact, absent. At 15 he became one of Spain's youngest matadors. "My style in the bullfight was very quiet," he told an interviewer. "Very elegant." He fought hundreds of bulls before being gored so seriously that he had to retire. To regain control of his injured arm, he learned juggling, becoming so practised that he found work in a circus. He also juggled in South American circuses before emigrating to the United States in 1934 and concentrating on ventriloquism.

He often recalled that at first he was "just another ventriloquist with a dummy", until that dummy was mangled in a train crash. As only the head survived, Wences was forced to walk onstage for his next booking carrying a box containing a Pedro whose torso was conspicuous by its absence. Removing the lid, he asked with understandable concern, "Pedro, you are OK?" When the head replied in a sepulchral voice, "S'awright!", a catchphrase as well as a career was born.

To create his character Johnny (a hand puppet in the truest sense), he indicated a nose with a smudge of black eye pencil, drew a lipstick streak where his index finger met his thumb and then joined them to produce a mouth. After adding an auburn pageboy wig with wobbly plastic eyes attached to its fringe he placed the "head" on Johnny's body, a dummy torso dressed as Wences must have been dressed himself as a small boy in the early 1900s; a white-collared shirt, black shorts with buttoned-on straps, white stockings and black boots.

Johnny proceeded to sing a Spanish ballad in his falsetto voice, during which the Senor stuffed a handkerchief in his "mouth". Johnny sang on, even when Wences began to smoke. He then offered his cigarette to Johnny, who inhaled and - to the bafflement of audiences, not to mention every other ventriloquist - somehow blew a series of perfectly formed smoke rings.

In 1942 Wences appeared on Broadway with the singer Jane Froman and the comedians Ed Wynn and Smith and Dale in Laugh, Town, Laugh. A vaudeville-style revue, it ran for only 65 performances.

The successful film Mother Wore Tights (1947) starred Betty Grable and Dan Dailey as Myrtle and Frank Burt, a blissfully married vaudeville team. Although the period of the story was turn-of-the-century, Wences played himself, entertaining the Burts' young daughters at a Christmas party. During his scene, the cameras were much closer than most ventriloquists would have liked, but his technical proficiency triumphed. The show-business historian Stanley Green succinctly described Wences's artistry as "sleight-of-mouth".

The following year, Wences made his television debut on Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater. This was followed by appearances on the Sid Caesar/Imogene Coca Your Show of Shows, The Jack Benny Program, The Jack Paar Show and, of course, The Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan asked him back more than 50 times. He also toured with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, played most of the hotels in Las Vegas and, in 1962, returned to Broadway in a variety show starring Danny Kaye.

In the 1970s Wences moved to Paris, where, for several years he was one of the key attractions at the Crazy Horse Saloon. On his return to the United States, he appeared in such television programmes as It's Garry Shandling's Show and The David Letterman Show, and at the age of 90 toured with Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller in the revue Sugar Babies.

Wences and Natalie, his wife for more than 50 years, were by then based in New York where, on his 100th birthday, the Friars Club gave him something few centenarians receive - lifetime membership. After stepping up, with the aid of a cane, to accept the honour, he paused dramatically at the microphone before asking "S'okay?" Then, from the opposite side of the stage, his deeper voice barked the inevitable "S'awright!"

Wenceslao Moreno (Senor Wences), ventriloquist: born Salamanca, Spain 20 April 1896; married; died New York 20 April 1999.

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