Interview with legendary John Arvites, a master ventriloquist, puppet maker, and historian of ventriloquism

"The art can also deepen your sense of empathy and compassion, as you put yourself in another's shoes and allow yourself to see the world and life from different perspectives."

John Arvites: Doctor Vent & His Friends

John Arvites is a master ventriloquist, puppet maker, and historian of ventriloquism. Arvites has performed in theaters, night clubs, television, banquets, fairs, trade shows, schools, libraries and churches. Arvites was able to throw his voice before he could read or write. He had no idea, at first, that the mischievous tricks he was pulling on his parents, teachers, and friends were ventriloquism. John began performing at when he was 8 years old, and by 12 was making professional appearances. Arvites's mentor was the late, great ventriloquial figure maker, Frank Marshall, who was the most sought-after maker of ventriloquist's puppets from the days of vaudeville until the early days of tv, and created such famous characters as Paul Winchell's Jerry Mahoney, and Jimmy Nelson's Danny O'Day, and Farfel: artists who inspired young John, and puppets who enchanted him. As a boy John combed libraries to discover who this behind the scenes artist was and where he could be found. When John finally did find Frank Marshall, he was retired, but he was so impressed with John's talents and enthusiasm, that the old Gepetto tucked him under his wing, created a masterpiece of a puppet for him: Terry Alexander, and mentored young Arvites in the art. They became close friends.

Arvites had such a passion for the history that Frank Marshall put John in contact with the most knowledgable ventriloquist historians: WS Berger, the Founder of Vent Haven Museum, Lester Marshall Sr & Jr, and Jay Marshall. Arvites graduated from Indiana University. Having finished his requirements for a degree in theater in three years, John opted for an Independent Learning Program in Ventriloquism so that he could work with Dr. OG Brocket, the late, great theater historian, and WS Berger. For the performance part of his program, Arvites appeared in an original play called "Funhouse," that was conceived by Dr. R Craig Hamilton, and developed by the cast through improvisation. John's character, Terry Alexander, was in the show, and his Fred the Guy, was also featured, as an invisible man. Arvites graduated with a Bachlor of Ventriloquial-Arts Degree (a BVD). Arvites has written numerous articles on the history of ventriloquism for various publications, and is writing a book on the subject.

After WS Berger passed away, Arvites arranged the incredible Vent Haven Museum collection for public display, and advised the Museum to form an Advisory Board, and to hold annual conventions, which they did and the conventions are ongoing. Arvites used to be very active in the ventriloquist community and conventions, and took particular interest in helping to develop and encourage young talent. John managed the convention contest for years, and coached many young talented ventriloquists, who went on to become the leading pros of today, including that outstanding ventriloquist: Jeff Dunham.

Arvites has performed his ventriloquism doing: stand up, sketch comedy, in theatrical plays, abstractly accompanying modern dance, educational entertainment, and appearing with Blues bands. Arvites's preference for appearing with Blues bands took him on a unique path. Arvites has appeared with a number of great blues artists, including: Buddy Guy, Phil Guy, Junior Wells, Luther Allison, Hubert Sumlin, Billy Branch, JW Williams, Carlos Johnson, Carl Weathersby, the Kinsey Report, Jimmy Johnson, Gloria Hardiman, the Professor, Michael Coleman, Steve Ditzell, Mark Hannon, the Amazing Binder Brothers, Big Time Sara, Maurice John Vaughn, and others. Arvites's blues characters: Fred the Guy, a zanny wise fool, and Chicago Charlie, Chicago's oldest blues singer, are real charmers. Both ventriloquism and blues have very strong Chicago traditions, but combining the arts is a wonderfully unique creation of John "Doctor Vent" Arvites. While many ventriloquists think John's nick name, "Doctor Vent," came from them, because of his great expertise in the history of ventriloquism, Arvites picked up the nick name in blues clubs on the south side of Chicago. Arvites makes the puppets that he uses in his act, and is known as a master figure maker.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Ventriloquist Figures world? What does ‘Figure’ mean to you?

A ventriloquial figure is a style of puppet. It's the traditional style of puppet that ventriloquists have been using for a few hundred years now. The ventriloquial figure is a type of rod puppet. It's a head on a rod, with an articulated face, that features at least a moving mouth, and may also feature moving eyes, lids, brows, or other movements. The torso of the body is hollow and the control rod is accessed through the back. Though sometimes there is no body per se but just draping. Vent figures can vary in size from around 18 inches to life size, though are typically three to three and a half feet tall. There have been vent figures that stand, walk, dance, or run, but usually they are made to sit on the performers lap, or a stand.

I've learned a lot about myself from the vent figure world. I've learned that the human mind is mysteriously complex. Ventriloquism is like a game: you create a character, and then must learn to let that character be himself (or herself), and to trust your muse. You start improvising, and you find yourself being surprised by things the puppet says, you don't pre-think the lines they just come. It scares some people, but that's when you're getting really good at it.

