Ventriloquism is a difficult way to become a star. Not only do you have to master the techniques of throwing your voice, but you have to be a first-rate comedian or else it’s just a gimmick. One of the biggest stars of the art in the 50s and 60s was a Spaniard who did things differently from any other similar act: Señor Wences.
He was born in Spain as Wenceslao Moreno and developed his act over there before moving to the US in the mid-30s. He started out in nightclubs and by the late 50s, he was a regular guest on TV variety shows, most notably The Ed Sullivan Show, which is where he got his greatest fame.
Wences was not the usual ventriloquist. Usually, there’s a dummy or puppet. Señor Wences didn’t need that sort of prop. His main character, Johnny, was merely the side of his hand: the thumb as the jaw. Lipstick was used to draw the lips, two googly eyes were added, and a small wig was put on the top. He rested his hand atop a model of a body and Johnny came to life.
But his most famous “dummy” was Pedro. Pedro was a head in a box. Wences would open and shut the lid and have Pedro speak. The voices were slightly different, too: when the lid was shut, the voice was muffled. Pedro soon created a catchphrase: “S’allright,” spoken in his deep, gruff voice.
Often, Wences didn’t use a dummy at all. Once he established Johnny and Pedro, he would leave them on the table and have them comment and talk back to him. He could take out a telephone handset and pretend to take a call or would start spinning plates on a stick as Johnny and Pedro reacted.
His technical skill was first-rate. Wences was able to have three and even four conversations, switching from Johnny, to his own voice, to Pedro, to someone on the phone, to Cecillia Chicken (a puppet) in rapid succession. It was the rapid-fire switches that made the performance. Indeed, Wences told very few jokes, but got his humor from the reaction of the characters.
After Sullivan went off the air, Wences continued to perform as a TV guest star and at clubs. In the 80s, he convinced producers to give him a part in the touring company of the musical “Sugar Babies,” by telling the producers he was 15 years younger than he really was. He retired in 1996 at age 100 and died in 1999.