The art can also deepen your sense of empathy and compassion, as you put yourself in another's shoes and allow yourself to see the world and life from different perspectives.

How do you describe John Arvites art? What characterize your art philosophy and mission?

I'm very much influenced by my roots in the Chicago area. My puppet making is heavily influenced by the great Chicago figure makers: my mentor Frank Marshall, the Macks, and the Pinxys. As a figure maker my art is traditional.

As a performer, I've done stand up, sketch comedy, used vent in theater, abstractly accompanying modern dance, educational entertainment, and I've done stand up and songs with Blues bands. I love working with Blues bands, as it allows me total creative freedom to express myself.

I love to make people laugh, but it only becomes art when you express yourself. There's nothing wrong with only focusing on entertainment and mastering techniques. But, I'm a Greek: I have to express ideas and passion. Blues deals with the facts of life. Everything that lives gets the blues. It's like a Buddhist thing: all life is sorrowful, it's characterized by suffering and impermanence. Our loved ones die, we die.

Blues music is the cure. Blues is a healer. Blues looks at life as it is: all the joys and sorrows felt, experienced and expressed, and deals with it. It says life is a half filled glass, and that's ok. It allows you to feel, to experience all the pains and ecstasies of life.

My blues is traditional Chicago as well. From the time I was a teenager I was going to see artists like: Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy and Jr. Wells. The blues resonates with me like no other art does.

"I've learned a lot about myself from the vent figure world. I've learned that the human mind is mysteriously complex. Ventriloquism is like a game: you create a character, and then must learn to let that character be himself (or herself), and to trust your muse." (Photo: John Arvites with Terry Alexander and Frank Marshall.)

What were the reasons that you started ‘Ventriloquist Figure’ experiments? What touched (emotionally) you?

I was completely charmed by ventriloquial figures from the time I was a very young child: Charlie McCarthy, Jerry Mahoney and Danny O'Day. I could throw my voice before I could read or write. I started performing with toy figures when I was about 8. Within a few years I became obsessed with finding a master figure maker and getting a professional figure. I found Frank Marshall just before I entered high school. I have an intense passion for this style of puppet. Eventually I began making them myself.

How important was music in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

Music is very important to me. The earliest writing we have is from the Sumerians. There is an ancient Sumerian text that states that music is the first proof of God. Music has always been important to humanity: it communicates to our deepest selves in a manner that transcends words.

How has the Blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I grew up with Elvis, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry. I came of age during the heyday of the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, Cream, and Joplin. I thought I was into British rock, then I began to realize that the songs, & music I really loved the most was blues, Chicago blues. Music was the cutting edge of the culture then. Music had substance. I still want to hear music that has something to say. I crave authenticity. I want the real thing. I never thought I'd end up singing with blues bands. But the music led me on this journey.

What´s been the highlights in your career so far? Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?

The play "Funhouse," was a highlight. It was really quite brilliant. I did vent in that. Another highlight was working with my old partner: Joe Binder, we had a fantastic chemistry, developed a lot of good material, and it was Joe who got me singing with the puppets. It was his brother Marty Binder, the great blues drummer, who got me singing with Blues bands, though. I've worked out a lot of my music with Joe, Marty, and Andy Binder, and have performed with all of them and Jerome Binder as well. Phil Guy was the first blues artist I appeared with, but I would never have pursued the music thing if not for Jr. Wells. Jr. talked me into becoming a Blues artist, with the ventriloquism, and showed me how to make it work. The biggest thrills for me have been performing with great Blues artists: Jr. Wells, Buddy Guy, Luther Allison, and so many more. I became good friends with JW Williams, when he was playing bass for Buddy and Jr. He had played for BB King, and Jimmy Reed. JW is a phenomenal bass player, and has a wonderful, gutsy singing voice. He formed his own band, and I started gigging with him. Carlos Johnson joined the band and I knew from word go we had a special chemistry. Then JW & Billy Branch merged bands. Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues, and JW Williams and the Chi-Town Hustlers. Then Carl Weathersby joined the band. For a brief while Carl & Carlos were both playing guitar for the band. Performing with that band I knew I was hearing one of the greatest blues bands I ever heard, or was likely to hear. Then Carlos formed his own band, now all of those guys have their own bands. I love those guys& love working with all of them.           (Photo: Phil Guy with Chicago Charlie & John Arvites)

Other high lights that stand out were performing for The grand opening of Buddy Guy's club Legends, and doing four All Star Blues reviews for the Gold Note Lounge: I nwas able to bring together some of Chicago's hottest blues artists for four great events.

There are so many great artist I've loved playing with: I've mentioned a number of them, but also: Hubert Sumlin, Jimmy Johnson, Michael Coleman, Valerie Wellington, Steve Ditzell, Big Time Sarah, the Professor, Gloria Hardiman, John Watkins, the Kinsey Report, and more.

I've done charitable work for children's hospitals, for kids with cancer, AIDS, and disabilities. Those are high lights as well.

Here's a story that's a vivid memory. I had been playing a number of black blues clubs on the south side of Chicago, and I was picking up nick names: the Doctor, Doctor Vent, the Puppet man, the Chicago Shaman, and the Underground Ventriloquist. I was tickled by the nick names, but wasn't sure I wanted to be stuck with any of them, and the Doctor and Doctor Vent thing seemed to be sticking in those south side clubs. I couldn't figure out where the Doctor thing was coming from. I did a gig with the late, great Luther Allison, on the far north side. When the set was over I was mingling in the crowd with my character, Fred the Guy. From the far front end of the club a young woman was calling for me: "Doctor! Doctor!" It threw me because no one had ever called me by that nick name in a north side club. I went over and she was with a group of about 6 folks.

"Why did you call me Doctor?" I asked.

"Doctor Who," she said.

"I don't look like Tom Baker, " I said. "It's not that you look like him," she said. "It's that you could be him. Let me put it this way, if you and Fred walked to the back end of the bar, and went into that old telephone booth, and that booth and you two just disappeared, I wouldn't be surprised." They all chimed in agreement. "I never believed in magic until tonight."

I thought that was the coolest thing anyone had ever said to me. The following Tuesday I was at the Cermac Lounge on the south side, where the whole Doctor thing started, hanging with the crowd of regulars before the show.

"So, I finally figured out where this whole Doctor thing comes from: Doctor Who, I said.

None of them had ever heard of Doctor Who.

"Then why did you guys start calling me the Doctor, and Doctor Vent? Now everyone's doing it."

"Because it suits you," said one of the guys. "Besides, no one can pronounce your name or ventriloquist right. You're The Doctor, Doctor Vent. It suits you, just go with it." So I did.

"Blues music is the cure. Blues is a healer. Blues looks at life as it is: all the joys and sorrows felt, experienced and expressed, and deals with it. It says life is a half filled glass, and that's ok. It allows you to feel, to experience all the pains and ecstasies of life." (Photo: John Arvites with Chicago Charlie, JW Williams and Carlos Johnson.)

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

There are a number of people that I've met who have been very important to me. Among the ventriloquists, the most important experiences were meeting Frank Marshall, Edgar Bergen, Jimmy Nelson, WS Berger, Cifford Guest, & Jay Marshall. Among the Blues musicians: it's been Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Jr. Wells, Hubert Sumlin, JW Williams, Carlos Johnson, Carl Weathersby and Billy Branch. Meeting the late great theater historian OG Brockett was also an important experience in my life.

What was the best advice? Howlin' Wolf told me: "No music, no party." Edgar Bergen told me:"Think funny." My father gave the best advice, he told me that every day was a blessing, to always be grateful, and to never let a day go by without letting those you love know that you love them. Jay Marshall gave me great advice, too, he told me never to take anything too seriously, particularly yourself.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss a number of the artists, people like Jr. Wells, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Luther Allison, Willie Dixon, Phil Guy, Hubert Sumlin, Valerie Wellington, Blind John Davis, and Michael Coleman. I miss some of the clubs, particularly the blues clubs that were in the black neighborhoods on Chicago's south side. I miss the hard core blues audiences.

There's been a decline in live entertainment, I hope that live entertainment survives and thrives. As for the Blues, I hope that another major star like BB King, or Stevie Ray Vaughn comes along.

If you could change one thing in the Ventriloquist Figures world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would like to see new facilities for Vent Haven Museum, a new building that could adequately show and preserve that amazing collection. What is the impact of music and Ventriloquist Figure Art on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications? Music has had a lot of impact on the culture, but is not as big of a factor as it was. Music is no longer the cutting edge of the culture. Music still plays a role in reflecting the times, and in shaping thoughts and attitudes. I will do my damnedest to help bring Trump down with songs, and gags, humble weapons but Goliath was brought down with a stone.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Where would I go in a time machine? Ah, it's hard to say. I'd like to go see the Oracle at Delphi, 5th century. Just curious, There's no actual descriptions of a consultation, from the period. OR, I'd like to go to London, 1818, to see Charles Mathews perform "A Trip Paris." He's the real father of modern ventriloquism. OR, New York, holiday season 1905, to see ventriloquists: AO Duncan, and Ed Reynard just as vaudeville was becoming king. OR...

And what memorabilia (Vinyl Records, Ventriloquist Figures) would you put in a "time capsule"?

What would I put in a time capsule? Non GMO seeds, things like: corn, wheat, oats, olives, dates, nuts, and Mary Jane. They may need them.

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